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The Relevance of Heeling

Sep 07, 2023

As straightforward as heeling may appear, it encompasses underlying skills that often go unnoticed. When observed from an outsider's perspective, it seems like a matter of technical proficiency: holding a treat above your dog's head and taking a few steps and turns. However, training a focused heel, a center heel, a contact heel, or other variations involves intricate details.

My golden rule is this: when you reward, consider it the conclusion of that specific exercise. Even if your dog maintains the heel position after the reward, resisting the urge to continue is crucial; you must release.

Focused heeling is essentially a fabricated behavior—it's unnatural for a dog to perform. Dogs naturally want to break out of that position, even if they seem to enjoy performing it. You won't find wild dogs doing focused heeling; it's something they do because they strongly believe that something rewarding will come their way. It's essential to avoid immediately continuing after a reward; always allow a few seconds for a reset.

This means that after rewarding, your dog is free, right? Now, you can place them back in the heel position. That's one command. If you liked it, you can reward that too, creating another reset. You can call your dog back to your side, start heeling again, introduce slight variations, reward, and release once more. This approach builds momentum and energy, making the dog feel good about it while resetting their focus each time.

Many people ask me why I prefer heeling in reverse. If you've observed high-level competition trainers, you'll notice that many practice heeling with a "down in motion" while walking backward, so the dog faces them while moving forward. Suddenly, they reward. This change in the handler's movement confuses the dog and minimizes their anticipation, allowing the handler to have better control over the dog's movement during motion.

In dog training, less is not always more; more is often better. Dogs thrive on variety, combinations, and different styles. The smarter and more high-energy your dog, the more they need this variety.

Anticipation can be a double-edged sword. It's great when your dog anticipates your commands correctly, but if they anticipate prematurely, it can disrupt your training. Be vigilant and maintain control.

So, when should you reward again? Pay attention to your dog's energy level. Only reward when you see a surge in energy or when their technique is nearly flawless. Get "greedy" when you witness strong, sustained performance over a few seconds—two, five, or even ten seconds.

I'd also like to address the topic of pivots. This is one of the most challenging technical aspects of dog training. You have the basics of straight-line heeling and the more complex maneuvers like turns and pivots. Unfortunately, I often see handlers attempting pivots prematurely. If you're serious about breaking down exercises and seeking perfection, you should train heeling in a straight line and pivot separately. Combine these two tasks only when your dog is ready for the added complexity.

For more in-depth insights into heeling, consider exploring my Heeling Styles course, where you can learn up to twelve heeling styles, all approached with the same precision and attention to detail.