Getting a great wait at the start

The retraining of a serial wait breaker

This is the story of a serial wait breaker. It started with a few broken waits then a trail of broken waits and finally absolutely no wait at all. Itís the story of a dog that eventually would not stay put under any circumstances and in any place, not even in her own back garden where she was safe from other dogs. Every time I sat her down and told her to wait she got up as soon as I took a step away until eventually I gave up. She was running better without the wait so that was that. No more anxious waits on the start. Then I hurt my knee. Suddenly I couldnít run that fast and the wait reared its ugly head again. Now I had to train it. This is how I did it.

Now Iím not saying this is a foolproof training method. Retraining a dog is like trying to cure an ailment. Some things work quite well, some help a bit and others donít help at all. The trick to dog training is to find out what works for you and your dog and once you are successful maintain your criteria.  Before we get going let's look at some of the tactics used to start a dog in competition. 

There is no criticism implied here and lots of people are able to use some of these starts quite effectively.  It depends on what works for you. 

The snail creep

Creeping away very, slowly saying wait all the time and never taking your eye off the dog. 

Beat the 'go'

This is often the follow on to the snail creep and it starts as a race.  Who will get there first?  Will the dog move before the 'go' or will the handler manage to get far enough away and get the 'go' in before the dog moves?

I can stop an aircraft

Backing away from the dog with both arms raised.

A head start

The handler gains a head start by taking the dog past the first jump and then sending it on to go round the front of the first jump while they run.

Run like hell

The handler just lets go at the start and runs like hell with the dog.

The wait and walk away confidently

The dog waits until you're in position and you've given a verbal cue to go before moving off the start.

How I worked out my method

Nearly every method of teaching the wait for agility seems to involve asking the dog for a small wait and then going back to the dog and rewarding that success.  My method didnít involve this and Iíll tell you why in a minute. First of all let me say I have been challenged over this but trust me Iíve tried all the going back to your dog to reward and it didnít work with Jilly. I actually asked Jilly why it didnít work and she looked at me as if I was more stupid than I usually am. This is what she said.

'When we go jumping itís really, really, exciting and I canít wait to get going. I certainly canít sit there on my backside while you wander backwards and forwards looking silly.í

'But donít you want a sweetie for sitting there and waiting to go?í

'NO I donít want a flipping sweetie I want to go jumping. Why canít you humans understand that?í

But the sweetie is your reward for waiting.í

'I keep telling you, I've got all excited and I donít want a sweetie. My reward is when you say ĎGoí and we get to do some jumping.í

'Oh I see.í

I had to translate that from dog to human language but that is the essence of what she said. It threw a whole new light on everything. My plans for starting training without jumps and using the traditional methods of wait for obedience or other disciplines had just gone out of the window.

Iíd had a few reluctant waits using that method but nothing to write home about so I had to think again and wait for a lightbulb moment.

So, I thunk and I thunk and this is what came out of it.


Lightbulb moment - The Mat Game

Jillyís had a lot of success at Wag It Games and one of the games she was good at was the mat game. We start with one mat. She runs towards it lies down on it and waits until sheís told to go. Then we use two mats and she can either come back to me or go from mat one to mat two and then back to me. We can even use three mats and go from mat to mat or from mat to me and then to another mat depending on the game. What a great way to start wait training. She already knows how to wait on the mat until sheís told to go so I can use that to play wait on the start.

If your dog has never used target mats itís dead easy to teach them what to do using a method called shaping. All you need to do it to put the mat down and when the dog goes near the mat click and reward with a treat. Shaping isnít a new method. Itís taught by many trainers and I canít remember where I first learned it. Actually I can. I did it with my first dog when I was a child. I remember that I discovered if you wait for a dog to sit and then reward it will keep sitting for you, then all you have to do is add the sit and voila. Everyone thought I was mad and called me lazy. Anyway, I digress.

Once you start rewarding leave it a little longer until the dog puts a paw on the mat or walks over it. Be quick with the click. (I did make that up). Build this up until the dog associates going on the mat with getting a treat. Now you can wait until the dog offers a further behaviour such as waiting on the mat or sitting or lying down on the mat before you click and reward. Once the dog has learned the behaviour you just need to add a word such as, ĎMatí.

Here's a little video of us playing some mat games. I think I'm a bit slow on the clicker sometimes. 


Having got to the stage where the dog is going to a mat and sitting or lying down you now want a release word. I use, Ďgoí but loads of people use, Ďokayí or something similar. It needs to be consistent. I use, Ďgoí to release from a wait on a contact so it made sense to use the same word for a release from a wait. Jilly found it easy to learn to go to the mat and sit and then go to a target such as a dead toy on the release word. 

Add some jump wings

Having got to this bit it was easy to ask her to sit on a mat and then add some jump wings with no poles. Soon Jilly was doing a great wait on the mat before racing between the wings to get the toy.

All we had to do then was to add poles. Easy isnít it Jilly?

ĎItís better than that daft thing you were doing before. At least I get to do something now and I donít have to sit there for hours while you do silly things like waving your arms.í

ĎHow about we try it somewhere else? Can you do that?í

ĎPiece of cake.í

ĎWhat even when there are other dogs jumping around barking?í

ĎDonít know.í

We tried it. We went to a friendís house complete with mat and lawnmower. His land is a bit too far from the house for an electric cable to reach and Iíve got a brilliant battery lawnmower that does the job. It took ages but with the grass cut and dogs nicely warmed up I did get a few good waits from Jilly.

Here's a video of us starting the wait training at home with jump wings.  I don't always go this far away.  I vary the distance and I don't always have my arm out.  It's the verbal cue Jilly needs not the body language.


The most important thing with a wait is to maintain criteria.
Dog moves itís no go.
Dog waits itís go.

Here we are at the house of a friend.  When training it helps to vary locations if possible. Jilly's wait here is excellent even with two other dogs barking.

Now some trainers insist on the dog sitting rigid and not moving a claw. I canít do that and Iíll tell you why. When Iím competing I donít wear my glasses and it may not be possible to see a slight movement, therefore my criteria has to be sit on the spot without getting up or wriggling forward. If the movement is so small I canít see it without my glasses itís ok. This has to be maintained. If youíre in the ring and your dog has gone you canít just pretend you said go and carry on. You have to put the dog back on the spot or youíve lost it. Mind you I agree with the Bad Dog Agility site when they say that if it happens when youíve travelled hundreds of miles to enter a big national qualifier or a final you shouldnít throw it away for the sake of criteria. Carry on and then work hard to get the wait back at the next show.

Anyway, back to Jilly. We got our waits at another location although we had to work a bit for it. Next we tried it at a couple of training locations. Again we had to work for it a bit but by maintaining strict criteria we eventually got some really good waits in training. Finally it was the biggie. Could we do it at a show and then do it again at another show? Yes we could. Jilly did some quite good waits that needed slight correction before release at the first show but the next time around her waits were perfect. She never moved a muscle.

The first wait in a show location for about three years

Proofing the wait

If youíve been having problems with the wait youíve probably come across people who train with lots of arm flapping, toy waving and other distractions. I wouldnít do this with Jilly but you may decide it would be good for you dog. I asked Jilly what she thought about it and hereís what she said.

ĎAre you seriously telling me that when we go in the ring to do some jumping youíre going to wave a toy at me and then run around flapping your arms and screaming.í

ĎWell no, not in the ring but I could do it in training just so you get used to distractions.í

ĎI Donít get it. Just do what weíve got to do in the ring and get on with it. I canít be doing with you looking like a demented beetle all the time. Iíd be scared stiff wondering whatís going happen next and whether the men in white coats are coming.í

So that put the tin lid on that. There didnít seem to be any other way to proof the wait......but then......da da

Lightbulb moment

It didnít actually need proofing. Iíd already built that into the training. In order to stop Jilly taking cues from my body language I varied the way I did the wait a little bit. Sometimes I walked away with my arm out and sometimes I didnít put an arm out until I got to the release spot. Sometimes I said Ďgoí while I was still walking and sometimes I didnít. I often varied the lead out as well. The only way Jilly could actually be sure it was ok to go was when I said Ďgoí so that was that. She was already listening to verbal cues rather than body language. I would suggest that if your dog is still watching your body cues rather than listening that you go back and practice some variations on body language based on what you might do in the ring.

When Iím out with Jilly we do some impromptu waits in different locations. In the photo above we're out for a walk on the downs.  Sasha joins in sometimes as well but she's slightly deaf now so she has to take her cue from Jilly. Jilly watches and listens intently but she knows thereís no reward for breaking that wait. We do have a lot of fun wherever we go.

What if Jilly breaks the wait

This has happened, of course itís happened. Everyone has had a dog that breaks the wait sometimes. My reaction is always the same, a quizzical look at Jilly and a question,


Without a visual target to go back to I walk back to the wait point and I wait for Jilly to offer the right behaviour. At first I had to wait a little while.

ĎItís up to you.í


ĎYes, really.í

I gave her the choice to sit and wait or not to sit and wait and at first it took a little while for her to choose to go back to the right position before I left her again. Before you say,

'I couldnít do that in the ring.í

I didnít do that in the ring. I spent some time training before we even tried at a wait on the startline in the ring. Judges can be very patient but only a few are saints. I made sure that the wait was reasonably bulletproof before inflicting it on a judge. If I really struggled and couldnít get a wait at all in the ring after asking for it then Iíd leave the ring.

Giving a dog a choice is a well known training technique that many trainers use. Susan Garrett is one well known trainer who use the technique but there are loads of videos on YouTube of different trainers showing how they do it. Our Wag It Games teacher, Melissa Chapman also teaches this and itís an extremely successful way of teaching a dog.

I think that if a dog breaks the wait you need to be fair to the dog. Is there something upsetting going on or something thatís frightening the dog. I was standing in a queue when two dogs behind us had a fight and really frightened Jilly. I took her away from the ring and went back at the end of the class but we werenít able to compete, she was still far too worried. I wouldn't expect a wait in that situation.  We just did what we could to get back a bit of confidence and thanked the judge and left.

Clubs are aware of queues and queuing problems but sometimes you come across an arrangement where the dogs in the queue are too close to the dog thatís waiting on the startline. This can really unsettle a dog so I wouldnít do a big lead out with Jilly in that case.

Our last run of 2018.  A perfect wait at the start and not a bad run either.  We came third.

Finally, we've got our wait at the start and we have a good finish as well.  Now to work on the bit in between.  That's puzzling us a bit at the moment....happy jumping.