The Twelve-Step Program to Better Heeling
If you go to any performance obedience seminar, the problem at the top of most participants’ wish list is heeling. Unfortunately, I don’t think there are any quick fixes in heeling. But the underlying problem is usually inattention and incomplete information, and it isn’t always just the dog that is inattentive at a critical time.
My feeling about heelwork is this: The dog must understand exactly what his target is, and it must be a viable target in the ring as well as in training. He must understand when he is to focus on that target, so there must be an on switch, such as “ready” and “heel”. He must understand (eventually!) that if the on switch has been activated, he must try to keep his focus on his target and move with it until he has been released. Handler and dog must agree that EVERY step in a heel pattern is important.
In order for that to happen, the dog must know some cues that can keep him informed that he is either correct, doing a good job and should keep working, or that he is wrong and needs to change his choice of behavior. In order for him to attend to this task, the motivation must be high in initial steps so that it builds drive and commitment to the task. In some cases, eventually a penalty for failure may be necessary .
In my working vocabulary with my dogs, “Yes” means, “You’ve done it! Here comes your reward!” “Good” means, “So far so good, keep working. The ‘Yes’ will likely happen soon!” “No” means “NO, that’s not right.” It is usually followed by a directive command, and no progress happens until the dog has repositioned himself and is good again. This may be accompanied by some very mild collar pressure in the direction the dog needs to move, which is released as soon as he is back in position. The tone of the “No” varies depending on the dog’s effort. If he’s focused and forged or wide, it’s calm, more disappointed than aggravated. If he’s inattentive and sniffing, the delivery is sterner and more dramatic, but the voice will instantly return to calm and inviting when the dog is attentive and making an effort to correct himself.
There are rules about the rewards, particularly in heeling during early and remedial training. They will only be delivered exactly in heel position from my left hand. The dog should not jump, lean, twist, forge or otherwise offer acrobatics to speed up access. If he cheats, the reward will be withheld until the dog is back in correct position.
The purpose of this program is to systematically expand your dog’s ability to recognize his heel target, keep his focus on it, AND walk in heel position at the same time. There are 12 progressions, and in each progression the 12 literal steps you take is a number chosen because 12 is a number easily dividable into expanding increments, and 12 steps by themselves represent a significant distance. For a dog that is actually pretty darned good at attention, you may do all twelve progressions in any one session, and use the program simply to keep your dog sharp and exact.
However, if you are teaching a young busy body dog, or rehabilitating a dog who heels poorly, you may only get through Steps 1 through 3 during your first week. Add Steps 4 through 6 during the second week, but be sure to also end your sessions with Steps 11 and 12.
Understand that the progression is designed so that in every session, you build momentum and confidence, then stretch your dog’s abilities to maintain his focus for more steps so he learns from challenge, and then end your session with challenge reduction so you end your session with a very happy and confident dog. He should be still excited and happy about the activity when you end. However, if your dog drops attention during any of these steps, you should tell him “No” and insist that he target correctly before continuing.
I use hand targeting to teach my dogs to heel, so the directions assume that the dog knows how to hit a flat hand when it is presented as illustrated below, and knows not to touch it when it is closed or held against my body. My dog also understands that hitting the target is mandatory, and that failure to hit it will result in mild but sustained collar pressure that only goes away when he hits the target. This was taught by applying forward collar pressure with a leash in my right hand, and then presenting the loaded target hand in front of the dog, and releasing the pressure when he hit the hand and got the treat.
If you use your face as a target, the behavior you look for is eye contact. (But consider here if perhaps you need to refocus your dog, since many folks cannot keep their faces in the places the dogs are used to seeing in training once they hit the ring. That is one reason that dogs who have been taught to heel to eye contact fail; their targets disappear in the ring!) If you use an armband as a target, you might consider teaching the dog to touch it on command, but you will have to bend your knees to get it down to the dog’s level.
The dog sees the hand target being presented, and then he touches it with his nose.
For continuity, I recommend that you use a long strand of string cheese for this, so you can hold just one thing in your hand, allow the dog to nibble a small bit for each reward, and be able to take the next step without moving your left hand away from correct heel position. If you must use some other kind of food, either keep it in your left pocket so you can get it with your left hand and keep the dog's eyes in the correct zone; or glue your left hand to your left hip line and bring your right hand all the way over to reload the left hand.
To see a video on hand targeting and heeling, use this link: http://youtu.be/BP6tDTPVuis
While your are there, you will find the video on collar pressure as a correction helpful, too.
Phase One of the program motivates and teaches the dog to move with attention on his target. It is a reward-rich interval of training which is easy for most dogs, lots of fun, but requires the handler to be very focused and exercise quite a lot of dexterity in the frequent presentation of the hand target and rewards.
Here are the steps:
Step 1: With the dog in heel position, and several treats or a longish string of cheese in your left hand, held exactly on your heel line, say, “Ready”. When the dog looks at you, say heel and SLOWLY take one step. Freeze ( your feet should be apart in mid stride, not together as for a halt), present your target, say, “yes” when the dog hits it and deliver a bite. Take another step, present the target, say, “yes” and reward when the dog makes contact. Repeat for all twelve steps. REMEMBER THAT THE DOG MUST MAKE CONTACT when you cue a hand target. Repeat this one step/ one touch/ one reward sequence for all twelve steps two or three times, until the dog is clearly having the time of his life and is pushing you for the next step and treat.
Step 2: Set up as above. Say, “Ready,” and “heel” as you take one slow step. Tell the dog “good” and take another step. Present your target on step 2, say, “yes” and deliver the reward. Let the dog swallow, tell him to heel and take two more steps, telling him good on the first one, and presenting the target and a “yes” and reward delivery on the second step. Repeat the two-step sequence 6 times in a row to complete the twelve-step count. Remember to keep the left hand on the correct heel line at all times! When you must reload, either get it out of a left sided pocket, or bring the right hand all the way over to your left side to make the transfer.
Step 3: For all further steps, set up as in Step 1. For this step, the sequence is “Ready -> Heel->step 1 “good”-> step 2 “good” -> step 3 present target,” yes” and deliver. Repeat sequence 4 times to 12-step total.
Now we enter Phase Two, and you will see "targeting optional". In these steps we aim to reduce the number of target touches per 12 step sequence, but maintain the dog's focus on every step. If you are uncertain of your dog's focus at any time, cueing the target touch is how you ask him if he is really working. If he is, he will touch. If not, he'll miss it, and you'll know you should back down the progression of steps between target touches, and may need to start correcting targeting failures.
Step 4: For this step, the sequence is: Ready ->Heel->step 1 "good" (no target) -> step 2 present target / "good" (no reward) -> step 3 "good" (target touch optional) -> step 4 present target / "yes" / reward. Repeat sequence three times to complete 12 step cycle.
Step 5: "Ready, heel" -> 2 silent steps with optional targeting ->step 3 present target with "good" marker ->4th step "good" -> 5th step target / "yes" /reward -> 6th and 7th steps silent ->8th step "good", target optional ->9th step target / "good" -> 10th step target / "yes"/ reward ->11th step "good" -> 12th step target / "yes"/ reward.
Step 6: This sequence can be done a bit faster so long as the dog remains attentive. "Ready, heel" -> Steps 1, 2 & 3 silent ->step 4 "good" -> 5th step silent ->6th step target / "yes" / reward. Repeat twice per cycle.
Step 7: "Ready, heel" ->Steps 1 & 2 silent -> 3rd step "good" -> 4th & 5th steps silent ->6th step target / "yes"/ reward ->steps 7 & 8 silent -> 9th step "good" -> 10th step silent ->11th step "good" -> 12th step target / "yes" / reward.
(Remember that this and the next stage are major stretches in attention endurance for some dogs, so be prepared to say, “No!” and freeze at any time that the dog drops focus. Get him back by presenting the target and insisting on a touch. Praise for the return of focus, but hold on to the yes and reward for the sustained focus you’re shooting for. If you try three times and can’t finish the sequence without the dog dropping focus, then revert to earlier stages.)”
Now we begin the proofing phase. Set up a line of 12 distractions , choosing objects such as small plastic containers that you could easily nudge or kick away to your right to create a distraction. Practice without the dog first, so you can kick a distraction, use your hand target, and then take a step without having to think too hard about the motor skills. If you have help available, ask the assistant to pretend to be a judge and move along with you as you work.
For Step 8, you will revert to targeting and rewarding on every step with food in the target hand at all times; but you will also have a distraction on every step.
Step 8: Activate a distraction yourself, or have your helper speak (NOT the dog's name, please!) or move. It's okay for the dog to look; but when you say, "Ready", the dog must look back. If he doesn't, race away, hanging on to your leash handle so he may get a correction if he doesn't see you go, but it will happen when he is well away from heel position. Praise when he catches up and try again. If he pays attention this time, take one step, target / "yes" / reward. Activate the second distraction as you take your next step, target / "yes" / reward. Repeat for all twelve distractions, and keep working the sequence until the dog ignores the distractions. That could be three sequences, or it might be several days of work, depending on the dog. Listen to the dog. If he cannot resist distractions when you have food in the target hand and are delivering it on every step, he is NOT ready to progress to the next step.
Step 9: This is a reprise of Step 3, except you are activating distractions as you did in Step 8 for each step. If your dog drops attention on the non-targeted steps, do the target to remind him that attention is not optional. Activate distraction 1, “Ready -> Heel->step 1 “good”-> distraction, step 2 “good” -> distraction, step 3 present target,” yes” and deliver. Repeat sequence 4 times to 12-step total. Stick with this sequence until the dog ignores the distractions and successfully completes the sequence easily.
In this final proofing phase, the dog must learn that he is required to hit his hand target when it is presented even when it does NOT have food in it. This takes him past the tricks-for-treats mindset and clarifies the task of heeling. The dog should have some experience OUT of heel position moving away from food in your right hand to hit your left hand when presented as a target.
Step 10: Remove distractions. Tie your leash to your belt so it is in reach if you need it to apply collar pressure. Hold 12 pieces of food in your right hand. "Ready, heel" ->step 1, target empty left hand / "yes" / shift treat to left hand by bringing right hand across to the left hand which is kept in heel position, and reward the dog. Repeat for 12 steps. If the dog refuses to target, close the target hand, pick up the leash with your right hand, apply pressure, and then present the target again. Reward when you have compliance.
Step 11: For this step, you will require the dog to target on every step, but you will increase the number of steps the dog must take and target correctly before you shift and deliver the reward. For example, "Heel" -> step, target / good -> step, target / "yes" / reward shift to left hand and deliver -> 2 more steps with target / "good" -> 2 steps with targets / "yes"/ reward shift and deliver -> 3 more steps done silently but with target touches. You may adjust the number of target touches you require and ho many you choose to reward in a 12 step st and build up speed, so long as your dog remains attentive to each and every step. Your target should be presented proactively often enough to motivate continuous focus; but certainly present your target and enforce the touch if your dog drops attention.
Step 12: Now bring back the distractions. Require a target touch on each step, but only reward at the end of your twelve step cycle. Correct as needed for failure to target touch. This will be a routine part of your regular heeling training designed to remind your dog what his job is, and keep him strong at resisting distractions.
BE PATIENT with both team members. If you can’t deal comfortably with the changes in step counts, don’t be in a hurry. Work on step 1 until the dog is great, and you are very comfortable with the target and reward process. Then rehearse step 2 without the dog until you are solid on the sequence and can count it off. Then work with the dog. You may well find that sticking with step 1 for 10 repetitions for three days, and then adding 10 repetitions of step 2 for another three days totally turns your heeling around.
When in doubt, get yourself out by doing one sequence of targets and rewards every 2 steps so that you and the dog end on a cooperative note.
Please be aware that your dog will improve attention and motivation very quickly when you begin this program because of the frequency of reward and constant presence of the food in your target hand . However he is NOT ring ready if he only gives you that attention when you have food in your hand! You have to make sure that he CAN heel for twelve steps with focus, and then you have to go back and work the progressions of target touches WITHOUT food on you. He has to be able to stay focused on the target while he moves past food, or beside food being held by somebody else. This helps the dog understand that heeling under and touching the target is the job, and food is a reward for doing the job.
(Originally published in Front and Finish, The Dog Trainers News. But there are some modifications in this version.)