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Training Tuesday - The 3 R's of Start Line Stays

Trainer and competitor Lori Michaels provides advice on improving start line stays through Release Cues, Reinforcement and Revving.

The opening sequence on a course truly sets the tone for the rest of your run. If your dog has not learned a reliable stay, it adds stress having to come up with two different handling plans; one for if she stays until you get to the desired release point and another for if she leaves before you are ready. On the other hand, many of us have dogs who need to be encourage to break more quickly and you need to be able to lead out in a manner that doesn't lose connection with your dog or her desire to drive off the line when released.

Allow me to introduce you to the 3 R's of Start Line Stays: Release Cues, Reinforcement and Revving. It is important that we teach our dogs that each of these are separate entities. 

Release Cues:  Before working stays, you need to make a couple of decisions.  What, exactly, are your release cues? We often think that we are releasing with a verbal when we are unknowingly giving some type of other cue in conjunction that the dog inadvertently learns as the release. Most often this occurs when turning back to reconnect eye contact with the dog, raising a hand/arm or even inhaling just before speaking. Instead of teaching proper release cues, the result is how we lead out tentatively, keeping our fingers crossed, holding our breath and trying not to twitch. To make it clear to the dog, a release cue should be taught as only on a particular verbal, learning the impulse control to not leave on motion, release of pressure or any other words.

Also think about what you use as a release word and what it means. Often, we use a word such as Okay or Free, and for the sake of consistency, we only use that one word for releasing in multiple scenarios. Try to think instead of a release word as not what you are releasing from (a stay) but what you are releasing to (working, an obstacle, you, a reward). Because of this, I have multiple words that I use to release my dogs. Okay is a general release from working. Go is a release into obstacle focus. Here is my release cue for my dog to come to me, for example for a lead out push when I am on the landing side of the jump or when the dog might be presented with multiple options and I need the dog to come toward me before I send to the first obstacle (think Snooker). This also applies to my release from stopped contacts and the table, by the way.

Reinforcement: When my dog is in a stay, I need to be able to give her some sort of feedback that she is making the correct choice to hold that position. That is her job, after all, and not mine to remind her (With the much overused Goooooood STAY!), which puts the responsibility more on me. Reminding or repeating stay cues are not part of my three R's. Instead, I need to teach my dog that I can reward (or reinforce, if you prefer) her verbally or even with a treat given from my hand or a pat on the head, and that these are not to be interpreted as release from holding position.

Revving: Lastly, I want to be able to keep my dog focused on me with coiled energy, ready to spring at the given release. Many dogs do this naturally on their own. With others, they tend to lose focus (sniffing or looking elsewhere) along with the desire to race off the line. We all have worked restrained recalls with our dogs, where a help restrains the dog while we rev them up and then have them chase us when they are released. I want to carry this same concept into my start lines, being able to keep eye contact, saying READY??? STEADY??? in a tone of voice which just adds to the energy until I give my release cue.  

This is the hardest for all dogs to grasp as it truly relies on strong impulse control. In addition to improving focus and drive off the start line, it is also a good way to proof the solidity of your stays. We will discuss how to do this in part two of my series on start lines. Happy Training!

Lori Michaels is an avid agility competitor from Kansas City who has represented the USA in international competition eight times with her dogs (Shelties and Border Collies), including the 2014 IFCS team. Lori has become a popular instructor, teaching both online classes and seminars throughout the US.


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