In my last blog, I explained a bit about behavior chains.  I talked about what they are and how understanding them can help trainers make better training decisions.

Now I want to talk about Heeling, since it gives people more grief than any other exercise.  Why is something so simple in concept (walk next to my side looking up) so difficult in practice?

Heeling is a behavior chain made up of the same behavior repeated over and over and over…each step of heeling is either performed correctly (according to the criteria set up by the handler), or it is not.  The basic criteria never changes – hold your body next to me in exactly the same manner no matter I do, and look at a focal point.

If we look back at the last blog on behavior chains, then we understand that if a dog is allowed to move to the next step in the chain (the next step of heeling) then the last step must have been performed in a manner that was acceptable to the handler.

For example, the first three steps are perfect.  On the fourth step the dog looked around briefly but was back in good position at the fifth step.  By the sixth step the dog was lagging slightly until the ninth step and at the tenth through thirteenth steps the dog was brilliant. The handler was pleased with the end of the chain, so the dog was given a reward.

Remember that if the dog is allowed to move to the next step, then the previous step is reinforced by the next step, because any step can lead to the final reward.  The chain includes ALL OF THE BEHAVIORS seen from the start until the reward.  Therefore, allowing a dog to continue an exercise communicates that the behavior is being performed correctly and that the reward will come.  And it does!

And if it is not correct?  What if the dog takes a quick look around or lags on a few steps of heeling, but continues “well enough,” to eventually earn a reward?  What has happened then?

If that deviation was positive for the dog, then you have allowed it to become a possibility within the chain called heeling.  Next time you ask for heeling, you may well find that you’ll see those deviations again.

So what SHOULD you do?

End the behavior chain and try again.  We discussed this in the last blog.

If you aren’t pleased with your dog’s behavior and if those deviations could be self reinforcing for the dog, then you must eliminate them from the chain.

Of course, ending the chain and restarting only works if you dog knows how to win.  For example, if you dog sits crooked within the chain and you start over, that is only a sensible decision if dog knows how to nail the straight sit at heel when it is cued outside of the chain.  Adding expectations that are not trained to fluency outside of the chain won’t have any positive effect at all. Indeed, it is quite harmful and will probably cause your dog to shut down.

Here is an unedited video of Lyra working on heeling in a new location.  This is hard for her.

The chain fro 6 sec to 21 sec is as good as I’ve trained for – she is rewarded.

The chain from 31 to 46 s also as good as I’ve trained for, so even though she fails to perform the”spin”cue,  she is rewarded.  Logically I should either pull the spin out or give her more support when asking for it, since she’s not strong enough to do it independently within a chain at this time.

1:05 – she looks away and I correctly end the chain.

1:11 – she looks away on the next attempt and I correctly end the chain.

1:17 – again she fails (by now I should be worried that she is not capable of doing better).

1:24 Here she succeeds.  This reward covers the period from 1:21 to 1:24.

Now I attempt to try the chain from the beginning

1:49 – 1:54 – she fails at the end – the same point she has failed several times before.

It would make no sense to continue on this path of failure.  If a dog repeatedly struggles at the same point in a chain, then you need to stop what you are doing and pull it out to work on it separately.  How you do that depends on the dog and why you think they are having trouble.

In this case, what I do is simply go right up to gate where she is failing and only ask for that very last step.  I walk slower than normal to give her more support.  We do this for the next minute – with this level of support she is able to succeed several times in a row.

After a minute of isolating this variable, I add it back into the chain.

From 2:57 to the end we have our final chain.  She is successful and I end that session.

In the next blog (Behavior Chains, Part 3) we’ll continue to consider the issue of behavior chains and how they relate to competition training.