In todays blog, I will try to describe how I train heeling for obedience trials with my puppies. There are many ways to do it, described in books and on websites. What I mostly don’t like about them is that they focus on areas that always come very easy for me, and pretty much ignores the areas that I find harder. My dogs like to to obedience with me, and if they didn’t, I wouldn’t be teaching them to heel. I would be playing tug with them and have them give me attention to get the tugging to start again, I would be doing lots of shaping games, I would be evaluating how well I have taught my dog to enjoy the rewards that I’m using. Getting them to enjoy heeling is not a problem. Having perfect position for a four minute heeling pattern is a much bigger problem. Having a dog that never swings her butt out, charges ahead (even the slightest) or changes the position of her head is the goal of my heelwork training. The clicker recipies for heeling that I have read (in english) has position as it’s least concern. They are more concerned about not having dogs that start to lag or looses focus.
With a puppy or new dog, I am however, going to teach focus and the right attitude before I am concerned about position. That should, however, be done very quickly with a dog that likes training if it hasn’t got any previous bad training in heeling or obedience in general. I also make sure that I work on focus and attitude in a setting that differs from the end goal. To do that, I walk backwards and have the dog follow me in heel position until I absolutely love my dog’s focus, attitude and position.
This is Pi at four months, with perfect focus, attitude and position as I walk backwards
Reasons for walking backwards in the initial stages of training heelwork:
- It doesn’t look like the end behavior and therefore, I can work on one aspect at a time without concern for reinforcing unwanted behavior (i.e. bad position).
- The first time my dog ever does “normal” heeling with me walking forwards, her focus, attitude and position will be perfect!
- It’s much easier for a puppy to follow me with great focus as I walk backwards.
- It’s much easier for me to see the puppy without having to walk in an akward position, bending towards the dog. I can look just like I do in competition from the first session.
- It keeps heeling separate from loose leash walking and agility circle work until the dog understands the behavior.
- I can always go back to walking backwards if I get into a difficult environment where my young dog has a hard time focusing.
- I use the backwards walking when I teach my dogs stand, sit and down from heel. When I walk backwards, they are free to offer the behavior (but only if that behavior, sit for example, has been reinforced just before I start walking backwards) and I can then get stimulus control while walking backwards.
When I start this training, I have four stages. It is important to not expect everything at once. Since we’re walking backwards, it is ok for the dog to not be perfect when we start. These are the four stages:
- Focus. First thing I want from the dog is focus. I want the dog to be focused on me when I walk backwards. She does not (and should not, because it is incompatible with perfect position) have to look me in the eyes. All I want is that she is looking at me and not at everything else.
- Attitude. When the dog gives me attention as soon as she has finished her reward, I start to look at her attitude. I want the dog to lift her head, wag her tail, come close to me, have good rythm when walking etc. Most dogs will need “more” attitude. Some dogs need to have a calmer attitude, where I would select for not jumping, walking calmly, not bumping into me etc.
- Position. The position I am aiming for is at my left side, straight and with head and/or shoulder next to the seam in my pants. Like Pi in the picture above). This might already be in place because of placement of reinforcement in the earlier stages. I might temporarily loosen criteria for focus and attitude while working on position (should only be for a session or so).
- Duration. When all three components (focus, attitude and position) has come together and the dog is performing perfect heeling when I walk backwards, I will start to ask for some duration. I think 15-20 steps probably is enough. You want to look for consistency in all three criteria before you turn around and walk forward.
I prefer to not have treats in my hands when I train heeling. I would only do it to proof the dogs understanding of position, and for the first times when I go from backing up to forward walking. There is no need to have treats in your hand when you teach heeling if there isn’t a specific issue that you need to fix by rewarding really fast. I sometimes have treats in my right hand to be able to reward faster (I pass them behind my back and always reward with my left hand). I don’t think you should have rewards in your left hand since that will most likely make the dog too focused on the treats and/or dependent on the food as a lure.
I keep the treats in my pocket (preferably on the left side) and try to walk as much like I would at a competition as possible (not counting the fact that I am walking backwards…). I will not jog or run, but keep a steady pace with long strides. When I mark good behavior, I loosen up, praise the dog and increase speed (at least if the dog needs more attitude). At the same time, I will get a treat from my pocket with my left hand and let the dog drive to the treat at my left side (where I want dog to be, or slightly beyond). The only time I would stop and reward is for the dog who needs to calm down and who has good position allready. With good placement of reward already when working on focus, both attitude and position will often come without much work. Also consider how straight your dog is when you are rewarding. You don’t want the dog to swing his butt out when you are rewarding. If you keep moving, it’s often easier to get the dog straight.
When the dog is doing nice heeling for 15-20 steps as you walk backwards, you can start to turn around and get the same behavior with the final cue (you walking forward and looking serious). Only turn around when your dog is doing his very best. Go back to backwards walking after each repetition of turning around in the begining. I prefer to take one step to the right and then walk forward. You can also turn to your right 180 degrees to go from backing to walking forward. Choose what works for you and your dog.
Reward your dog immediatly when he gets into the right position. If he doesn’t, break it off and try again. I don’t care about my puppy’s attitude when I do this, head might come down, but I will still reward perfect position as I turn around. Focus and attitude will come back soon! After many rewards for coming to the right position at your side, you can start to add more steps. Be very aware of the placement of reinforcement. You want the dog to always get rewarded in the correct position, without swinging his butt out. It usually helps if the dog has good rear end awareness and good finishes before you turn around.
There is of course more to heeling than this, but this should get you an idea of how to get started. I will try to make a video of my puppy doing this kind of training. Please make a comment if you have any questions.