Friday, August 16, 2013

Agility Release Cues - Off the Body vs. Verbal Do You Understand the Difference?

If you practice agility with your dog, have you ever wondered why your dog breaks the start line even though you've told them to stay?
Here's something handlers don't always think about: When we ask our dogs to stay, how long do we expect them to stay there? How do they know when they are allowed to move? What do we do to let them know they can move? All of these questions are the reasons for "release cues". 
A release cue is a word, common words are "okay", "free" or "break", that releases or lets the dog know they can move off of a stay. In agility, we use release cues for multiple behaviors.  The most common place for a release cue in agility is at the start line. The start line is the first obstacle in a course, usually a jump. Most handlers will leave their dog in a stay and walk past the start line so that they are ahead, and have a physical advantage over the dog. This is called "leading out". 

A very common issue handlers have in agility is their dog breaking the lead out position before they are ready to release them. Unfortunately, many handlers blame their dog or get upset because their dog did not wait to be released, when really the whole time they have been training their dog to release off their body movement, rather the verbal word. 
How does that happen? When teaching your dog a release word, many handlers will pair a hand movement with the verbal word. If the dog is always released with a moving hand and verbal, they are going to look for the moving hand more often than they would listen for a verbal. Dogs are very physical, and while of course people have been teaching dogs verbal commands for years, a body cue is always going to be stronger.
If you find your dog breaking when you haven't released them, make sure you aren't releasing with a body cue. To test for this, you can practice releasing your dog with no movement, and rewarding after they have broken and gotten to you.
Livvy's handler leads out, looks at her, does not move, and uses the word "ok" to release her

When you lead out, it is a good idea to have your dog stay for different amounts of time. Sometimes you can release right away, or other times stand and look at them for a few seconds before releasing, so they get used to your signal rather than the amount of time. The release word is key, so if your dog understands that the release word is when they can break their stay, they should not break on a body cue.
We are pleased to have Christina, one of our instructors at Morris K9 Campus, as a contributing writer for A Dog’s Life.

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