I love precision heeling. I love seeing a dog heel with a perfectly parallel body, not moving out of position even an inch, pulling up on the left turns and powering through to the right.
I also love heeling games! I love how they add energy, flow, and confidence to my dog’s work while simultaneously reducing my use of food and toy reinforcers.
The contradiction between these two activities is real. Heeling games is about the release of pressure and adding enthusiasm while precision heeling is about control and mental engagement.
So how does one combine them?
There’s actually a useful trick, so let’s talk about it now.
Heeling games generally start and end from heel position. For example, you send your dog out and around the cone and then your dog powers back into position as fast as possible. That moment when your dog shows up a few inches behind heel position? That’s a critical moment! You need to know exactly what you’re going to do when your dog shows up there, and your decision should reflect and counterbalance your dog’s natural tendencies. In addition, whatever decision and movements you make should happen at the exact instant that will cause your dog to be correct rather than allowing them to be wrong.
For example, your dog is prone to enthusiastic forging. You send your dog around the cone, and as your dog powers back into position, you know that there’s a pretty good chance your dog will end up forged, at least for a second or two, before they settle back into their precision work.
When your dog is a few inches behind position is when you want to take action! Rather than maintaining a steady forward flow (which will encourage forging) you need to do something! You can make a left turn/slow. You can pull to the right, or you can simply halt. All of these options will have the same effect; when your dog is a few inches behind heel position and returning from a game, your dog will think. And that is the exact moment when you need your dog to think!
But what if your dog is soft and prone to lagging? What if your dog never powers up into position?
The first piece is the same. The moment you need to identify is a few inches before your dog gets back into position. But the decision you’re going to make now is quite different; you want to make your dog think about hurrying up rather than pulling back! For example, you might quickly move onto a right circle, perform a right turn or even a fast pace of heeling. All of those options will cause your dog to think when they are about three or four inches behind heel position, and encourage your dog to make a good choice to drive ahead.
But, and here’s an important part…. we need success! So not only will your dog see a behavior that encourages hurrying when she’s a few inches behind position, it needs to be a behavior that motivates her to speed up. For example, toss a cookie forward! Or ask for a hand touch in front of heel position, and then reinforce that with a cookie. Or, as you speed up, make a right turn or an about turn, cheerfully encouraging with a verbal, “go go go go!”
The ticket is to prevent your dog from being wrong by making your decision before the dog has made an error.
The following video applies these concepts in a slightly more advanced version. After the individual elements have been reinforced quite a bit on their own, I’m combining elements to see what I have -letting Brito do some thinking and winning on his own.
Brito’s natural tendency is to hang back, so notice that everything I do is designed to encourage him to think about pushing forward. I begin by quickly turning away and accelerating forward – and then I move out towards the right. As he stays with me, I tighten up the circle more and more so he has to put out even more effort to stick with me. I then ask him to move through my legs to my opposite side… that encourages him to be up in position or even slightly ahead! And when he arrives on the other side? I instantly switch my direction so that he’s wrapping around my leg and once again…pushing forward.
In this way, I am combining the games of informal starts, through my legs, and hand touches with the precision of heeling. Plenty of games to engage him in what we’re doing, and plenty of reasons to think and pay attention as well (precision)!
TONIGHT at 6pm PT I will be teaching my webinar on heeling games. This webinar is perfectly well suited to people with no heeling at all AND people with very advanced heeling skills.
I hope some of you will join me! Tuition is $19.95 and they generally run about two hours, including question and answer time. You can watch as many times as you want for the next year and you do not need to be present for the live version.