Start Line Stays - "Stay" This Time I Mean It!

12 Aug 2010Steve Schwarz

I’m hesitant to post this tip because it only applies in a very narrow set of circumstances and could be detrimental if applied inappropriately. There are plenty of articles, videos and seminars one might attend that can help a handler train their dog to stay at the start line. But what if you have a dog that just won’t stay in a trial environment (or even in an exciting training environment)?

Training Stay

Before I get to my tip here’s what I normally do. I tend to use the standard protocol for training our dogs and it works well:

  • Start at home with no distractions, very short time intervals, and high value rewards.
  • Increase duration
  • Increase distance
  • Increase distractions
  • Work in more difficult locations (another kind of distraction)
  • Work on handler moving and always, always, always separate the release word from the handler motion
  • Another point is knowing your criteria and sticking to it in all environments.
  • Repeat the above until you can do all of the following at once: place your dog in front of their favorite obstacle(s), are waving their favorite treats and toys, have their dog pals playing fetch nearby and barking, you get them revved up (ready, Ready, READY), and you take off running and your dog stays until they hear their release word.

In addition other tricks, I still work stay until released with Meeker every single day before exiting the house, going out of the yard, and before each meal (his bowl is his reward).

The Requirements

This tip may apply if and only if, the following are all true:

  1. The dog has a "perfect" stay in many environments, with distractions. i.e. the dog really, really knows what stay means.
  2. The dog is eager to leave their stay and run the course
  3. The dog cares if the handler is unhappy with their behavior
  4. The handler is likely to let the dog continue on the course if the dog breaks the stay
  5. The handler can get the dog to stay after several attempts

Or phrased another way: a dog with a well trained stay, that is eager, confident, enjoys running agility, perhaps “pushy” and a handler that lets their dog push them to get what the dog wants.

The Tip

It sounds almost too simple. At the start line when positioning the dog have the handler make eye contact and, using the body language and tone of voice the handler resorts to when they finally get the dog to stay, tell the dog to stay. Lead out and release.

You might say: “Huh? That is too stupid to work!” or “That’s what I always do and it doesn’t work!”

Imagine these handlers are like parents you may have seen at a supermarket. Their child takes candy from a shelf. The parent says: “Johnny put that back”, the child doesn’t. The parent repeats and escalates in cajoling and/or threats until either the child puts it back or the parent buys the child the candy.

Imagine another parent and child. The child picks up the candy and the parent says put that back. The child doesn’t. The parent uses “the look” and repeats their request with that air that says I’m not just asking you I’m telling you. The child puts the candy back.

It is the bearing, body language of the parent and their past history that tells the child that they aren’t going to get that candy. Period. There is no negotiating, no trading, or pleading going on.

So I’m not talking about yelling at the dog, threatening it, growling out the stay, “getting in it’s face”, repeating “stay, stay, stay”, or abusing it physically or mentally. It is about the handler deciding that having a dog stay is important and really communicating that to their dog.

Remember, we are talking about a dog that understands what is being asked but also understands that the handler doesn’t really mean it all the time. So in this case you want the handler to use the body language, tone of voice, and “mental will” that says to the dog “yes I really mean it”. Don’t forget dogs study our actions their whole lives and draw conclusions from our actions. They have experienced what we mean when we same “hey Fluffy come over here” and “Fluffy COME!“. The first probably means come here eventually, the later means I need you here now. The same applies to our delivery of the stay.

This is more of a change for the handler than it is for the dog. As an instructor I’m telling the handler to say what they mean and hold the dog to what you’ve asked. These “soft” handlers are used to just going on when their dog breaks the stay. The dogs knows it too. But there are probably other situations in their past history where the dog knows that the handler really means what they ask. It is that body language and tone that these handlers have to bring to their start line stay.

Lastly, the handler has to back up their request with the action that the dog doesn’t get to play if they self release. It is critical that this not be a “correction”. It is simply marking (oops) the incorrect action (the dog breaking their stay) and not letting the dog get their reward (running the course). So if the dog breaks their stay calmly mark the behavior with a phrase (oops!) and walk the dog off the course. No scolding, yelling, collar jerking, or throwing the dog into a crate and slamming the door. Just a calm and confident action by the handler. If this is in a training environment, wait for another dog to run (or 10-20 seconds) and try again. The dog is eager to run and finds running the course rewarding (a critical criteria for this approach) the handler has withheld that reward. This is just applying Premack’s Principle: if the dog stays they get to run the course.

I know of one handler who had been competing with no start line stay all the way to 18 QQs. She finally got fed up enough to do this. Over a trial weekend after walking her dog off twice and now really meaning it when she says “Stay”; she now has a stay and can lead out, in less than a week. I’ve used this with one of my students, she didn’t have to walk her dog off the course, and starting from the first night it has worked nicely.

But I can’t stress enough that this approach only applies in the specific situation I described. The dog that is stressed, “soft”, uninterested in agility and or its handler isn’t going to benefit from this. In fact applying this tip to those dogs will make it less likely to work with the handler or enjoy do agility. So handlers and instructors had better be damn sure this applies before they try it.

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