Welcome | Startline | Clubs & Trainers | Events | Facebook | Fleamarket | Rescues | Senior League | Show Diary | Workshops | Contact Us

Up ]

Reliable Waits

Who's choice is it anyway?

Most agility handlers would like the option of making their dogs wait in a set position on the start line.  Compared with some of the complex things we demand of our dogs, this seems a relatively simple requirement and yet it is one  which causes anxiety in both dog and handler and often results in frustration and failure. Nancy Hudson updates an article she wrote for Agilitynet back in 2003. Some of the details may be different but the principles remain the same.

I thought I'd give a bit of background before I went onto the methods which I use in training start-waits so that it's clear I've had the problem myself and am not just being a smart-ass because I now have three dogs that do wait. Neither did I want to come across as if I disapprove of those who struggle to achieve. I don't, I just feel sympathy as I've been there.  It still goes wrong on the odd occasion, but I don't accept this from the dog and correct as needed.

I've had some success in helping others achieve waits at the start of a course both with puppies and older dogs who wouldn't wait previously. The method can be applied to any dog but if taught from a puppy the foundations will probably be stronger. They are only my ideas and might not suit everyone but I hope they might help some.

There are a variety of reasons for wanting a reliable wait on the start line. For example, it could be the demand of course design, needing control at outset or lack of mobility on the part of the handler.

These are only ideas and might not work for everyone, but I hope they might help some individuals.

To my way of thinking the following six qualities are pre-requisite to training and maintaining reliable start line waits:

  1. Motivation

  2.  Practise / Drilling

  3.  Engagement

  4.  Consistency

  5.  Confidence

  6.  Reinforcement

Motivation
The dog needs to be interested in doing what you're asking of it. Bearing in mind most dogs yearn to get on with the real agility it's down to you to make the wait at the start interesting to your dog rather than simply an order to do something boring before the fun begins. I include release of the dog in this section as I think this is where it best fits.

Practise/Drilling
The start line waits are as important as learning to jump or negotiate contact equipment. Therefore it's important that they are practised separately and often.

Engagement
by this I mean interact with your dog. Don't be afraid to praise the dog when it's doing what you ask of it. Don't just demand the dog to wait and march away expectantly, stay in touch with the dog.

The last three qualities are closely linked both in the handlers' and dogs' minds:

 Consistency
Be consistent in your methods and whatever you do in training, do the same in the ring.

Confidence
Be confident that the thorough training you've put in will work, don't show signs of anxiety, it will pass straight to your dog.

Some Background

My first collie Bess  was a very keen and quick agility dog with a strong eye. I tried desperately to make her wait on the start line but failed completely.

When I recall the various methods I used in trying to make her wait they consisted mainly of loud commands, pointing at her, walking backwards and use of many extra words usually at high volume to try to enforce the command e.g. YOU wait THERE. Don't you DARE move etc.

In her original training the command I taught her was simply wait so I'm not sure what she was supposed to make of all the extra commands that began to pepper each attempt. Sometimes I'd try leaving her in a different position e.g. a down instead of a sit and found that for a couple of rounds this would work simply because it was something new. I attributed this to the dog thinking differently, but now I believe it was because it gave me a dose of confidence to try something different, albeit it only worked once or twice. Even then, the waiting time was dictated by Bess, as soon as she decided to release herself we were off. She always got the upper hand and I just went with the flow.

In the end I didn't even bother to try to make her wait but simply started every round by pushing her back a couple of feet to give myself a head start. Looking back,  I'm not sure what this achieved as I think she probably got an even faster start by my using this method. The only positive thing was that I knew we'd be going together, there was no hope or pretence of a wait at the start line so I knew exactly what to expect.

I didn't like the fact that I had failed and made a promise to myself if I had another dog it would be trained differently and that I would achieve my aim of having a reliable wait at the start.

With some help and advice from my agility trainers at the time (Val Venables and Jackie Carter) I managed to achieve a strong wait on the start line with my three collies since losing Bess. It could be argued it was a simpler task with Abbey and Niamh who are people orientated dogs but I would counter that as Poppy is of the same mould as Bess (agility/movement orientated) and the method I used with Abbey and Niamh worked just as well, probably better, with Poppy.

Reinforcement
Be strong enough to correct your dog if it goes wrong (in the ring this is probably the hardest thing of all as it will most likely mean throwing your round out of good manners to the judge.)

Training Methods

Motivation
Choose the position you want from the dog on the start line and then train this away from agility. It's good to teach the dog to 'resist' when training any wait/stay positions. You can build this up very quickly by holding the dog in position with one hand and pulling forwards using your lead, gradually increasing a steady pressure. The dog will quickly learn to resist and insist on staying in the position you've chosen. This is when you can start to 'engage' with your dog by praising and talking to it. I think this is essential for two reasons a) so that the dog knows it's doing the right thing and b) so that the dog gets used to you talking and praising and doesn't assume that the moment you open your mouth it's time to go!





You can motivate the dog further by placing a toy about a foot behind it and releasing the dog backwards onto the toy as a reward. The best way to train this is on the lead with the dog at your side, gradually progressing to standing in front of the dog. Put the dog into your chosen position and give your 'wait' command. Do a bit of resistance pressure training and then give your release command, tell the dog its 'release command' and 'get it' and turn it round your body onto its toy. Loads of play should take place at this point.  

This exercise should gradually build up until you can go to the end of your lead and release the dog onto it's toy from that distance. The eventual aim is to complete this exercise without a lead. Mix things up a bit, sometimes release the dog and tell it to get its toy (as above) another time, return to your dog, pick up the toy yourself and invite the dog to play.  

The key thing is that the dog should always get its reward from behind its original wait position, i.e. it should turn around away from the way it was facing. Once you've got this working well, you can occasionally release the dog forwards to you by using just your 'release command' and perhaps something like 'go' i.e. leaving out the 'get it' for the toy at this point the dog should still be on the lead so you can enforce which direction is takes on release.

Whilst training on the lead you should start to incorporate some movement of your own body so that the dog learns that this isn't a signal for release. By this I don't necessarily mean contrived movement but more subtle body movements and actions such as resting one leg or sticking a hip out, yawning etc. Believe me, those are the things your dog picks up on rather than jumping up and down and waving your arms!

Once you and the dog are confident with the exercise, introduce a jump and do exactly the same routine -on lead to start - with the jump between yourself and the dog. The more you and your dog get into the exercise, the more your own confidence will grow as well as that of the dog. Eventually you should be able to carry out this exercise off lead and release your dog either backwards onto its toy by using your 'release command' and 'get it', or forwards to you by using the 'release command' and 'go'.

If your dog prefers tit-bits to toys, then substitute toys with food. If you can't keep your dog off the food, then put the tit-bit in a container with a lid so you can control when the dog gets the food!

Right from the very start of these exercises, make sure to move around freely when you leave your dog, don't deem it necessary to walk out on ice and than stand like a stone when you get to your chosen position. If you don't incorporate natural body movement in your training then any kind of movement may quickly be interpreted as release to the dog.

As most dogs learn very quickly to associate specific body movement with a release command, it's important that you stay still when actually releasing your dog. If you don't keep a check on your body movement at this critical point, then things will rapidly stack up against you.Your dog will learn quickly your sequence of movements prior to release and begin to anticipate.

This is where you need to be self-aware as well as dog-aware. Ask a friend to watch what you do to make sure you can release your dog with as little amount of body movement as possible. A benefit of drilling this discipline into yourself is that, when leaving your dog on the start line, you can re-position if you think that you've gone to the wrong spot, i.e. you can have a bit of a shuffle without your dog deciding it's time for the off.

It's important here to note that the above doesn't mean you can't move once you've left your dog. As I said earlier, you should move freely and naturally. What the above means is don't correspond your release command with a movement. There's a subtle difference!

Lastly on the topic of release try not to arrive at your chosen spot and turn and release the dog immediately. This can cause the same problem as mixing your release command with body movement in that the dog might begin to anticipate the whole sequence. Instead, try to settle in your position for a moment or two, this will both reinforce your confidence and the respect that your dog has for you in this situation. A method I often use, once I've arrived at my chosen spot, is to count to a different number (in my head) before I actually give my release command. This means that the dog doesn't learn to anticipate the release command just because I've stopped and turned towards it because I might keep it waiting for a further 2 seconds or 6 seconds before I give the release command, so it's never quite sure. I actually think it's great if the timing goes wrong or there's a problem with the course and the judge asks me to wait as I can go back to my dog, release it backwards and play. It's a great training opportunity and stops tension building in the handler and dog when such delays occur as they sometimes do.

It's important here to note that the above doesn't mean you can't move once you've left your dog. As I said earlier, you should move freely and naturally. What the above means is don't correspond your release command with a movement. There's a subtle difference!

Lastly on the topic of release
Try not to arrive at your chosen spot and turn and release the dog immediately. This can cause the same problem as mixing your release command with body movement in that the dog might begin to anticipate the whole sequence. Instead, try to settle in your position for a moment or two, this will both reinforce your confidence and the respect that your dog has for you in this situation.

A method I often use, once I've arrived at my chosen spot, is to count to a different number in my head before I actually give my release command. This means that the dog doesn't learn to anticipate the release command just because I've stopped and turned towards it because I might keep it waiting for a further two seconds or six seconds before I give the release command, so it's never quite sure.

I actually think it's great if the timing goes wrong or there's a problem with the course and the judge asks me to wait as I can go back to my dog, release it backwards and play. It's a great training opportunity and stops tension building in the handler and dog when such delays occur as they sometimes do.

Practise/Drilling
Just as you continue to practise contacts or jumping combinations, then you should continue to practise/drill your start line waits as a separate exercise. I think a lot of people train waits at the start of a dog's agility career and then it somehow becomes muddled into overall training and perhaps isn't revisited in order to drill the discipline. To achieve and maintain reliability in waits on the start line, both time and effort are required on an ongoing basis.

I believe it's really important that you don't train your waits at the start of a round when you're at training club. All that happens is the dog anticipates, you get anxious and irritated as there's somebody in the queue behind you waiting for their turn. I'm not saying you shouldn't 'use' your waits at the start of a round. I'm suggesting you shouldn't 'train' them at this time. They should have their own allocated slot as part of your training regime.

If you're struggling with your waits or they're not quite ready to be used at the start of a training round, then ask somebody to hold your dog if you need a head start on the course or simply go with your dog and then go back to training your waits as a separate exercise.

If your wait training is going really well and you feel confident, then use it at the start of your training round. The key point here being that you've trained them separately to a standard that you're happy with and now you're confidently using a wait as part of your round as you would in competition. You will know how well things are working and need to base your decision on the facts, don't compromise.

Engagement
Interact with your dog as you would when you're in the middle of an agility round. If you've asked the dog to wait and it's doing so, then give it some positive feedback, i.e. praise. Tell the dog it's clever, good or whatever you want. This act of engagement is critical as it lets the dog know that you are feeling pleased,  confident and in control.

As I mentioned briefly under the 'motivation' section, engagement with your dog at this stage not only lets the dog know its behaviour is correct but it teaches the dog that verbal commands are specific, i.e. praise is praise and release is release etc.   

Lastly, I firmly believe that the ability to engage with the dog gives the handler a huge confidence boost. The fact that you can relax and talk to your dog when you leave it rather than bellow at it or stalk away silently means that anxiety levels drop in both handler and therefore the dog.

The last three attributes are handler-training rather than dog-training orientated but they are essential in order to achieve reliable start line waits:-

1. Consistency
Always be consistent in what you ask the dog to do (and in what you accept from the dog) and always be consistent in what you do yourself. Whatever you do in training; do the same in the ring. If something is unacceptable on one occasion then it should be so on another. Consistency is crucial to a dog as it reinforces understanding and compliance.

2. Confidence Be confident that the thorough training you've put in will work, don't show signs of anxiety, it will pass straight to your dog. To help with your own confidence levels you have to make up your mind right from the beginning that you will reinforce your training should things go wrong regardless of the environment.

3. Reinforcement
What to do if your dog doesn't wait obediently at the start line:-

  •  When practising/drilling - take it back to the start point and reinforce your training by asking the dog to wait and then releasing backwards and playing/praising. Don't move the exercise forward until it's working perfectly at the most basic level.
     

  • At training club go with your dog to the back of the queue and practise your wait routine. When it's your turn again, unless you feel entirely confident that your dog will be obedient, don't try to make your dog wait, ask somebody to hold the dog if a head start is required or go with the dog for this particular round. Go back to basics with your training routine. You can do this at club when it's not your turn on the course as well as at home.
     

  •  In the competition ring you can carry on with the round and resolve to go home and train your routine and not attempt start waits in competition until you're more confident that they'll work or you can choose to return the dog to the start line, tell it to wait, release and praise. This is tough to do as you may have to eliminate your round out of good manners to the judge but, in my opinion, it's the right thing to do. Some judges are happy for you to carry on with your round. It varies so you should check with the judge before assuming. I know there is a lot of talk about training in the ring, but I truly believe that most judges are tolerant of this kind of behaviour if the competitor has the good manners to leave the ring immediately if required.

Personally I wouldn't admonish a dog for not waiting as I'd assume that failure was down to my own poor training or some inconsistency on my part. Rather than reprove, I would simply not give the praise and repeat the exercise until it's done correctly and then give heaps of praise. Remember that praise isn't just turning the dog onto its toy, it's also releasing it onto the course!

If I found myself in the position of re-training a dog to wait on the start line or training an older dog that hadn't previously waited, then I wouldn't try to make the dog wait in the competition ring until I was confident that it would work. I would do my practise/drilling at training club or home. In competitions, I would go with the dog at the start regardless of the course design.

Finally, I believe if you really can't achieve a wait at the start line, then it's better to accept things and make a conscious decision to go with your dog (probably without the backwards shunt that I used to employ) than to try to make the dog wait in the competition ring and fail. This puts you on the back foot and tells the dog that it's in control right from the outset. There's nothing to stop you trying to achieve the waits at training club or home and this is positive training whereas as trying in the ring and failing is just negative training which leads to the frustration.

Happy waiting... or not but whatever. Enjoy your agility!

About the author...
Nancy Hudson
has been participating in agility for over 18 years and have helped to train lots of young dogs during this time. She usually does three or four judging appointments throughout the season although she finds this rather nerve-racking. She has judged the Pedigree Semi-finals at Stoneleigh and found this a great experience although it felt strange being on the other side of the fence as the judge.

Nancy started out in agility with her first dog, a little crossbreed called Lizzie who managed to reach the Team and Pairs finals at Birmingham. Although never quite winning out of starters, her closest was a second place.

She has trained and worked three red and white border collies in agility, all three of my collies reached Advanced status. Nancy has been to Olympia and Crufts on numerous occasions with all three dogs. She has competed in all of the other major finals, winning a couple of them with Bess (Pedigree Pairs and Tex Chunks.) One of her most memorable moments was coming third at Olympia with Abbey in 1998.