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.
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.