With a promising start, Irie began her heeling career with platform training. With a subtle and virtually invisible injury at under a year, we switched from primarily focusing on foundation (with agility goals) and slowly became devoted to Rally-FrEe…a sport that challenged me to become a smarter and more organized trainer with a fun list of behaviors to look forward to. The dogs love it, too, because. like agility, there’s all the fun of dancing around in sync with me with none of the need for logistically challenging agility equipment. That meant we could practice virtually anywhere and still get to run and jump around to some degree. Because, let’s face it, heeling is not a good deal for the dog….
UNLESS, you know a few things about how to train it well ;)! What’s really cool is when you watch a dog that highly values the game of heeling. That dog’s eyes are bright, step is animated, and often there’s a big tongue lolling out the side of her mouth and she looks like she’s “smiling”. This is a dog that knows heel, and loves it in spite of the fact that it means hold a position with an unnatural head posture and don’t move an inch without me.
Your 1st step is to make it clear and easy to assume the position. Thank you Michele Pouliot for popularizing standing platforms. I’ll never train a dog without them again. Suddenly, that mysterious rectangle of space that marks heel position(s) is something your dog can understand without extraneous body language lining them up and keeping them in position.
Step 2…Ok, let’s make this more informal and not a real “how to”, but rather a little conversation between you and me about what I think is really important to a dog. And that is movement. But please don’t mistake that for moving in heel as a starting point. Honestly, the movement of heel isn’t the kind of moving that is inherently motivating. But, you can capitalize on a dog’s love for movement elsewhere.
Let me explain using an example of a dog that knows how to stand in heel position(s), get into heel from any angle of approach, who knows the picture (without any props or targets), has value for being there (and I mean LOVES it) and can heel with some duration. I think it’s a really good idea to let your dog move and relieve the pressure of the self-control that is required for the dog to maintain heel. Enter Rally-FrEe/Freestyle foundation. There are a number of “transition” behaviors, like spin and leg weaves and circling around, that you can insert during heeling to allow the dog “let loose”. So, instead of having to stay at your side looking up at you, the dog can drop her head and race around you back into heel position once again. “Weeee!” Not only does this reward your dog with relief and diffuse some of the pressure, interestingly, it also energizes your dog. They return to heel with that brilliant energy and continue in that state while heeling.
Now, let me help you with a tip about what NOT to do. Don’t reward your working dog with the toy too often. I went overboard, because I was just playing and having fun while training. It’s also convenient for me to reward with a toy while out walking. Well, this of course creates anticipation of the toy, which can cause a dog to really get pushy and crowd you. It makes it too hard for your dog to maintain a lovely heel with certain dogs because they get so wound up for the toy. While some enthusiasm is good, and there are many dogs that need more when heeling, too much is detrimental and just makes it harder than it needs to be. I am so guilty of too much “enthusiasm”.
And it’s hard for me to fix this with this dog. When I click and feed Irie food now, there’s a post-reinforcement pause (that means that after swallowing the treat, she scans the area for a second before reconnecting with me). This isn’t a focus problem of the likes that my dog won’t pay attention. She only gaps for a second and comes right back to intense connection. I think this got built into the reward event because of the nature of possessing the toy. So, let that be another lesson of what NOT to do. Don’t let the dog possess the toy too often and consider hanging on to the tug instead (and using food more often, too).
Also, it appears that I stayed at approximately the same duration/distance with enough consistency that after we walk in sync for so many steps, she drops her head, Border Collie style, for a second, and comes right back. So, I’ve spent years goofing around with fixing various aspects of heel after starting off with lovely potential. I’ve by no means got it all figured out. But, I am happy to say, my dog has tremendous value for being in heel.
I see more people with the opposite problem where they don’t use the toy enough nor place it in the most constructive location upon delivery. Working with a toy as a reward changes the game for many dogs (not all dogs are into toys, but you can still use food in “play ways” that are much more exciting than handing the dog the food). I think it would be helpful to see some different ways to reward heel with a toy. So, I made you a video trying to demonstrate a few strategies for placement of the toy.
Last detail we should touch on is predictability of where the reward will be delivered and what it will be (toy/food). That’s a big topic on LSM (location specific markers) worth it’s own post.