Time for a Change: Raising Criteria in Heeling


    Adjusting to changes in your approach to training or performance criteria is stressful for both members of your team. Resistance to change is a normal phenomena for dogs and adult humans alike. Ask anyone who has tried to quit smoking, go on a diet, or learn a new computer program they didn’t want.

    A number of readers are in the process of reworking their leadership skills and communication systems with their dogs with the goal of better reliability and consistency in performance in the ring. In most cases, the primary change we’re looking for is sustained attention from the dogs, particularly in heeling. This is the cornerstone that must be solidly in place to support other specific changes to the technical picture. We can cause attention with motivators and lures, but that is a limited-time option, and getting past that and into the true working mindset from the dogs is the problem area.

    Engaged attention is most effectively motivated by purposeful expectations. Once you have taught the dog that focused attention in motion is possible, next you have to convince the dog that focused attention improves his ability to respond to changes in speed, direction, or other requirements. (Think Rally!) Your job is to build the complexity and interest into heeling, while being entirely focused on your dog so that you can judge on EVERY STEP whether you have the attention you want or not. You can use complexity proactively, or you can make sudden changes in your demands reactively whenever attention drops. This means that YOUR attention has to be very focused, and you have to be ready to react to both virtues and errors quickly and decisively. Success is more likely if you follow some guidelines.


Focus on ONE thing at a time. You don’t need to worry so much about what your dog’s rear end is doing while you work on recognizing the presence of attention or its absence. Your mind should only be asking one question: Do I have my dog’s attention right now? There are only two answers: Yes or no. If your mind is saying, “Maybe...”, the real answer is “NO”. As soon as the answer is “no”, you need to be making a change right away.

    Have a plan. I am less concerned about what you do and more concerned that you do something effective immediately when your dog goes off task. When in doubt, change speed. If the dog is truly distracted, change direction, criteria and speed all at once by doing a come-fore. This is something repeatable that gets the dog’s eyes back on you and brainwaves directed toward you again right away in a way that puts the dog back into “good dog” status easily. But some dogs come to a place where they need to be actively discouraged from dropping attention by choice because it’s “wrong”. You’ve got to have a conditioned arsenal that your dog understands. Have you taught collar pressure as a correction to motivate the dog to hit his heel target? Have you taught him to move with collar pressure used as directional guidance? Have you conditioned the dog to a “gotcha” grab correction that means he should look at you? Those are all options for you to apply to loss of attention, but you have to be prepared to use them without hesitation the instant you see those brainwaves drift. That’s a LOT of responsibility for you to take on if it’s not a type of alertness you’re used to exercising.

    Limit yourself to small increments of time and distance at first. Until you are more confident in your skills and your dog’s abilities, you have to think your training through one step at a time. So train in chunks that allow you to plan. Envision what you want to see: 10 feet of really attentive heeling. Envision what you will do if your dog drops attention: Hand target, comefore, or “gotcha”; choose ONE, and rehearse it in your mind. Execute. If you got your ten feet of perfect heeling, celebrate with your dog, and then put him on a stay or in his crate while you decide what to do next. If you didn’t get the perfect ten feet, still put the dog in a relaxed zone and review. Did your correction happen decisively, or did you waffle? How did your dog respond? Do you know what distracted him? Do you want to repeat the same correction for the same error, or does your information indicate that something else might be better? Take your time and answer the questions. Then decide what your next plan is. Then reconnect with the dog and execute.

    Repeat the process. Plan, prepare, execute, and evaluate your results.

    Celebrate success, and move on to something else when you achieve your goal. Sometimes the something else you move on to might be a nap for your dog and a nice glass of wine or a cup of tea for yourself while you reflect on the session. This latent review of events is valuable. Sometimes you get to rehearse your new skills mentally and repeat that satisfaction. Sometimes review of a session that didn’t go so well reveals choices that you couldn’t see in the heat of the moment. You suddenly remember the ear flick that happened right before the dog totally tuned out to take a look at the bird on the fence. Next time, you’ll do something to motivate more active attention when you see the ear flick and you won’t wait for the eyes and the rest of the brainwaves to totally disappear.

   Build and protect the attentive association your dog has with heel position. If your dog is there physically, his head needs to be there mentally, and so should yours! If you need a break, or you need to talk to somebody and remove your focus from the dog, put him on a down and get out of heel position. You should not be ignoring each other in the heel context. And remember that it’s disrespectful for your dog to wander off when you praise him! (This applies at classes, lessons and matches, too.)

    It’s better to structure small achievable goals with very specific parameters than it is to juggle too many variables at once, especially when you are changing and raising criteria for you and your dog at the same time. Success motivates you to build on your new foundation. Frustration is a given when you make changes, but too much of it all at once without the balance of success leads to finding ways to avoid the effort again. If you can stabilize your dog’s attention by improving your recognition of it and your ability to regain it when it drifts, your dog will make fewer errors and learn new skills with exponentially better speed and clarity.

    As you start raising your expectations of the level of concentration you expect from your dog in all exercises and skills, be comfortable about it. You shouldn’t see this as a new set of errors to always be looking for. You should see it as adding opportunities to praise and reward your dog. On the recall, for instance, we want an attentive set up and we want that attention to remain focused as we walk away. To create the expectation, “stuff” needs to happen when we are 2 steps out, 4 steps out, 7 steps out, and 19 steps out, as well as every step in between. Every step is a chance for a toy or a treat toss, or a racing game, or a position shift command followed by a reward in place. Added interest is added motivation for working focus, a readiness for action that is the real sparkle you want to see when you walk into the ring.