Question: My dog heels perfectly at home – 40 points! In the ring it all falls apart; he starts lagging and looking around. How can I fix his heeling? Should I teach him to forge in practice so that in the ring he’ll end up just right?
Answer: If your dog knows how to heel perfectly at home then you don’t have a heeling problem, and teaching “bad” heeling at home in the hopes of getting “good” heeling in the ring is a questionable (and rarely effective) strategy. You might have a ring stress problem. You might have a dog show stress problem. You might have a judge problem, or a strange dogs around problem, or a fading target problem or a loss of reinforcement problem – but a heeling problem? If you’re getting perfect heeling at home then no, you don’t have a heeling problem.
Figure out what your root problem is and then address that! Isolate each possible variable; what do you think?
Is it ring stress? If the problem is ring stress, then your dog is a happy camper at the show, is comfortable with dogs and judges, and falls apart when you’re about to enter the ring. Has your dog developed a bad association with the ring? There could be numerous possible causes if this is the case, and rarely do those causes involve anything that a human can point to as an enormous trauma. Fix your ring stress and you’ll fix your heeling.
Is it dog show stress? If the problem is the dog show, then your dog is already showing that he’s “off” when you arrive at the show grounds. Maybe he’s afraid of the dogs, people, stuff, your nerves, etc. Fix your dog show stress and you’ll fix your heeling.
Is it a judge problem? If your dog is lovely at the show and in the ring until the judge approaches, then you have a judge problem. Fix your judge problem and you’ll fix your heeling.
Is it a strange dog problem? If your dog loves people, places and things just fine, could care less about the loss of reinforcement, but visibly melts around new dogs,then you have a strange dog problem. Fix your strange dog problem and you’ll fix your heeling.
Is it a reinforcement problem? If your dog expects frequent rewards for heeling or you carry them on your body when you train, and then you remove them and go into the ring expecting the same quality of work, then you have a problem but again…it’s not a heeling problem. It’s about training your dog to work for delayed reinforcement, or reinforcers off the body. Fix that and you’ll fix your heeling.
Now, if your dog literally stares at a cookie in your hand then you may well have a heeling problem! Your dog hasn’t learned to heel; he’s learned to stare at a cookie. And when the lure goes away in competition, so does your heeling. If this is your scenario, then you do have a heeling problem, but it’s not about lagging or looking around. Your dog simply doesn’t know what to do. Teach your dog to heel without staring at a cookie and that will solve the lagging and looking around problem.
In all but one scenario, there is no heeling problem, so training more and better heeling isn’t going to help much.
This approach to problem solving goes much further than heeling. For example, I often hear people say they have a “start line” problem, but when I watch the dog I don’t see a start line problem. I see a stress problem. I see an impulse control problem. I see a disconnected handler problem. But the start line? That’s only one symptom of the bigger issues – and it happens to be the one that the handler is focused on, but it’s not the problem. It’s the symptom. Fix the real issue and you’ll be amazed at how many other areas of training were being affected -without you even knowing it.
Obviously I haven’t told you how to address the issues, though if you search through this blog I’ve certainly touched on most or all of them at one time or another. Regardless, the first step to a solution is to correctly identify the underlying problem, not the symptom. Go from there.