“Fuss!” she commanded. The dog snapped his head up, staring at her with intensity and moving into the perfect heel position with her word.
With one calculated move, she began to walk, her determination growing more apparent with every step she took. Gleefully, the dog followed, keeping time with her movements and waiting (impatiently) for his reward.
They looked spectacular. But about 20 paces in, things began to go awry.
Drifting his rear end out, his head pulling hard across his handler’s body, the dog’s position began to falter. It was slight at first but with every step she took, the dog’s position became more crooked, his rear end swinging wider and wider until he was nearly perpendicular to her.
She corrected his position, and with her help, the dog tucked his rear end in, walking straight again in that perfect, prancey Focused Heel. But after a few moments, the dog began to drift once more, finding that crooked position he seemed to favor, and frustrating his handler as he did.
“Remember gravitational pull,” I coached. She looked at me and smiled, a lightbulb going off in her head. She knew what I meant. Adjusting her body position and reward, she moved again, this time her dog holding position perfectly, her grin spreading with the dog’s success.
Now, you may be scratching your head at the mention of gravitational pull. You may be thinking, “Ok, Meagan’s letting her inner nerd fly and she’s not making any sense.”
But just hear me out on this one.
In Physics, according to the Free Dictionary, gravitational pull is defined as “The natural phenomenon of attraction between physical objects with mass or energy.” It is “the act or process of moving under the influence of this attraction.”
In dog training, it’s not really gravity that’s causing an attraction. But it’s helpful to think of it that way.
In relation to dog training therefore, we’ll redefine this pull to be “the natural phenomenon of attraction between your dog and their reward.” It is “the act or process of YOUR DOG moving under the influence of their attraction for the reward.”
When you use rewards in your training, your dog, no matter what you are doing, is constantly being sucked into the vortex of their drive for the reward. They are being pulled towards it. They can’t help it.
The more driven your dog is for their reward, the stronger the effects of the reward’s gravitational pull.
Don’t believe me? Ask your dog for a basic command such as sit while holding their favorite reward to the left of their head, a few feet from their face. When they sit, release them to grab the prize that’s in your hand. Repeat this a few times and see if your dog doesn’t start to inch closer and closer to the reward with every repetition, or at least start to sit crooked. (Don’t play if you’ve already proofed for this – that’s cheating!).
Now let’s think of gravitational pull in terms of training an advanced behavior – in this case the Focused Heel.
Let’s look at a few examples.
Handler A, we’ll call her Sally, has laid the foundation of her Focused Heel. She holds her trusty tug toy in her right hand, her dog prancing happily on her left. Her dog LOVES his tug and as a result, the gravitational pull of that reward is strong. As the two move, he is pulled towards that reward. She starts her routine out beautifully. But after a while, the attraction of the toy becomes intense and now the dog begins to forge and swing his rear wide, the pull of the reward making him walk crooked next to his handler.
How about Handler B? We’ll call him John. John has also been teaching the Focused Heel. His dog LOVES the ball so he’s chosen that as his reward. He holds the ball under his arm, tucked in his armpit, encouraging his dog to remain focused on the prize. The dog heels well but as time passes John’s dog too begins to falter. He begins walking wide, moving from a tight Focused heel to drifting further and further away from his handler. As he does this, he starts to lag. As John realizes he’s losing his perfect picture, he encourages the dog back into position, captures the moment that he finds it, and then tosses the ball back behind him as a reward.
Or what about Handler C. We’ll call her Meagan (because yep, this one’s about me). Meagan is working with her Malinois. She’s holding his toy on the outside of his head. But he’s smart. He knows her tells. He pays attention to everything she does. And he WANTS that toy.
He’s got her all figured out.
20 paces forward, slow, slight smile, drop reward.
Wash, Rinse, Repeat.
Geez. She’s so predictable.
So as she cues with her slight slow and smile (which she didn’t even know she was doing and only realized it after a spotter pointed it out) he begins to drift. Instead of swinging his rear wide, like so many do, he’s pulled into the gravitational field of the toy tempting him on the outside of his head. The toy for which he is so intensely driven. As a result, his rear tucks back behind her, his anticipation for the toy’s release building with every step.
In all three of the scenarios, the handlers were fighting the gravitational pull of the reward.
In Sally’s case, with the reward in her right hand, the dog begin to pull towards it. As he did, he began to walk crooked, swinging his rear wide as his nose drifted forward, closer and closer to the reward.
John’s dog too found himself faltering due to the gravitational pull of the toy. In this case, the toy was tucked under John’s arm, perfectly placed so that the dog was pulled upwards, exactly where he wanted him. But it was the release of the toy that got John into trouble. The dog was being pulled by the anticipation for the release, which John predictably threw back behind him. In no time, getting wise to his tells, the dog began to lag in anticipation of chasing his ball.
And of course, my own dog, who recognized the cues I didn’t even know I was giving and began to anticipate his release to the reward, which I held just on the outside of his head.
If you are using rewards in your training and you have a driven dog, you need to be aware of the gravitational pull those rewards have on your particular dog. This is especially true when teaching complex and precise behaviors like the Focused Heel.
Ask yourself this:
Where do you keep your reward while you are heeling and how does your dog access the reward?
When released, do they move across your body to grab a toy from your right hand? Do they race out in front of you to chase a ball you’ve thrown? Do they spin in towards you as you produce a toy from behind your back?
Then, think about which direction that reward is pulling your dog. Where your dog’s head goes, the body will follow so imagine a line drawn from your dog’s nose to the reward, representing the path your dog needs to travel to get to their prize. This line is the pull your reward has on your dog.
(And just a quick note, if the reward is visible, it will have a stronger pull than a toy that’s tucked away in your pocket.)
By understanding the effects of your reward’s gravitational pull, you can begin to play around with your reward delivery and placement to straighten your wayward dog out.
Got a dog that lags? Toss a ball out in front of you on release for a few repetitions. I bet they start to speed up.
Or have a dog that walks crooked, swinging their rear wide? Try putting the reward on the outside of their head to help straighten them out.
Get creative and be strategic and you can start using your reward delivery for good instead of evil.
Just one word of caution for those who want to play around with these concepts.
While you can absolutely change your reward delivery to start problem-solving your work, you should understand that the development of a strong gravitational pull tends to signal that your dog is dependent on your reward location and delivery. Plainly stated, you, my friend, may be getting a bit too predictable.
So use your reward delivery to troubleshoot and problem-solve but don’t get yourself stuck in a rut, else you run the risk of creating a new and equally troubling gravitational pull in another direction.
Once you’ve got your dog moving straight, mix it up.
Drop a toy from under your arm. Reward with the toy in your right hand. Stick it to the outside of your dog’s head and release your dog to a toy off in the distance. Keep your dog guessing. And proof your dog’s position to combat the effects of gravitational pull. Start small, proofing for the perfect position while stationary, and then slowly add distance and duration as your dog starts having successes.
By being a bit unpredictable, your dog won’t get dependent on one single picture, on one reward placement and delivery, and fading your rewards will be easier in the long run.