Start Button Behaviors Homework

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What are Start Buttons? 

The Start Button behavior is a subject near and dear to us. Through start button behaviors, we can give our non-human partners control of various procedures through having them tell us when to go ahead and when to stop.

Let’s get started by looking at an example.

In this video, Troppy is being prepared for agility teeter training by practicing movement under his feet. In this session, the trainer is using a tray in her lap, and waiting for a clear “I’m ready” sign from the dog – a Start Button behavior.

In this case, the dog indicates he is ready for the movement to begin by dipping his nose, and then the movement is reinforced with a treat.




Our goal with this workshop is to give you an insight into training with start button behaviors.

  • What are they?
  • What can they be used for?

We hope to inspire you to find ways where your none human partner can be in control.

Pairing Procedure With A Twist!

When working with a classical conditioning or a pairing procedure ”event A is followed by event B”.

We can add a valuable element of control by letting the learner initiate every repetition through his behavior.

The learner can tell us that he is ready through a ”yes, do it now!” behavior.

Emelie’s dog, Scout, was prepared through start button training with both noise and movement, and what you see in the video is her very first time on the actual teeter. Her start button behavior is a nose dip, just like Troppy’s in the previous video.

It’s her behavior, not gravity, that starts the teeter moving or banging to the ground.


The pairing procedure with a twist is described in the chapter “Creating Noise and Movement Through You” in our agility book Agility Right From The Start (

To a great extent, it was this procedure that appealed to Karen Pryor, leading up to her asking us to write the book for her publishing house. The story behind this was that Karen had read our article on teeter training in the agility magazine Clean Run in 2004. She liked what she read and sent us an e-mail. You can probably guess how ecstatic we were!

Building a Start Button

In our noise and movement training, we begin with a couple of repetitions of a ”standard” pairing procedure, in other words, Event 1 is followed by Event 2.

It might look like this: The dog stands on a tray, the tray moves slightly + treats show up from below.

After a couple of rhythmic repetitions, we take a micro-pause after a treat and see if the dog shows any kind of “expectant” behavior. It might be pricked ears, a facial expression, or a head movement.

When we see this behavior, we immediately follow it with the pairing of movement + treat. The behavior can then be shaped into the desired topography, consistently with the two events as reinforcer. The behavior has now become a start button behavior that the animal uses to initiate the pairing.

But why?

The point is that the dog learns to like the movement (or the sound, or whatever) through classical conditioning, but at the same time has absolute control over the situation and can choose not to start the repetition, if we, for example, have been too hasty and made the training too difficult.

Where can we use a start button?

This procedure can, of course, be used in all situations where a classical conditioning approach is used.

Let the dog develop a behavior that says ”Ok, let that jogger come running now!” (touch the nose target and running steps will appear behind you).

Nail trimmers = meatball?

Add letting the dog tell you ”now” before you take out the trimmers.


Emelie’s Scout has trouble with her big lovely ears every now and then. The medicine bottle is already a bad thing to her, so in these two videos, Emelie has chosen a completely neutral stimulus (a soap bubble can). Scout simply gets to say yes to bringing it out. Gradually they’ll work towards it becoming the actual medication.



“Yes” To Starting a Sequence of Events

A different version of a procedure with a start button behavior is when the animal gives us the green light to start a more complex sequence where it can also abort the procedure.

This is different from the “pairing procedure with a twist” since, after the start button behavior, there are other criteria for what the animal and the trainer need to do in order to move on in the sequence and reach the final reward. This means the animal also has the opportunity to stop the sequence mid-flow.

In this example, you’ll see Ann and Bailey using a start button behavior for wiping paws. Ann holds out the towel towards the leg that she wants to wipe. When Bailey touches the towel with her paw, Ann can wipe it. If Bailey doesn’t touch the towel or if she removes her paw, Ann stops wiping.


Here’s another example from Ann and Bailey.

The first start button (which is not in the video) is Bailey jumping up on the chair in order to initiate the training session.

The second start button is very clear in the video: Dog completely still – object moves towards head. Dog keeps still = treat + the object going away. Dog turns her head = object goes away.

Bailey is in complete control of the events!

And the first start button behavior, jumping onto the chair, is an important barometer for what she really thinks about the training.

Start buttons for scary distractions

When Eva’s border collie, Tizla, was younger they often used start buttons in outdoor situations were a little bit scary or just difficult for her. Often, Tizla started the sequence of approaching a distraction with eye contact. Eva then moved toward the distraction, and Tizla, in turn, moved with her. Tizla then followed without ”locking onto” the distraction, and Eva reinforced.



Even works for giraffes!

Another example from Eva is the giraffe Melvin’s target as a start button for being touched. A plastic bottle served as a special target that always meant ”touch is coming – stay on the target even though I’m touching you, and food is coming!”.

The sequence here was: Start button behavior (nose on target), event starts (my hand moving closer, touch), continued start button behavior (stay with nose on target), click-treat.

In the very beginning of the training they did a couple of repetitions of just ”touch target = I touch you + treat”, but they quickly moved on to ”touch target = I touch you, if you keep your nose on the target, treat is coming and I quit touching you, if you move your nose from the target, I’ll quit touching you, but no treat”. That’s where it became clear communication, start button style.

Here you see Melvin working with his plastic bottle target:

Why did Eva use a specific target for being touched?

Because she wanted Melvin to be able to predict which training sessions would lead to touching. If she would have used the usual everyday target that he had been heavily reinforced for touching, the feedback regarding what he thought about the training of being touched would not have been as clear. With the specific target for being touched, it was easy to see if the training was too difficult since the target behavior would quickly become hesitant.

This video shows Melvin with his blue everyday target. Notice that Eva does not touch him:

The learner is in control!

An important component here is that the learner can choose to stop the repetition; in other words, there is a behavior that means ”stop” and that us trainers will listen to. The animal thus is in control both regarding the start button and the stop button.

We got a clever question a while back – what is the difference between a “start button” and a regular behavior chain?

The answer is: It is a chain! But it is a special form of chain, with a voluntarily offered behavior as the start (the start button behavior), clear criteria for when we present or remove the stimulus (keep going or stop button), and a maintaining reinforcer at the end (the reward).

It’s a voluntary chain used in situations where, unfortunately, it’s more common to see certain levels of coercion or negative reinforcement.


What’s The Big Take Away?

In this final video, you’ll see Mikaela work with her sheltie Toddy. She shows him the tool she’s going to use and indicates with her hand which body part she’s going to be working on.

Toddy’s start button behavior is a paw movement.


It’s pretty fascinating to see how much all behaviors improve when the animals themselves get to control the training sessions! A start button is a behavior that your animal uses to control and direct the pace and progress of things that you do. It can be used in a multitude of situations: husbandry training, everyday life situations, for working with details in sport settings, etc. Only our creativity sets the limits!