Monday, March 11, 2013

BRINGING UP PRESTO! Pinpoint Heeling: What Was I Thinking?

If you are a devotee of Pinpoint Heeling or fully understand the steps, what follows may interest you, might even elicit a chuckle.  If the concept of Pinpoint Heeling is new to you, check out a series of posts -- called "Attention, Attention, Attention"  -- which I wrote in October/November 2011.  You can access those earlier posts by clicking on Blog Archive at the right of your screen.

OK, I've had it with my little monster stealing the treats off my armband.  So, several months earlier than I had planned, I've turned the stick (now hardly more than a nub) inward.  Now the treat is under my arm, and now the little thief gets it on my terms instead of his.  I mean, Presto! is a jumper to be reckoned with.  I'm 6' 5" and he can easily -- easily! -- leap from a sitting position and grab my nose.  And does.

It was with much trepidation that I turned the stick inward much sooner than I had planned.  Pinpoint Heeling, after all, is a process.  I think of it as maybe an 18-month process.  Maybe even longer to get the pinpoint in the heeling.  Shortcut it and you're risking a disappointing outcome. 

Uninitiated observers have no idea.  Late in the process, when the stick and the armband and the treat become obvious, people see my dog or my students' dogs heeling with their heads up, focused on the armband.  That's when they begin to hyperventilate.  Oh my!  All they need is to get one of those things, slap it on their left arm, take off with Fluffy and attain heeling nirvana.  Except it doesn't work that way.

They approach me:  "Can you tell me where to get one of those (magical) things?"  I've counseled with a few of them, to no avail;.  I can tell by the bulgingness of their eyeballs that they want me to shut up and give them the email address.  I have yet to see one of those mouth-breathers get a lick of good out of their quick fix.

It's a process!  And I had anxiety about short-circuiting it.  But darn it, the little hooligan was stealing me blind.

Which set me to thinking about what clutters our focus along the way.

On day one, ideally at seven weeks -- eight weeks if the puppy has arrived by commercial air carrier -- I'm holding a treat low in front of me, in both hands, and I'm backing up as the puppy follows the treat.  Soon we'll do circles and little figure eights around my legs.  At this point all the puppy has to do is follow the treat.  What am I thinking?  Cute! Cute! Cute!

By and by I swing him around to my left side.  Now the treat is in my left hand and I'm holding it about a quarter inch above his nose.  This isn't about heel position.  It's still about what Louise Meredith, the doyenne of this method, calls, "little follow exercises."  At this point the objective is for the puppy to be fixated on the treat, learning to follow it, but in the same zip code, that's all.  That doesn't require much thought on my part, except Cute! Cute! Cute!

Sometime later I begin to encourage my puppy to remain in heel position.  Suddenly I've hit a stage where it's easy, almost natural, to screw up.  I know that if I want my little guy to begin to identify heel position I must not let my left hand drift, I must not wave the food around.  That's harder than it might seem..  Particularly as I want my little guy to succeed and the natural tendency is to take the treat to his nose rather than insist he come to it .

So if I've been impressed with the importance of keeping the treat even with the seam of my pants, perhaps aided by grasping my pants with tha last two fingers of my left hand, where's my focus? On me.  On that hand and arm.  Concentrating on corraling that wandering treat.

And so it goes as I slowly -- we're talking several weeks at least -- raise the treat to belt level.  Once the treat is well established at belt level and Fluffy is focused on it, now's the time for the stealing circus to begin -- assuming the dog is prone to snatching the treat, and many are not.

Now I'm going to place the treat on the slightly beveled end of a seven-inch stick.  I hold the stick in my right hand, across my body.  My wrist rests firmly against my body, just above the belt.  As long as my wrist is securely in place, the treat is right where I want it, in heel position.  AND hanging out there unprotected, begging the dog to steal it.  In my world, the more Presto! tries to steal the treat the happier I am (to a point).  I know he's watching it and I know he has pizzazz.

What I want to happen is when the dog is heeling head up in perfect position I say, "Get it!"  Presto! jumps for the treat and I break him out.

I've worked with dogs who were hell-bent to filch that treat (and others who had to be coaxed to get it).  Remember, the stick is in the right hand.  That leaves the left hand free to fend off the little thief . . . if you're vigilant and quick enough.

Vigilant.  Ah, there's the rub.  Webster defines vigilant as "watchful and alert, especially to guard against danger, difficulties or errors."  Yep!  He knew about the treat hanging out there on the stick.

So now what am I thinking?  Is my focus on keeping Presto! in perfect heel position, reinforcing at just the right moment?  God no!  Every fiber of my being is on high alert, trying to keep that coiled-spring animal from snatching his reward on his terms.  Heel position, schmeel position, I'm focused on keeping the little stinker from stealing me blind.  And on remembering to breathe.

Several weeks pass.  Enough!  I'll show him!  I'll move the treat up to my armband, that's what I'll do.
What a joke!  This spectacular leaper could steal the treat if I placed it on top of my head.  Same drill.  I'm in protection mode.  I lurch along, appearing for all the world as if I have St. Vitus Dance as I recoil from each upward thrust of my little "Jaws."

It's true that I can hold my left hand out, palm down, just above Presto!'s head, thereby cutting down on the number of steals.  Notice that I didn't say eliminating them.  Let's see, the treat is on the stick so that my dog can focus on it.  And stay in heel position.  Right?  Now, in extreme defensive mode, my hand is fending off my plundering dog (sort of) . . . and blocking his view of the treat.  Unless he forges and looks back to see it.

 And what am I thinking now?  Well, beyond words that are bluer than the language in a hockey team's dressing room I'm focused a lot on having my hand out there, prepared to counter the next assault.  And occasionally contemplating a main course I might call Presto! stroganoff.  But darn little about putting the pinpoint in Pinpoint Heeling.

This goes on for a number of weeks.  Finally we reach the breaking point.  Process,schmocess!  I turn the stick around so the treat is securely under my arm.

Instant change!

Somewhat to my surprise, it's working. Why?  Because for the first time with this dog I'm focused on heeling, on the precision that Pinpoint Heeling implies.  I'm thinking about where Presto! is . . . in the horizontal plane, not the vertical plane.  On where exactly he is in relation to the perfect picture of the perfectly heeling dog.  I'm acutely aware of his head position, most importantly if and when he drops it, and I'm hair-trigger ready to correct when that happens.  As well as to give him the treat on my schedule.

For the first time in this process my mind isn't captive to the many physical challenges that inevitably creep into -- no, dominate -- our attention as we progress through the stages of Pinpoint Heeling.

Life is good.

I'm totally sold on Pinpoint Heeling as a way to teach heeling.  But sometimes ya hafta do what ya hafta do.  And sometimes it works.


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