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Training Tuesday - The Start Line Stay

Training a stay at the start line can improve your trial runs with your dog. Trainer Jackie Loeser provides tips on training the start line stay.

by Jackie Loeser


The start line stay is one of the foundations of good agility training. If you don't have one, you can get by on some courses steering from behind, but that doesn't always work. Having a good, solid stay at the start will boost your confidence and help your to dog get focused on his job. 

I start teaching stay training with targeting. I teach the dog to go to a target and wait to be released. It's simple enough to do if your dog is clicker-trained. I like to use PVC "boxes," squares made out of 1/2 inch PVC and elbows. I teach my dog to run to the box and wait for a release. I use several boxes spaced out around the yard so I can send my dog from box to box and have them wait. The boxes are nice because they create a visual boundary for the dog to stay in. 

I try to get the behavior by shaping as much of it as I can. My dogs all know how to target and how to offer me behaviors, so if I set the box near them, they usually will do something with it. I will use some body language including pointing at the box to help them get the idea. Once they are in the box, I will turn towards them to stop their motion and verbally cue them with a "wait." 

Once my dog is running to the boxes and stopping, I can add a cue for position. I am obviously going to pick a position that my dog knows on a verbal cue. Whether you train a sit, a down or a stand is a personal choice. If my dog offers one of these behaviors when in the box, I will usually go with that. I will ask my dog for that position every time he gets in a box, so eventually just going to the box is the cue for that position and I don't have to use the verbal any longer. 

At first the dog is rewarded every time he goes to a box. As he gets into the game, rewards are placed on a variable schedule. Reward at the first box, the third, the second, etc. My rewards vary also. I use treats, thrown toys, tugging and always verbals. Once the dog is really good at running to his boxes and waiting, I start fading the box. I can go to smaller boxes, or simple target lids. Eventually, I want my dog to do this "moving wait" with no target at all.

The release cue is important. I just use the old standard, "ok." If I am using a thrown toy, I give my release before I throw the toy. If I am rewarding with food, I will run in and feed, then release. Once I get to multiple boxes, I release with "ok" then send to the next box with body language and a "go."

Once I have a dog who is into this game, I add an obstacle. I go back to using a box, put it in front of my obstacle, usually a jump set at a low height. This exercise is about staying, not jumping, so I want to make things easy for the dog. I walk towards the box with my dog and tell him to wait when we get to the box. I will continue waking past the jump to my desired start line position.

I am not going to release the dog to the jump, I am going to release him to a toy behind him, or I will throw the toy behind him away from the jump. I will use my verbal release word and "go get it" and use body language to send the dog back to the toy. If your dog is not toy-motivated, you can use a closed container of food. When you release the dog, run back to the container with him and open it and let him eat.

Every fourth, seventh, second time, etc., I will release the dog to come over the jump and reward him when he gets to me. I don't want the dog to anticipate which way he will be going, I want him to have to wait and listen for the release and pay attention to my body language so he knows which way to go. I want him to be focused on me and paying attention to my cues. The anticipation of not knowing where you are going to send him makes this a fun game for most dogs. 

If your dog breaks, no big deal. You have probably not done enough practice away from obstacles. As he gets really good at it and will stay no matter where you are relative to the start obstacle, you can begin to fade the box. 

The most important thing about teaching the stay is to keep it fun. I have tried to make this into a game my dogs look forward to playing. The more fun it is, the less chance of breaking at trials where it really matters. 

Jackie Loeser is a CPDT-KA. She competes in agility and herding. She owns a boarding kennel in Washington with her husband and their seven dogs.

Photos by Jackie Loeser.


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