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.