I'm slew-footed. If I'm facing due north, my left foot is pointed northwest. That's just the way it is. It runs in my family.
In grade school, one of my classmates did a takeoff on it. "Here you come, " he said. And he walked with his left foot ridiculously angled to the left. Next, "Here comes your mother." Same comical walk. Finally, "Here comes your grandmother." Hilarious. And spot on.
I grew up and eventually got into dog obedience competition . . . where the dog heels on your left. (You see it coming, don't you?)
Early in my obedience career I took my Novice A dog Honeybear to Chatsworth, California (Los Angeles area) for a lesson from Karen Price, quite possibly the top trainer in America at that time. And a super-nice person. Karen commented on the disruptive role my left foot was playing as we heeled. Once we established that I couldn't do a darn thing about it, she told me that her husband Lenny was slew-footed, too. She added that it's common in Jewish men. I think it's kind of neat that I'm featuring a little piece of diversity at the south end of my left leg.
When we got home, Honeybear and I posed in the backyard for a photo. In the picture, Honeybear is seated in heel position. I'm standing with my heels together, both toes pointing straight out at 45-degree angles. I captioned the photo and mailed it to Karen. The caption reads, "Ready!"
It was Debby Boehm who first discovered that my dogs, especially Bebop my first border collie, learned to maintain heel position by jumping over my left foot. (Given Bebop's penchant for forging, I have to think he was jumping my left foot with his hind legs.)
Suffice it to say, across the years my slew-footedness has been a conversation starter, laced with a lot of yuks
Fast forward to the present. My border collie Bravo! has been a really nice heeling dog. Two years ago at the Yuma shows he stormed through three consecutive rings without losing so much as a half point on the heeling portion of any exercise.
But later we began regularly to get scores of 195.5 in the B classes, accompanied by losses of 3.5 points on the heel-free and signal exercises. I was constantly exclaiming, "Think what our score would have been had we not lost all those points on the heeling!" But I didn't seem to be able to fix it.
Enter Geri Zuckerman. She's been showing Portugese water dogs in obedience for as long as I can remember. Geri is a certified public accountant who lives in La Jolla, California. I see her when we show in Southern California and occasionally when she shows in Arizona. If we were to play word association and you were to say, "Geri Zuckerman," the words that would pop into my mind would be "quiet, genteel, very much a lady."
Last November we showed in the obedience trials of Phoenix Field & Obedience Club. As usual, we featured our 195.5/3.5 runs. Geri was there and was seated at ringside on Sunday when Bravo! and I were in the ring.
When we got home, Barbara said, "That lady who was sitting next to me watching you and Bravo! in Open B made some interesting comments about your heeling." I knew she was referring to Geri. My wife told me a little bit more about what had been said. It whetted my appetite. I wanted to hear the whole thing, directly from the source. So I called Geri.
Early in the conversation she was quite reticent. I think she was embarrassed, afraid she might insult me or hurt my feelings. She assured me that, "I couldn't possibly ever compete with you guys," meaning those of us in the B classes who were rabidly chasing OTCHs. She also emphasized that she would never dream of trying to tell me anything about how to heel my dog. (Which is exactly what I wanted her to do.)
After I finally convinced her that I really wanted to hear what she had seen and commented on to Barbara, she opened up.
In a nutshell, she told me that my left foot seldom came down in the same place when we heeled. With the result that, "Your poor little dog is trying so hard to figure out where to be." That made sense. Several judges have told me that while Bravo! neither forged nor lagged in their rings he kept drifting in and out as we heeled.
Geri suggested I find a parking lot with white lines and practice by myself, heeling alongside that line, making sure my left foot always landed on the line.
There was a corollary to that. Ever since I was a newbie, learning to heel with my first dog, it's been pointed out to me, ad nauseam, that when I halt I step into my dog. I've explained to people that I carry the stepping-in gene.
Geri was quite timid about all that she had to offer that evening, but she was also quite helpful. The next morning found me on a soccer field, heeling by myself along the white lines.
Those lines were fine for starters, but they wouldn't always be there. My solution had to be self-contained and portable. So I began practicing heeling with my left ankle brushing (sometimes whacking) my right ankle with each step.
The biggest problem I've had so far has been forgetting my "touch" as soon as I step into the ring. The judge says, "Forward," and I blitz out. Touching my ankles is the farthest thing from my mind. Generally I think about it again halfway through the heeling pattern. (Do they make an electric collar for handlers?)
Nevertheless, something good is happening. Beyond tattered pants cuffs and scraped ankles, we're suddenly back to losing only a point or so on the heeling exercises. And shortly after I began abusing my ankles we won two important Utility B classes.
Sometimes help comes when and where you least expect it. Thank you, Geri Zuckerman.