Heeling/Heel Position

Heeling 101

What do we need to get started?

  • A reward (toy or food)
  • Drive for your reward of choice
  • Leash
  • Bucket

What is the process?

  1. Build Drive for the Lure
  2. Teach the dog to move with the lure in direct view
  3. Teach rear end awareness/Placework
  4. Start to fade the lure into a target
  5. Forward movement worked separate
  6. Add leash for guidance/later use
  7. Take it to the ground
  8. Add movement
  9. Add distance/distraction
  10. Make the target less obvious

 Let’s Break it Down…

Drive for the Lure

In the beginning, we very highly recommend that you start your dog with a high value food lure. Red barn is an excellent option! Now we need our dog to understand that they must work for the food in order to get that as a reward. Let’s start with just holding the piece of food (about the size of your thumb nail) under your thumb and with your pointer finger. The dog will need to push into your hand to slowly get licks/nibbles of the food. It is vital for your dog to understand this and for you to practice this technique.

Teach the dog to move with the lure in direct view

Now that we know how to present our reward and the dog has a desire to get the reward…let’s teach him to move for the reward. Before we can move the dog into the heeling positions, the dog must first move with us. Take your piece of food in your hand as previously explained and start with moving your hand so the dog must take a step while his mouth is trying to get the reward in your hand. Move with him, don’t move it too quickly so his mouth leaves your hand. You’ll want to practice this multiple times with varying degree of difficulty. You will want to focus on the dog moving with you as you walk backwards, etc.

Rear End Awareness/Placework

Dogs by default do not understand how to use their rear legs independently of their front. In order for us to really achieve the competition heeling that we’re shooting for, our dogs must be proficient at moving themselves backward, left, right, and of course forward. Ultimately, they will learn that they must stay parallel with our body/left leg so their rear end and legs will need to move in such a way that keeps them in that position, even when we turn. We prefer to teach rear end work on a turned over rubber horse feed pan. They are easy to find at your local farm supply store.

Charging the Perch

Using your food, you will move the dog onto the bucket and mark/reward if he puts one foot on. Once he is comfortably putting one foot on, start to expect that he put both feet on. This will likely take several sessions. Once the dog can put his feet on the bucket, we’ll also reward him by throwing his food off the bucket and he must go get it and return to his position on the bucket. Ideally, we’ll be able to put the bucket down and the dog understands to run to it and put both feet on the bucket. This should be expected to take multiple sessions. The prerequisite for moving to the next step is that the dog understands he gets fed on the bucket.

Teaching the Movement on the Perch

When you feel confident that your dog understands to put both feet on the bucket, you’ll start to teach him to pivot around the bucket while keeping his front feet on it. To do that, stand in front of the bucket with your dog in front of you and the bucket in between. He should already be committed to getting on the bucket from previous reward history so now pivot yourself ¼ of the way around the bucket, your dog should move just his rear legs while keeping the front legs on to also move ¼ of the way around the bucket. Mark-Reward. You will want to practice this ¼ travel both left and right. Practice this several sessions until you feel that your puppy is proficient on the ¼ travel, then move up to ½ way around. Now that your dog can travel ½ way around the bucket, you will stop moving and turn your wrist under so you can stay stationary and still have the dog travel ¼ of the way around the bucket. Practice travelling both directions. Once you are proficient at ¼ of the way around without you moving, start to practice the dog moving from the front into the heel position. If you find yourself at this point, you’ll also want to start lifting up the food once the dog is in the heel position above his head to show him the “finished picture” and then mark-reward. We will also practice moving together as we pivot around the bucket with the dog in the continued heel position. The prerequisite for moving to the next step is that you can start your dog in front of you and he will move with speed into the correct heel position. We are really looking for the dog to anticipate getting into the heel position on our left side.

The Lure Becomes a Target

Our dogs will always need a target point for a proper end picture. To teach this, we will slowly start to bring the food off of the dog’s nose while maintaining the work we’ve already done. Start this on the bucket. At first, you’ll start with his food on his nose as you start your movement…bring the food high enough that it’s clear the dog shouldn’t have his mouth in your hand but still continue your movement. If he follows the last part of the exercise with food off his nose, mark and reward. Continue to slowly move the food to a target until you can move your dog from front into the heel position using the bucket and a target.

Forward Movement-Worked Separately (OPTIONAL BASED ON THE DOG)

We want to practice our dog moving forward while we’re working rear end work. We will start with moving our dog into us while we are travelling backwards and when you feel he is at a high enough drive point pushing into your hand, move the dog to your left and travel forward with the dog lined up with your left knee. We want his head up with him still pushing up and into our hand for the reward. We will teach him to drive upwards into the hand as hard as we can by rewarding him when he’s really pushing. Once we’ve repeated this MANY times, we’ll start to change the lure to a target. To do that, start with the lure on his mouth and head up and pick up the lure for one step, if he holds the correct head position, we can now mark and let him come up and work for his reward in our hand. Once we are having success with one step with food off the nose, we will start to vary the amount of steps that the food comes off the nose. This should be done slowly with a very high reward history and keeping the attitude/flashiness of the dog’s movement in focus.

Add Your Leash

Build Activation with the Leash

We want to first teach your dog that when he receives a leash “pop” that it means to come up in drive/think. In order to do this, we will start with our food target back in step 1 & 2. We will mark-pop the leash towards our hand with the food reward, and let the dog drive into the hand. This must be done numerous times in order for the dog to understand that leash pop=drive into the reward. Once the dog understands this concept, we can start to add the leash pops into our behaviors.

Add Your Leash Into Your Behaviors

When we start to move, it’s important that we have tools built into our program to help our dog succeed. We will teach the dog that a leash pop means get into the position when a target is present and also teach him that a pull upwards while going into a sit position means he must stay in the sit position. To teach this, we will start with the dog in front of us and the food as a target. We’ll ask for a sit and also pull up on the leash to help him get into a sit as he’s also being helped with his food target. We will do the same thing to get into the heel position on the bucket, but with soft pops on the leash with a flat collar.

Take it to the Ground

Now that we have a dog that can move very fluidly in a ½ circle into the heel position on a bucket, we’re going to take this to the ground. We’ll start with putting the food back on the dog’s nose and showing him that even though we aren’t on the bucket, we can still move in the same ½ circle into the heel positon. You may need a few sessions to fully transition to the ground. Once you feel the dog is proficient at moving on the ground, start to fade to your target from front to heel position using your leash as needed.

Add Movement

Now that we have a dog that understands his rear end and getting into the heel position we can start to move. We will start with ¼ turns to the left. Then we will add side pivots. Next, backing up. Finally, we will start to travel forward. We will need our dog to clearly understand that sitting in the correct heel position is how he gets paid, no matter how we travel. 

Add Distance/Distraction

We can continue to add steps forward, left, right, backwards and quarter turns. We will also start to add in distraction such as noises, things being close to us, etc. to help the dog generalize that this position is always what pays them.

Make the Target Less Obvious

At this point, your dog should have his toy drive built up to a point where we can switch him to the toy for a target. At first, you will likely need to go back and help your dog understand that the ball is now the target. You will ask your dog to sit, using your leash to help and the ball as a direct target. Place your ball under your armpit and help your dog into the correct heel position. Start moving!

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