When I began to work on gun dog heeling with Totte, I had been working on his heeling for obedience for two years. That training wasn’t going that well. Totte has always had a tendency to make noise and we weren’t getting anywhere because he was vocalizing. I have worked with that a great, great deal.
In obedience heelwork I want the dog to shine – he should move with great energy and radiate happiness and power, and have his eyes on my face the entire time. With Totte, the energy got a bit too high and combined with looking forward to the reward a bit too much, and some other aspects that made a hash of things, and we had vocalizing.
In gun dog heelwork I want a dog that just floats calmly by my side. Eyes focused mostly ahead, and the energy contained so that he can move calmly and with collection at my side. In other words, we’re talking about to very different feelings in the two ways of heeling. When I began to work on gun dog heeling (Totte was about two years old and I had begun working on our gun dog training with a bit more structure), I put a great deal of thought into him having THE RIGHT EMOTIONAL STATE FIRST.
We only worked on this during our walks (I love training on walks!) when Totte wasn’t very high, in other words when we’d walked for a while and he’d burned off some steam but wasn’t in a state. As I always do, I began the training by rewarding the offered behavior but this time I progress to putting it on cue quickly.
This meant that he first got a reward for spontaneously coming to my side. Since Totte was a puppy I’ve built value – in other words rewarded – him for coming to my side, so this was nothing new for him. In the beginning he would offer eye contact quite a lot, and I rewarded that too. Fairly quickly I could time my reward to when he was looking ahead. After just a few repetitions of this, I cued “here” which is my cue for this heeling. Then we took perhaps two steps and then I gave him his release cue. Totte really loves getting to run off and sniff, and this is precisely what his release cue means. Getting Totte to understand this game went really quickly. I transitioned to giving the release cue only when he was looking ahead and I could see how he controlled himself.
This led to him understanding that if he controlled himself, he got to run. I could gradually increase the time that he walked by my side, and I’ve gradually made it more difficult by moving at different paces, in different terrain and with different distractions.
Totte finds it the most difficult to hold his position when somebody is walking in front of us or if there are many other dogs present. We’re working on that, step by step. At this point Totte can walk at heel for 500 meters without a reward and this should be compared to our obedience heeling where we on a good day might have forty quiet meters… But I’ve noticed how things are influencing each other (in a good way). He’s calmer when heeling for obedience, and quieter. When gun dog heeling he never vocalizes and he floats, calmly and with collection. Just the way I want it!
With the puppy I’ve reinforced being at my side from the very beginning as well. Lately I’ve also begun to click and reward her when she comes up on my left side on our walks. With Tassla it’s different from with Totte. She doesn’t need to burn off some steam first. Quite the opposite – it’s easier for her to walk calmly at the beginning of our walks, before she gets going. Her challenge will be to master remaining calm at my side even after getting going. But we’re not there yet.
Here follows a very short clip of how I capture Tassla walking off leash calmly by my side: