As I worked Lyra’s heeling today, I was reminded of what a slow process it is to teach beautiful heeling. Lyra has been heeling since she was ten weeks old, yet with six months of consistent training we still don’t work for more than ten or fifteen steps without a reward and a whole lot of verbal assistance. Admittedly, I have pretty high expectations for those ten or fifteen steps, and they are not in a straight line. Still….no wonder it takes so long to get into competition.
I never really considered how long it takes to get the heeling picture I want. I just train my dogs, and one day I’m happy. Because Lyra’s drives have been slow in developing, it’s probably taking longer than with most of my dogs simply because it’s not nearly as important to her to win whatever it is I have. Fortunately I love heeling, and I don’t feel any great hurry to reach a finished picture.
In this video, I’m having Lyra carry a toy while we practice. I’m doing this for a few reasons. One, I want her to realize that owning a toy isn’t very interesting if I’m not attached – we work on that all the time and this is another example of that process. She can leave me in heeling, but then she has a toy and no one to play with. She does not leave. Another reason I have her carrying her toy is to make the work more challenging. She has to work hard to hold on to her toy while giving me precise heeling – and I do expect precision. Third, when Lyra carries the toy it’s extremely easy to reward her; all I have to do is reach out and let her bring the toy up to my hands. I like what that is doing for her heel position as well – giving her more of an upright, playful picture. When I see what I want, I reward. Finally, I let her carry the toy because I dont’ have to get it back; we can just keep working. That’s efficient and gets around the issue of where exactly to hold the toy – on my body or on the ground? I still do plenty of those as well but this is one more option.
A note about precision. I have very high expectations of precision; “expectation” and “fun” are not mutually exclusive! I reward a combination of effort and precision – if I’m trying to get her to move her rear on a left curve and she does it in one fluid motion, then I’m going to reward that because she is controlling her movements. If we do a right turn and she does it with great enthusiasm; therefore over rotating to a crabbing position, then I’m going to fix it both verbally and by doing a movement that is difficult to complete if your rear is not is position (in this example a left turn or a left curve). If you watch the video carefully, you should be able to tell, second by second, why I make the choices that I select. If a series of movements appear to be automatic or easy for her, then something must change. The reward schedule must drop or the work must get harder. Effort is motivated by making the work difficult – but not so difficult that she cannot succeed. In this manner you create both confidence and a habit of working hard and with natural attention. Remember, I don’t’ have an attention command; I simply get it because that is my expectation in the work.
If you watch the sequence from 2:02 to 2:12, you’ll see what I’m striving for in this session; fluid and controlled.