A friend recently disclosed that she had taken her dog off the start line 12 times for breaking its start line and was marvelling at how stubborn her dog was. I was stunned to say the least!
So let’s begin at the beginning, behaviour is built through reward. Punishment inhibits and acts as an inhibitor on all behaviours, not just the target behaviour. Little Dexi, when he ran into the electrified chicken netting, didn’t learn not to chase chickens, he learnt that the yard wasn’t a safe place for him to be. It took 3 weeks to undo even though the old fashioned trainers will tell you that it was a perfectly timed “correction”.
In terms of the four quadrants of behaviour, which quadrant does “removing from the start line” fall into? Many people will tell you that it’s P- (reducing behaviour by taking something away), reducing the frequency of “breaking a wait” by removing the opportunity for reward; the reward here presumably being playing the agility game. On a personal level, I find “taking a dog off the start-line” to be too long a process to really be linked to any particular behaviour. Which part is the P? Picking the dog up? Dragging it by it’s collar? How does the dog link your actions with movement, which is otherwise heavily rewarded in agility? Lets face it, if you don’t go for the high-drive herding dogs – which is where most advice of this nature comes from – if you have to work for motivation, then you spend a lot of time rewarding motion, encouraging a desire to move. Why you’d want to punish it (reduce it) in an agility environment escapes me. It’s really only handlers who can take their dog’s “want” or “drive” to do agility for granted that can get away with that sort of behaviour. If you use a NRM (non reward marker) you’re really saying that there is no reward available for that behaviour and in the usual form that is a signal to try something different. What would make sense in this case is to use a conditioned punisher. You often hear people using them “no”, “excuse me”, “I don’t think so”. If your timing is good, you should be able to link the punishment that will follow with the action. But again, this is moving back in time to the days before we knew how to properly build behaviour with reward. Punishment has a lot of fallout and if you use it on a regular basis you’ll find that a lot of behaviour reduces, not just your target behaviour. The dogs that are trained successfully this way are the ones who’s drive to do, over-rides any fall-out from the punishment, for the rest it’s disastrous, or at best a waste of time. Back to my friend who has removed her dog 12 times!
If you want your dog to stay at the start-line *you need to make it rewarding for him to do so*.
So what to do? My first advice is for the people who have yet to step foot in the ring. Take your start-line stay and generalise it. The dog that can stay at the start-line at his nice small class, in a familiar environment with people he knows and dogs he knows is in all probability going to have problems when he arrives at a 12 ring agility show with all the chaos that that entails if that’s the only training you do. So take your dog out and about. If you’re going shopping, take your dog with you and see if he can hold his sit AND explode out of it in the car park. Where else could your dog go and train that will take him and you out of your comfort zone? A football match? Can you train somewhere you can hear the crowds cheering? At a fun fair? Outside a train station? At the beach? It’s easy to make excuses, better to get out and do some training! Next if you have a hypy dog, do you ask everyone to be still and quiet when you train? Why not get your class mates to clap and cheer? Ask your dog to sit when another dog is working. Do you stand and chat at class, or use the time to your advantage? What situations get your dog excited? USE them to train, don’t avoid them. At home ramp it up a little, ask your dog to sit with food on his paws,
a toy between his legs. Can he sit whilst a toy is thrown past him, or if you put a bowl of just cooked sausages 2 ft away?
Next look to your release, test it, does your dog fully understand it? Is it clear? Do you inadvertently give it on the way out to your lead out position (think about the people who hold a flat hand up – how close is that to a jump signal and do you really want your dog to have to make that kind of discrimination in the ring?)? What happens if you give your release with no movement and no body signals? If your release is linked to movement are you sure you don’t release your dog when you lead out?
Remember, your release functions as your reward for the start-line in the ring, so make sure that it’s fully understood and highly rewarded. If you train it properly, you have a reward that is very effective in competition!
Work on self control not imposed control.
Moving on to shows, if you take your green dog to a trial, you’re putting him in a position that he’s never been in before. So why ask for a 4 jump lead-out? As with anything else when you up the distraction levels, lower the criterion. Why not stand next to him, verbally reward and then release. If that’s OK, try one step away, two steps away, 3 steps away. Build it slowly and build on success. If you reach a point where you find your dog can’t cope, make a note of the situation and go away and train for it before you ask for it again. In training work to extend what the dog is capable of offering, in a trial or show, work well inside the dog’s comfort zone so that you can build on success. If your dog is nervous or unsure, do you really need to leave him on his own at the start line? Wouldn’t it be better to let him build a little confidence in you and in the ring situation before you start pushing the boundaries?
The difficulty with established start-line problems is that a dog has been taken into the ring and over faced. Add in a nervous handler who is no doubt behaving differently and you have a dog who is missing his usual cues and is now guessing. Most dogs have a higher history of reward for movement than they do for stationery behaviour, so it’s not too surprising that their guess work inevitably leads to movement. Now their handler is worried and the next time they’ll either shout a little or repeat words (most of which the dog hears as “blah blah blah”). Now they’re beginning to set the scene for confrontation. In a short while as they enter the ring they are both up tight and ready for the by now inevitable confrontation that will follow. No amount of training away from the ring will alter that in anyway. Removing the dog from the ring does nothing to help either as in many cases the signal for removal also signals the end of the stress and confrontation and is therefore rewarding for many, which is why the behaviour increases rather than reduces. If the above sounds like you, then the first thing you both need to do is relax and have some fun. Desensitise the cues that are at present associated with confrontation and make a new association with happy confident fun. Run with your dog for a while until he’s relaxed. Most dogs after a few months or so of competition will begin to relax, most dogs settle into competition all by themselves if you don’t wind them up in the above mentioned way. Once your dog is more relaxed, you can begin to ask for some control behaviours on the way in, a down at the corner of the ring away from the start line until called in, a sit until released, and then a sit with you one pace away etc. All the time watching the dog closely for signs of stress and having someone monitor you for signs of stress. What the dog needs is a calm confident handler with clear signals and a clear release; breathe out and relax! Little by little is the key, set the dog up to succeed, don’t over face him. At the end of the day agility is supposed to be fun, if it’s a battle and is detracting from your relationship with your dog, is it really worth it? I agree that the amount of control you have at the start line will accurately reflect the amount you have during the round, but for many dogs that doesn’t happen right from the beginning; for some the agility scene is just too much stimulation and handlers need to set realistic aims in that situation. If you know your dog isn’t going to wait, what’s the point in asking him to? What do you think he can do? Ask him to do that instead. In the mean time work on self-control not imposed control. Work on your downstays whilst your class mates are working, ask for sits at the door, waits in the car, waits for dinner bowls. Self control. Little by little is the key and if your dog can’t sit in class, don’t expect him to in the ring.