choice is it anyway?
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
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
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:
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.
The start line waits are as important as learning to jump or
negotiate contact equipment. Therefore it's important that they are practised separately
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:
Be consistent in your methods and whatever you do in
training, do the same in the ring.
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.
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
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.
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.)
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
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
– 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.
What to do if your dog doesn't wait obediently at the
- 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.
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!
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
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.
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.