“Au pied”, I quietly commanded my dog. It is the French version of the heel command, and with my words, my dog snapped into position.
The onlookers formed a semicircle around my dog and I, gazing at our heeling routine and picking it apart with every step we took.
“Your heel is awfully loose,” one of them called over as I backed my dog up several steps.
I wasn’t used to this. Typically, I’d heel my dog and be met with praise. It wasn’t often our performance was met with criticism. But this was a new sport and a whole new world. Terms like “gymnastically correct” were now in play, and in one swift moment I realized I had a ton of work to do.
While the criticism caught me off guard, I loved every second of it. Finally I was faced with a new challenge. Finally I had something to work on outside of the tedious obedience routine I had taught for years. Finally, my wheels were spinning all over again.
I felt like a new dog trainer hitting the field for the first time, and immediately I felt the fire in me reignite.
It was time to take my obedience to an entirely new level.
Upon returning home, the fire in me burning bright, I started reshaping my heel. My original heel command was loose. My dog heeled wide and swung his rear out at an angle, head glued to my leg but rear free to do whatever it pleased. It hadn’t mattered before. So long as he stayed close and didn’t forge, we met the criteria and performed well. Now he had to be perfectly straight, couldn’t forge or swing wide, and had to move with power.
I trained daily, picking apart the behavior and taking things back to the basics, breaking out the clicker (who at this point had begun collecting dust).
First, I focused on head position. Then, moved onto body. Then, added movement. And then, just as I was starting to get the results I wanted, I began to struggle.
I’ll be honest. Squaring up a dog with a significant and contrary reinforcement history is no easy feat. We’d master our behaviors, and then, just as I was ready to add a layer, my dog would instantly default, revisiting his prior training, gazing up at me as he did, begging me to be proud of him.
It was time to get creative.
As I struggled to battle a year of reinforcement history, with the help of some amazing friends, we were able to come up with some creative solutions to correcting a crooked or loose heel.
Here’s what I did:
- Took it back to basics – Sure my dog knew how to heel. But our new technique, as far as my dog was concerned, was an entirely new behavior. So we took things back to basics, broke out the clicker, and began breaking down the behavior to give my dog a solid understanding of exactly what I was expecting.
- Broke it down – When adding criteria, I literally broke down every piece of my dog’s body in order to position it correctly. I separated his head from his body, training each separately. When I lumped the two together too quickly, I got myself in trouble, and I had to be constantly reminded to slow things down. Power became a separate piece of the puzzle, as did movement. The more I broke it down, the better my dog understood what was expected of him.
- Got creative – To reshape my heel, I used creative tools and accessories. I taught my dog to move his rear end by teaching him to place his front feet on an elevated, circular platform. In his case, I used a bowl. By teaching him to place his front feet on the bowl and keep them there, I was able to get his rear to pivot, showing him to move his rear on my cue. To teach him to be straight next to me, I used the bowl and then a platform just large enough for my dog to stand on. He wasn’t able to be crooked, and because the platform is only a few inches high, it became quite easy to fade. And to eliminate the possibility for unintended body language cues, I used a mirror to monitor not only my dog’s position, but mine as well.
- Built muscle memory – I often used walls and other objects to “block” my dog from being crooked, trapping him between the object and myself specifically when focusing on forward movement. The less he was able to be crooked, the more his muscles remembered what straight felt like and the more he defaulted into a straight heeling position. Remember, I had to undo a year of incorrect muscle memory.
- Moved at a snail’s pace – I’m a complete and utter instant gratification person. I think I am actually one of the main reasons brick and mortar stores still exist – I simply can’t wait for shipping on online purchases. Because of my need for the “NOW”, I often found myself rushing the process. But in training precision, you simply can’t do it. You have to settle in for the long run. So be prepared to be patient and take things slow.
- Did it my way – In training, I was told, “you don’t need accessories if you lure correctly.” This is no doubt true. But as I was fighting past reinforcement and struggling to get results with a lure, I had to get creative. The accessories worked for me, and because we were successful and were regularly getting results, I was more motivated to keep at it. Sometimes you have to get creative, and you absolutely have to do what works for you.
- Sought help from friends – At every opportunity, I wanted friends to watch and critique my training. I even went so far as to video each session so I could watch it back and so that they could chime in with input. Having a good team that you trust can be critical to keeping you motivated and propelling you forward.
- Cherished criticism – I am going for perfection. No room for error. For that reason, I love criticism. It helps me improve, and I can’t achieve precision without it.
Training has become fun again, and my dog is readily and happily accepting each new lesson I am teaching him. The slower I go, the better my results – so I have to constantly fight my need to lump things together and skip steps in order to train a more precise heel.
If you’re working through something tough, remember to take things slow and lean on those around you for ideas and for criticism. Don’t take things too seriously, and don’t take criticism personally. Quit posting videos of you doing it perfectly, and break out the ones of you making mistakes. Those are the precious learning opportunities, and without putting them out there, you’ll never improve. And most importantly, never be afraid to revisit fundamentals. They are at the core of your training so rushing through them or skipping them altogether will only lead to confusion and frustration. As you embrace the basics and your mistakes, and let them power your training program, you will see genuine growth and more powerful learning.