Fixing a Wobbly Startline Woes Training Tips Series


Image credit: Debbie Fuller

Training Tip 1: Boundary Games

We LOVE boundary games for many reasons, but lets look at how they can help with your startline wait.

  1. Boundary games gives clarity to our dogs. Your dog is either on or off the boundary, there’s no grey area. If you practise ‘stays’ a ton on the flat, there is lots of opportunity for those sneaky grey areas to creep in in terms of your criteria! What is your criteria for a startline wait? Is your dog in a sit, down or stand? Do they remain in that position or do they shift between positions un-cued? Do they move slightly? Do they raise a paw? Do they shuffle forward? Do they ‘vulture’? I think we can all agree that we are looking for stillness, right?! Well that NEEDS to be rewarded. Clear up what you want by using a boundary.
  2. Boundary games go beyond beds. Boundary games is a concept, and when you really get into it, it becomes a way of life and your dog will seek out boundaries. If our dogs have ample opportunity to rehearse a skill, they are going to get pretty darn good at it! Boundary games are startline waits! How often to do you practise your startline waits? Only at agility practise? Our tip would be to rehearse the concept of boundary games every day, on anything that could be considered a boundary! Get creative! A boundary could be; going from one room to the other, going through the front or back door, going through the back gate, going from one surface to another, a chair, a bench, a tree stump, a drain cover, the car boot, a door mat. The possibilities are endless!

Do you need some guidance with your boundary games? Well, you are in luck! Our friends over at Absolute Dogs have come up with a free eBook which is essentially a step-by-step guide to teaching boundary games awesomeness. Click on the link below to download your copy and get started!

Training tip 2: Do you really need a startline (in training)?

Recently Lauren competed in a jumping class with her young Border Collie, Ever, for the first time. She asked Ever to sit, led out and released her. They completed the course-awesome-and celebrated Ever’s first ever competitive run.

It dawned on Lauren afterwards that she has never asked Ever for a startline wait in the traditional sense (on the flat). In training Ever is usually released off a bed or the training exercise starts in motion from a restrain or being sent around a barrel.

We love the idea of incorporating boundary games into agility training. When you are practising, your dog shouldn’t need to perform a startline wait on the flat. The concept of the boundary and the impulse control and value it teaches are what makes a great startline wait. Take your boundary bed to training and when it is your turn to have a go at the exercise, position the bed where you would like your dog to start, pop them on the bed, lead out and release.

We also love to start exercises in motion where we can. We love the idea of wrapping around a barrel to then go into number 1 of a sequence, or wrapping around a barrel into weaves or onto a piece of contact equipment etc.

Another great idea is to consider asking someone to restrain your dog (if your dog is happy with this), so that you can lead out.

Mixing it up between using your boundary bed, starting exercises in motion and having someone restrain your dog ensures you aren’t being predictable in your training, something our dogs are very quick to pick up on!

If you think about it, traditional startline waits aren’t really necessary in training, but we get that you’ll say that they are in competition. True, but you should be training a lot more than competing and so that time you are taking in training using your boundary bed and practising boundary games every day, every where will transfer over to when you need that startline wait at a show.

Training Tip 3: Cannot compute

Your dog and you are ready to start your run, your dog is super excited, he’s pumped and ready to go. So much so, he can’t perform the simplest of tasks [insert simple behaviour here]. Its like he’s never been rewarded, rehearsed and learned that behaviour ever in his life. Away from this particular situation, even around the ring, he does it with ease.

Your dog is having a cannot compute moment, or in other words, he struggles to think in arousal.

To get to the crux of a thinking in arousal challenge, you need to swap hats from your agility training one to your dog training one. This skill needs to be learnt away from agility equipment.

The game that we’ll introduce to you is just one of the games that will help with thinking in arousal, but its a good one!

Cue Control in Arousal:

  1. Place something out ahead of your dog approximately 1 metre away. What ever it is that you are using, your dog HAS to love it! The game won’t help with true to life situations if you use something your dog isn’t all that fussed by. It could be their favourite food reward or toy.
  2. Restrain your dog and say ‘get it’ and let go of your dog so they can get to their reward.
  3. Repeat step 2 a few times, until your dog is really anticipating getting to the reward.
  4. This time as you let go of your dog, rather than say ‘get it’ ask your dog for a behaviour they know really well.

Did they perform that behaviour?
Yes – Great! Say ‘get it’ and let them get their reward
No – Pick up the food/toy and reset – you will need to be quick as your dog is likely already on their way to it too!

*If your dog gets too high in arousal and you are getting no response and frustration is setting in, calmly stroke them and walk them around before trying again. We want them to be successful whilst also learning how to think in arousal. Practise makes progress!*

Dogs pick up on patterns very quickly, mix in some restrain releases with asking for a behaviour. Be random in what you do and ask for!

If you don’t have that many behaviours on cue, that is another homework for you!

Training Tip 4: Your Warm Up

Warming up your dog both physically and mentally before your agility run is 100% essential, we can’t stress that enough! However, is your warm up affecting your dog’s head?!

If you have a dog who struggles with arousal levels, in the sense that he gets over excited very easily, having the same warm up routine and doing the exact same things before your agility run will only increase arousal levels.


So, if you always do the same things, you have a fixed routine that you do each and every time, by the time you get to the startline, your dog is anticipating what’s coming next and that could lead to a broken start line.

In your dog’s mind, the warm up and lead up to entering the ring is one big behaviour chain and if you always do the same things in the same order, you can see why this could challenge the startline wait – your dog is anticipating what’s next as its always been the same!

Our advice: have enough games, skills and exercises up your sleeve so you can warm up your dog in different ways each time. We suggest writing down a list so you can refer to that list at a competition, taking away the stress of having to think of something different each time. Try your best to be really unpredictable with what warm up exercises you do!

Tip 5: Being Unpredictable Rules!

Yesterday we talked about how unpredictability can help with your startline wait with regards to warm up, today we’ll look at how it can help with your lead out.

Here’s the thing, if you always ask your dog to [insert behaviour], then lead out, then release, your dog is anticipating the release as the picture is always the same. Its predictable.

To solve this challenge, once you have led out, we suggest cueing your dog to perform a different behaviour, or 2 or 3….and then release. If you mix it up, your dog will never be able to pick up on a pattern and he won’t be able to anticipate the release.

The first port of call is to ask yourself how many behaviours your dog knows on a verbal cue. If its just sit and down, your first homework is to teach your dog more behaviours. The more behaviours your dog knows, the more this will help to keep things random!

So how do you teach your dog to perform a behaviour from a distance? One of the ways we teach this is to use a boundary bed. Once your dog has value for his boundary bed, ask him to perform different behaviours on it. Once he is successful performing those behaviours, begin to gradually build in the distance you are away from your dog and the boundary bed. This needs to be done slowly and we recommend ping ponging from increasing distance to decreasing distance – don’t always challenge your dog, sometimes make it easy.

Enjoy and let us know how you get on!

exercisingAbout the Author: Lauren Langman is responsible for the design and development of all Devon Dogs classes, events and workshops. She competes in Agility at Grade 7, the highest rank of competition in the British agility arena. She regularly competes and wins at top agility events in the UK including Crufts and Olympia, and has represented the UK at World Agility Championship level on many occasions.

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