Saturday, October 29, 2011


Earlier we talked about the potential payoffs if your dog is giving you excellent attention in the ring.  Then we turned our own attention to the physical and mental aspects of getting your dog locked in on you during heeling.  We talked about letting Bowser find his own most comfortable head position.

OK, you've got his head in a position that's most likely to help him succeed.  Now what are you going to do with it?  There are many ways to teach heeling.  I happen to be partial to a method called pinpoint heeling.  And since it's my blog, that's what we'll focus on.  So there!

No one in competition obedience today is more proficient at or more of a proponent of pinpoint heeling than Louise Meredith.  Louise credits Anne Marie Silverton with introducing the method.  I, in turn, credit Louise with introducing me -- first by example at shows, then at multiple seminars, but mostly through emails and patient evening telephone conversations.  Louise is as willing to help as she is to clean your clock in the ring.

What follows here is basically Louise's method with a few things I've modified to suit my style or because I'm too dumb to know any better.

Puppy Games 
Ideally I get my dogs when they are seven weeks old.  Because Bravo! is a rescue, he came to me at eight months.  I didn't know what to expect because I had missed some of the most crucial developmental stages. I was pleasantly surprised when both the bonding and learning curves went right through the roof.  But for the purposes of this post let's assume you're starting with a seven-week-old puppy.

I start the first day the puppy is in the house. I sit on the floor, usually in the kitchen, with my legs open and a treat plenty visible between my teeth. As I say, "Watch," I want the puppy to come right up my chest and get the food from between my teeth.  I help him figure this out by pointing to the treat with both index fingers.  That is the first step in letting him know good things happen when he's looking at me.

Let's distinguish between "watch" and "look."  I use "look" to get him to look at me when he's in heel position for the purpose of heeling.  I don't use "look" for anything else.  All other look-at-me commands are "watch."

Also on the very first day, I begin what Louise calls "little follow exercises."  The puppy isn't in heel position yet.  I'm usually backing up, holding the food way down, almost on the puppy's nose.  A few steps, then, "Get it!"

Once he has the idea and is following eagerly, I introduce big circles, little figure eights between my legs, left and right turns.  He has to become really good at these little moves before we progress to the next step.  Which is holding the treat in my left hand with the puppy on my left -- not in heel position yet, just on my left.  I have a decent-size treat between my thumb and index finger, and the food is still very close to his nose.

I hold that treat pretty close to what will become heel position, but at this point it's not about precision.  It's still about following -- in a straight line, large left and right circles, eventually wide left and right turns. At this point it's mostly about orienting the puppy to my left side and getting him thinking that's a great place to be.  Meanwhile, I'm saying, "Look!" and "Get it!'

This method is not for the impatient.  It's for the trainer who enjoys the journey as much as she relishes the destination (titles).  It's about what Bobbie Anderson refers to as "building blocks."  It's about putting together a solid foundation.  If your foundation isn't sound, somewhere down the road the whole thing is going to crumble -- certainly when you get to Utility, if not sooner.

So I take it slowly.  The puppy is on my left.  The food is between the fingertips of my left hand, and now I'm holding it in perfect heel position.  The puppy is following the food.  How well he's following it dictates how quickly I raise it, in tiny increments.  And we're not talking long strolls here.  In the beginning, two or three steps, head up, focused on the treat, then, "Get it!"  And, Louise says, "He has to jump to get the treat.  That, too, reminds him to keep his head up."

Up,up,up -- in small increments.  This takes a long time . . . months.  Eventually you're holding the treat at your belt.  I like to emphasize to students that the food moves up along the line of the seam of your pants.  The worst thing you can do is wave the treat around.  You may catch yourself with the treat following the dog instead of the dog following the treat. That's easy to do.  Don't!  Once you're past the early stages of "little follows," you're trying to get the dog to identify and like heel position.  That's not going to happen if you're waving the treat around.  To avoid that, I grasp the seam of my pants with the remaining fingers as I progress upward toward my belt.

Once the treat is at your belt and Fido is good at focusing on it, you're ready the next step, the attention stick.

Next;  The attention stick.


Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Attention comes from the head.  Your dog attends with his senses:  sight, hearing, smell.  Those senses bring into play the eyes, ears and nose; all located in the head. Which explains why, in competition obedience, so many of us are obsessed with head position.  Particularly as it relates to the heeling exercises.

Head position is all about the dog looking at you.  But dogs can appear to be looking at you while in reality not looking at you at all.  In From Here to Eternity, James Jones coined the term "the 2000-yard stare."  That's exactly what we're talking about here.  We've all seen or been the victim of the dog who, on the signal exercise, stands out there looking right through you.  You give the signal and Muffie doesn't even twitch.

Debby Boehm, my first instructor and now a close friend -- the person who took me and my Novice A dog Honeybear from intransigence (mine, not HB's) to an OTCH -- has a wonderful definition of real, honest attention.  Here it is:

There are two kinds of attention.  One where the dog is really part of the exercise.  He's with you, spirited, working, strong.  The two of you are connected.  Then there is the so-called "attention" where the dog is only going through the motions.  The two aren't the same.

Dynamic, involved attention finds the dog doing more than just looking at you.  He's with you, a fully committed member of the team.

In the second kind of attention, which boils down to faking it, the dog has learned that to avoid correction he puts his head up.  His eyes seem to be looking at you but his mind is glazed over.  He's going to give you the minimum he can get by with.  And that minimum is going to drop off when he goes into the ring.

With real attention, dog and handler are connected in such a way as to produce strength, and that strength finds its way into the dog's performance.  That real attention spawns dogs who seem to get larger in the ring as opposed to those who seem to shrivel up and say, "I'm worried, I'm scared.

So, assuming you have a dog who, because of want-to, is giving you spirited attention, does that translate into heeling posture where the dog's head is cranked up to true vertical?  Not necessarily.

I like a comment that Midwestern obedience handler Mike Schragel made one time:  "God, (some people) expect too much out of their dogs.  They're heeling their dogs.  The dog's head is straight up, the handler's head is down.  If there was a brick wall, they'd both walk into it."

Mike has a point.  After tinkering with head position for more than two decdes, I prefer that my dog adopts a comfortable head position.  "Comfortable."  Now there's an ambiguous word.  What does comfortable mean?  How can you tell what's comfortable for your dog?  Your dog can't tell you.

"Oh yes he can," Sandra Davis counters.

"I don't ask for more than a dog can give me," she says.  "Structure has something to do with it, the shoulders and the neck.

"I use Dianne Baumann's method," Sandra explains.  "I sit my dog next to me on the left side, in front of a mirror.  I talk to him and he looks up at me.  Wherever his head is when he's looking up as I talk, I figure that's the head position that's comfortable for him."

Makes sense to me.

OK, now we've established that the 2000-yard stare is not acceptable.  And we've come up with one pretty darn good way, I think, of determining optimal head position when heeling. Now what are we going to do with what we've learned to come up with pinpoint heeling?

Did I say pinpoint heeling?  Voila!  That's exactly what we'll talk about in the next several posts -- Pinpoint Heeling.


Friday, October 21, 2011


Every once in a while, at a trial or a match, I'll ask someone, "Do you know what the most interesting thing in the world is? "

The person will look bewildered, then reply, "No, I have no idea.  What is it?"

And my response is, "The most interesting thing in the world is whatever is right outside Bravo!"s ring."

My little rescue border collie is a gawker.

Right about now I hear you thinking, "But I thought border collies have been bred forever to lock on and not let go."

Yeah, but lock on to what?  That's the rub.  And I'll go you one better.  Bravo! is a product of Lock-Eye Kennels in Oklahoma.  Lock-Eye is his first name:  Lock-Eye Phantom of the Opera UDX2, OM2. And  Bravo! is quite capable of living up to his name.

At a park where we practice the group exercises with friends, there's a basketball court adjacent to where we place our line of dogs.  Often we set them up so that the basketball game is going on behind them.  I think Bravo! is a closet NBA fan.  On evenings when the lights are on and the game is going full blast, Bravo! will spend the entire long sit (we practice a four-minute sit) with his head swiveled all the way around, watching the action.  Nothing else moves; his feet stay planted as if they're anchored in cement.  Actually, that's one time when I welcome his gawking.  I believe boredom is a major contributor to dogs going down on the sit.  And as long as Bravo! thinks he's at the NBA finals, I'm pretty confident he won't decide to lie down.

So given that I have a problem that requires constant vigilance and reinforcement, I've given a lot of attention to attention.  Admittedly, some of it belatedly.  Along the way I've learned a few things (many of them the hard way) which I'll pass along in this and the next few posts.  We'll sort of meander around, but the common thread will be attention.

When we bring up the subject of attention in competition obedience, the knee-jerk reaction is to think about two exercises, heeling and signals.  But I've come to think that attention between exercises is equally as important.  Years ago, before I had matured in the sport enough to appreciate such words of wisdom, Louise Meredith told me:  "If you lose your dog between exercises, how can you set up for the next exercise?  If he's gawking around the ring, why is he going to be interested in doing a drop on recall?"

That was in 1999.  It took me a long time to assimilate that.  Early in Bravo!'s career he would wander around between exercises.  Near me, but not with me.  Usually sniffing.  But once I got him in position he was ready to go. A few people got on me about that.  My stock reply was, "Bravo! is like the major league pitcher who stays out and parties all night. Then he shows up for the game and pitches a no-hitter."

I wasn't kidding.  Bravo!'s mastery of the exercises is just that good . . . when he is focused.

I can't remember exactly when I attained enlightenment.  There must have been a critical incident that triggered an epiphany -- probably a day when we bombed and I knew darn well that lack of focus was the culprit.  Anyhow, I decided to take control between exercises.  And it was ridiculously easy.

I used the words "right here," put him on leash after every exercise for a few days, encouraged him to be at my side as we transitioned, at a rapid pace, from exercise to exercise -- and reinforced all this generously with treats.

It took only a few days for Bravo! to figure out that "right here" is a nice place to be.

Guess what.  Our performances in the obedience ring improved.  To say nothing of the impression we were making on judges.

And then there were the incredible -- yes, incredible, and that's an understatement -- results with the scent discrimination exercise.  Those of you who have been following this blog (breathlessly?) may remember my post of April 18.  Although Bravo! hasn't blown a scent article in competition for well over three years, he had reached a point earlier this year where his results in practice were increasingly erratic.  I knew the sword was hanging over my head.  In that April post I related how I had started demanding a perfect "watch me" while he sat at my side as I rubbed up the article.  Perfect focus.  I spoke of how the improvement was dramatic and instantaneous -- the very first day.

And now, as Paul Harvey would say, for the rest of the story.  The thing really took off and I decided to keep score to 1,000.  We recently completed that journey.  Our score:  998 out of 1,000.

This is not a brag.  It's a resounding testament to what a difference attention can make.

Next:  Attention Comes From The Head


Thursday, October 13, 2011


I am having a problem with people trying to communicate with me directly, and seeking a personal answer, via the comments section of this blog.  Despite the efforts of several people who have tried to help, I can't make the comments section work -- and neither can lots of other people.

However, I'm always glad to talk with dog training people, preferably by phone.  Here are two ways you can reach me directly:  or 602-942-6069 (and leave a message when is the best time to call you . . . wherever you are).


Friday, October 7, 2011


For all the background leading up to this last segment, be sure to review my posts of September 28, October 1 & 4.

Having beaten to death the process by which Phoenix's unique leash law -- an ordinance the AKC endorses as a model for other municipalities -- came to be, let's look at the guts of the law as it applies to dog sports training, and how that law is enforced.

The solution we came up with -- minus the pages of legalese that must appear in an ordinance -- can most clearly be explained by describing the field test.  That is, the steps a park ranger will follow when he comes upon a person with a dog off leash in a city park.

First he'll observe for a few minutes, probably while seated in his truck.  What's going on here?  How under control or out of control does the dog appear to be?

Then he'll approach the person and ask her to call her dog.  Fido must come immediately and directly -- not stopping to visit (harass?) someone or someone's dog.  If Fido comes promptly, fine.  If not, the ensuing steps in the field test won't be necessary.  The owner and the dog have flunked and are subject to a citation or at least a warning.

Assuming the dog has come promptly and directly, the ranger will then ask the owner to leash Fido.  The owner must produce a leash, no longer than six feet, which she is carrying on her person, not 50 yards away in her car.  No leash?  She just flunked.

The ranger will then ask what nationally recognized dog sport they are training for.  The examples listed in the Phoenix ordinance are conformation, obedience, rally obedience, freestyle obedience, agility, hunting or field trials, tracking, herding, service animal training, flyball, scent hurdling, lure coursing, and earthdog.  The ordinance specifically excludes protection or security work.  And just playing ball or throwing a frisbee won't hack it either.

Assuming the owner responds by naming a legitimate dog sport, the ranger will ask to see a title certificate from a nationally recognized dog sports organization.  If the person is training for but has not yet titled her dog in the sport she has named, the Canine Good Citizen certificate will suffice.

If the person has met all the requirements mentioned here, the ranger will tell her what a nice dog she has, wish them good luck in their sport and be on his way.

And with that, I'll be on my way.


Tuesday, October 4, 2011


For background on what follows here, please read my posts of  September 28 and  October 1.

My primary reason for posting these four articles about our pioneering leash law is to let the dog sports world know what it took to attain success.

I get phone calls.  Not a lot, but now and then.  The voice on the other end says something like, "Dr. Burch of the American Kennel Club referred me to you.  She said perhaps you could tell me how you got your city's leash law passed."

"I'd be happy to share that information with you," I respond.  Then, with bated breath, I wait for what I've come to expect next.  And more times than not I hear:

"We're scheduled to go before (and the person names their town or city council) tomorrow afternoon to make our presentation, and I'm hoping you can tell me what you said that got them to vote in your favor."

Oh my!

So for the benefit of those who'd like to follow in our footsteps, here's what made us successful.

We worked on it for three and one-half years.  Not by choice.  Internal matters in the parks department slowed us down by at least half of that period.  That was frustrating at the time.  In retrospect, though, it gave us plenty of time to get our ducks in a row, to rally all sorts of community support.

Right from day one we had the parks department championing our cause.  I can't emphasize strongly enough how important it was that almost every time we went before a decision-making group Scott Covey was in front of the room making the presentation.  Scott, the head park ranger, representing the firing line people who would be out in the field dealing hands-on with the law we were proposing.  Scott, tall, articulate, uniform starched and pressed, shoes shined -- very effective as our advocate.

And, of course, Sharon Brady, in the background helping plan our strategy.  When things got topsy-turvy in the parks department Sharon advised us to sit tight, ride it out.  Then one day she called to say, "Now's the time."  And it was.

We were able to rally important support.  Maricopa County Animal Care and Control's endorsement carried tremendous weight.  As did the support of the Arizona Humane Society and the 4-H clubs.  And the strong letter of support the American Kennel Club sent to the mayor was invaluable.  As were the communications from and the presence at various hearings of representatives of local dog clubs.

We put people in the seats.  At the final council subcommittee hearing -- where that committee could give our proposed ordinance a thumbs up and send it on to the full city council for a vote, or they could kill it -- we met in a city hall conference room that had a capacity of 30.  More than 50 of our supporters turned out.  Extra chairs were brought in.  Standees lined the walls.  (Thank God the fire marshal wasn't one of them.)  That had to have impressed the subcommittee. Later, my councilwoman said, "Great, Willard!  You packed the room."

We had effective people in our little steering group.  In addition to Scott and Sharon, we had Debby Boehm and Billie Rosen.

Debby was concerned that the decision-makers -- all the way from the parks board to the council members -- had no idea what legitimate dog sports training looked like.  So she put her special skills in photography and audiovisuals to work.  Her materials were used in various phases of the effort.  They were so professionally done that Scott told us he was integrating them into the park ranger training program.

And after we figured out what we wanted, Billie, the veteran prosecutor, drafted a proposed ordinance, the guts of which became part of what today is the unique law which the AKC holds up as a model for other cities to follow.

Finally, during the week before our date with destiny, I phoned every city council member to make sure they understood what we had done and why it would benefit the community.

We succeeded because of thorough preparation, well-thought-out strategy and diligent groundwork.

Next:  How the Phoenix leash law works.


Saturday, October 1, 2011


For the background on what follows, be sure and read my post of September 28.

Billie Rosen had spoken:  "Willard, get the law changed!"  And there was no disputing the fact that she was right.  For us to allow a law that effectively wiped out dog sports training in America's sixth largest city to sit unchallenged on the books would be rank dereliction.  Sooner or later that piece of ill-conceived legislation would come back to bite us.

So, for the umpteenth time I turned to my long-time go-to person in the parks department.  I had met Sharon Brady more than 15 years earlier when I was training Honeybear on the polo field at Paradise Valley Park.  Sharon was the recreation coordinator for the northeast district of the parks department.  The polo field was a favorite place for people to turn their dogs loose, and the night 17 basenjis descended on us was the last straw.  The next morning I called the northeast district office, which happened to be located in Paradise Valley Park.  I was referred to Sharon; she instantly understood the problem.  For several evenings she had a park ranger hide in the bushes adjacent to the polo field.  And ,of course, wouldn't you know, those were nights when not one off leash dog showed up.

Years later, when I was writing Remembering to Breathe, I called Sharon several times, asking her where in Phoenix city government I could go to find the answer to whatever point I was stuck on.  And each time Sharon knew the answer right off the top of her head.  I came to realize that Sharon had encyclopedic knowledge about everything in the parks department as well as most of Phoenix city government. 

(Sadly, as I write this, Sharon has recently retired and, with her family, move back "home" to Michigan.)

So after Billie, in no uncertain terms, had dispatched me to put a stake through the heart of the problem, I sought Sharon's advice about how to attack that problem.  She was instantly on board and convened a meeting.  I brought Billie and Debby Boehm.  Sharon invited Scott Covey, the head park ranger -- a master stroke.  A series of meetings ensued in the conference room at the northeast district office.

One of the major sticking points for the rangers and other law enforcement officers had always been how to distinguish the serious dog training person from the scofflaw who's out there playing with the dog off leash.  The scofflaws had long since learned to say, "Oh, I'm training my dog for obedience competrition."  And how was the ranger to know?

During an early meeting of our little group I happened to say that since the early days of Honeybear I had been carrying copies of my AKC title certificates in my van . . . just in case I had to justify my activities to a law enforcement officer.  And I left the meeting briefly to get the certificates out of my van so that Sharon and Scott could see them.

It immediately became obvious that title certificates could be a major component in identifying those who were actually training for the competition ring.  Great!  But what about the newbie, the person who was training a dog for Novice A?  That person had yet to title a dog and in all likelihood might have only two traffic cones in the area where she was training.

We adjourned that meeting stumped.  The next morning Sharon called me.  "Willard, are you familiar with something called Canine Good Citizen?" she asked.  She had been burning the midnight oil the night before, perusing the AKC website, and she had come upon the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) program.  We agreed that the CGC certificate might be acceptable for the entry level person training for the Novice A ring.

That got us into high gear.  By July Billie had drafted a proposed new ordinance and sent it to the legal department of the City of Phoenix.  Shortly thereafter, for reasons I've long since forgotten, I had reason to call Marvin Sondag, the city attorney who had drafted the draconian law that had been passed under the cover of darkness.  Here I was, the guy who was leading the charge to get his handiwork overturned.  I figured I'd get my head bitten off. 

Instead, Marvin said, "Willard, when I drafted that ordinance, I had no idea you folks even existed."  (Yep, sports fans, that's one of the purposes of the public hearings that never took place.)  Then, laughing, he added, " I even caught our own police department in that net.  They train their dogs in city parks.  Boy did I hear about that!"

From the April evening when I heard about the February 11, 2004 hijinks of Phoenix City Council until we made our final (successful!) presentation to that same council in October 2007, three and one-half years passed.  Nothing happens quickly in municipal government . . . that was one of the lessons I learned as a neophyte in city politics.

Illness at the highest level in the parks department, followed by an interim director, followed by a search process, followed by a settling in period for a new director cost us more than half of that period.  Then we went before the parks board twice (and got their endorsement), and we met with and received approval from two subcommittees of the Phoenix City Council. In the interim I worked hard to line up support.

As soon as it was decided to have Canine Good Citizen play a role in the new law, I called Dr. Mary Burch, director of AKC's CGC program.  She was delighted to learn about our effort.  Soon thereafter she got back to us with AKC's full endorsement of our proposed ordinance.  Further, she told us that, if the ordinance passed, the AKC would like to use it as a model for dealing with offleash training challenges in other municipalities.

As we proceeded, I sought and got the enthusiastic support of the major breed clubs, Jumping Chollas Agility Club, the Arizona Humane Society, 4-H, and, importantly, Maricopa County Animal Care and Control.  Importantly because, by agreement with the City of Phoenix, they enforce off of Phoenix's animal-related ordinances -- and Maricopa is one of the largest counties in the United States.

The only group to totally ignore the whole thing was  the board of the Phoenix Field & Obedience Club. Never mind that PFOC's dues-paying members -- some 250, many of them active in dog sports -- were the most vulnerable if the then-current ordinance stayed on the books.  PFOC's dereliction in that instance was not at all out of character.

On October 3, 2007, with our supporters more than 50 strong in council chambers, Phoenix City Council passed our measure with only one dissenting vote.  Afterwards, outside council chambers, I did several newspaper and TV interviews.  Later that evening, at the request of KTVK-TV, Bravo! and I did a competition obedience demo in Moon Valley Park.  And Bravo! became the first dog in nearly four years to train legally in a Phoenix city park.

Next:  Why we succeeded.