So sad to see so many obedience dogs that either look like little robots heeling or seem to have no enjoyment of what they are doing.
Heel work in obedience is perhaps one of the biggest training challenges. Heel work takes hours, months and years to perfect. Novice obedience is almost all heel work. Needless to say, heel work is drilled and drilled and drilled. On top of this, prong collars or other harsh measures are often used to MAKE the dog heel next to the handler. Yes, this is how the old school has trained for years, but how sad that these trainers do not understand that there is another way….. to bring the joy into happy, focused heeling.
Judging matches and attending obedience classes (for exposure to other dogs and distractions) I am so sad to see the state of heeling. People come to matches where they can add some fun and joy into their obedience and yet they continue to drag their dogs around the ring or jerk on their collars. There is little praise or positive reinforcement for an exercise that has become NOT FUN but MANDATORY.
Classes are not much better where so many dogs have been put on prong collars – perhaps the only way to make the dog heel or look up at the handler. Yet dogs still lag, seldom wag their tails, and look like they would rather be doing anything else.
How sad is this when heel work can be A GAME AND FUN.
I was guilty of loosing the joy and fun of training heel work with my young Border Collie Myst. I have struggled with understanding how to train heads up, focused, happy heeling. We have been training in obedience for several years along with competing in agility and now herding. My young dog was a barker in agility and barked when she was excited so I worried about overstimulation with tugging and games for heel work. Instead I would play games for warm-up with the ball, tug and recalls hoping the joy would transfer.
We started showing in the pre-classes in the fall of 2014 while I was finishing my OTCH on my Border Collie, Kaffee. Myst did quite well in these pre-classes and in fact pulled on her leash to go into the ring. Reflecting now I don’t think she differentiated the difference between going into a ring for agility and for obedience.
But she quickly learned that obedience was NOT fun like fast agility… especially when we started competing in January 2015 for her CD and CDX and I am sure I became much more serious about obedience competition than I was when I was just introducing her to the obedience shows in the fall.
While her scores were acceptable and she was winning many of her classes (she even got a 199 in a novice class in California winning HIT) her heeling scores continued to drop and mostly were the reason that our scores went from a 199, 197, 195 to 193. My points were being lost in heel work.
In only a few shows we were able to complete Myst’s CD and CDX but I knew that we had some serious play work to do to bring back the joy of heeling.
I decided that if I could not find a way to have focused, happy, heads up heeling WITHOUT A PRONG COLLAR that perhaps our obedience journey would soon end. I was not going to go into the ring with a dog that was unfocused and acted like she would rather be anywhere but in the ring. I had 4 months this summer to try to slowly find the joy and fun in heel work.
Kamal Hernandez from the UK had several online class where he taught FCI heel work. While FCI is quite different from AKC in that it allows the dog to be touching your side and heeling exercises are quite long, Kamal’s training was all about games to play with the dog to make training heel work fun and happy. Kamal always says that the dog should not know the difference between play and work. I learned a great deal watching Kamal's videos of him training his different dogs. His heel work is beautiful; his dogs are so beautifully focused and happy.
Silvia Trkman has a DVD called, “Heeling is Just Another Trick”. Silvia’s dogs have beautiful heads up, focused happy heel work all from the way she trains.
I have taken many of Susan Garrett’s online classes for the last 4 years and keep coming back to watch her positive approach to dog training and challenges she runs into with her own dogs. Central to Susan’s training philosophy is “positive is not permissive” but it is all about understanding and helping the dog to understand the criteria for performance and shaping that behavior through reinforcement.
Working with my first Border Collie Kaffee, I always added tugging and balls to our obedience work. Even after doing obedience for so many years and getting his OTCH in December of 2014, Kaffee still jumps with joy whenever we do any obedience work. For him it is fun and just another interactive game.
Myst’s disposition is so different from Kaffee. She is so easily distracted by other dogs, movement or anything mostly when doing her heel work. Myst seems to enjoy the exercises of recall, dumbbell retrieves, and utility gloves, scent discrimination etc, but when heeling she is distracted and I don’t have a partner.
I have always done a fun warm-up with Myst with her balls, recalls, drop on recalls and later signals but then moved to heel work without bringing along the tugs and balls and FUN. So we started adding tugging into only a few heel steps. My criteria for reinforcement was only that she look up at me. I added much play with balls and tugs and high value treats for coming to her heel position (reinforcement zone) and taking a few steps heads up, focused, happy.
We progressed very slowly throughout the next few months but little by little I could see that she was beginning to enjoy our work together. This video is the latest in where we are at with bringing the joy back into our obedience training sessions. You will see a lot of play with some heel work put in as part of the play. What I have done is increase the heel time as Myst found that our heeling was part of the game. It is all quick and lots of fun: PLAY > WORK > PLAY. Also adding challenging heel work with fast to halt; normal > halt > fast > halt... >> PLAY
I am also taking Susan Garrett’s latest Recallers class and am finding that some of the games are excellent for bringing joy and fun into our work together. Our next video will show how other games are used to add to PLAY > WORK > PLAY.
Instead of forcing Myst to heel with a prong collar and constant popping her to keep her head up, she is MAKING THE CHOICE to do HAPPY FOCUSED HEEL WORK.