Follow the leader – or follow the handler
Heelwork is something that recurs in all field trials and working tests (and also in obedience trials, rally obedience, and of course in everyday life. The heelwork required in the obedience training differs from the heelwork in the gun dog training regarding the demands of perfection, and the dog should look at you when you train heelwork in the obedience training, but that is not required in the gun dog training). Heelwork is something that always recurs in all our classes, and almost always when we have private lessons. Many people think that the heelwork training is boring and takes a lot of time. And that is unfortunately true, that it takes a lot of time, if we want the heelwork to be really good, but we can, after all, be sure to have fun while doing it.
As a handler we very often keep an eye on the dog when she walks at heel. It also happens – because it is an easy way out – that we compensate, for example, if the dog walks a bit too far away from us and pulls a little to the left, we follow the dog to the left so that the dog stays in the correct position (or actually we in this case). The conclusion is that we follow the dog and not the other way around – the dog follows us. This is not good idea for many reasons, firstly because we didn’t reach our goal, and secondly it takes a lot of energy to constantly look at the dog and perhaps lure her or tell her to walk correctly.
Our favorite exercise when it comes to heelwork is to do exactly the opposite! We walk away in one direction, and when the dog follows us and comes up on our left side the dog gets plenty of rewards. Then we turn around quickly and walk in another direction – so that the dog must struggle a bit to keep track of us and come up on our left side. In this way, it will be the dog that keeps track of us and not the other way around (we know of course all the time where the dog is so that she doesn’t disappear). We want to make our left side almost magnetic – we want the dog to think that our left side is the best place to be at.
The easiest way is of course to do this with a dog off leash, but it is also possible to train it with the dog on a leash. Sometimes it might be easier if the handler has an assistant who can hold the leash so that the handler doesn’t have to care about the dog – and then she can’t disappear.
We don’t care that much if the dog looks up at us when we train heelwork in the gun dog training because we know that when we come to more exciting environments and many funny things happen at a distance (dummies fly in the air, the shooter walks in front of us, and so on) the dog won’t look at us. If the dog should stare at us all the time we would try to reward her when she looks in another direction and we would avoid eye contact with the dog. The goal with this heelwork exercise is that the dog should be at our side, without us having to look at her.
The key to success is as usual really good tidbits. But you shouldn’t be stingy with them either. If the dog finds it very difficult to walk at heel by your side because there are so many other exciting things around – increase the reward rate! The dog should barely have time to swallow the tidbit – much less think about leaving your side – before you give her the next tidbit. Give the dog the reward while you move so that the dog walks at your left side when she eats the tidbit. Gradually, you can reduce the rewards and walk one step, two steps, one step, three steps and so on and then give the dog a tidbit. At home you might be able to walk with the dog by your side for 100 yards and then give him a tidbit, but in a new difficult environment you need to reward very often – especially if you have a young dog.
Try also to make it fun and challenging for the dog. Run away; turn sharply to the right or left, and so on. Let the dog struggle a bit when she walks up to your side and then give her a reward.
Here you can watch a short film that shows how Anna trains Alice to seek out her left side. She rewards Alice when she walks at her side by throwing a tidbit on the ground (If your dog starts to sniff a lot you should give the tidbits with your hand and then quickly turn around and start to walk in the other direction) and then she walks away. As soon as Alice seeks up her side she gets a new tidbit.
When the dog has understood that it is great to be on our left side, we start train this with different distractions. You can read more about that on our blog in the Heelwork category.