I recently watched a video of a dog learning to heel.  The dog and handler both showed excellent skills but the handler really wanted a specific head position, which meant the team never progressed more than about six steps before failure occurred.  Rather than quickly ditching the method, the handler persevered with an approach that was not working for her dog because she was afraid of losing precision.  Let’s call that “perfection paralysis”.

For quick background, there are two basic methods for achieving excellent heeling and head position.  One is that each possible heeling behavior is trained and then these perfect ‘bits’ are strung together into a chain called heeling – that is the “precision” method.  The other method uses shaping and the dog is allowed significant variability in heel position with the handler marking and rewarding the best bits, over time tightening up criteria and stretching out endurance.

The advantage of the first method is that the dog never practices anything wrong so they are less likely to offer deviations over the long run, for example under stressful situations.  The advantage of the second method is that the activity itself is more fun for the dog, because the method creates energy and movement initially, with precision coming over time. The potential downside of too much of the precision method is that you risk a “careful” worker – accurate but nothing interesting to watch.  And if you do too much of the shaping method you risk undesirable variability.  There are solutions to both of these dilemmas, but at a basic level, you still have to pick your poison.

Some of us blend these two methods, with an emphasis on one or the other, depending on the dog’s stage of training and  what we prioritize in our final picture (energy or perfection).  I start with the precision method initially, but once I begin moving with the dog, all bets are off and it’s completely dependent on the individual team.  The more driven, focused and clear headed the dog, the more likely I am to require perfection with each step, but for less driven or more environmental dogs, or for dogs that tend to become frantic when contained, I allow more variability.

In this case, the handler opted for the first method – perfection in each step of heeling, which was a good choice based on the dog’s temperament and the handler’s goals.  The problem arose when the handler become so focused on a perfect behavior chain that she did not recognize that the “perfection” method wasn’t working for the dog.  The dog would move several steps correctly, then deviate, and the handler would apply an NRM or a cheerful interrupter and start over.  Yet the dog did not improve.  As a result the dog was enduring endless NRM’s or Cheerful Interrupters.

There are two possible paths for resolving the issue.  The first is to stop working on heeling chains, and find a way to bridge the gap in the dog’s knowledge so that she can understand and succeed.  The second option is to change methods and go with the shaping approach and accept that you will see “less than perfect” while the dog learns.

When something isn’t working for you, change it.  Change it, even if you are well versed on issues like behavior chains, matching law, etc, and you are afraid of creating new problems – there is art to training as well as science.  Change it, because you do not want your dog to develop a poor attitude about working with you.  Change it, because setting a goal of perfection isn’t sufficient to create that perfection.

Training must be fun for both of you!  If you are using “failure” (NRM’s or Cheerful Interrupters which withhold reinforcement) to train your dog rather than success, then you risk demoralizing your dog, and demoralized or stressed dogs do not think and learn effectively.  Dog that show perfect work because they are afraid of being wrong are not enjoying the training process.

If you care what your dog’s final picture looks like – if you want flashy feet, a gleam in the eye, and a relaxed demeanor,  the dog must be allowed to make mistakes in their work so that they learn that errors happen and are nothing to get anxious about.  Handlers must also learn that mistakes will happen and they aren’t the end of the world!  Indeed, sometimes they are just the ticket to allow you to become a working team, each partner with their own flaws.  Train and have fun! The rest will come.

Allow for less than perfection.  Get moving!  Play!  Throw food and toys! Give tons of hand, body and verbal help in the learning phases or when your dog is confused, and worry about getting rid of it later!  Take on responsibility for making it possible for your dog to win!  Once your dog is excited and happy and relaxed, see what happens.  You might be surprised.

Marketing note:  If you’d like to start your dog in heeling or clean up a sloppy worker, take a look at my precision heeling class which begins on Dec 1st.  At $65 for a bronze level, it’s a very good deal.  And when you’re ready to let your dog free up a little in movement, then check out my heeling games course which starts in February!  The heeling classes run in a series ending with Advanced heeling in April – that is where we get into the nitty gritty little details, but that class makes a lot more sense if you start the series with precision work.  You can read the description and syllabus here:   http://www.fenzidogsportsacademy.com/index.php/courses/33