The nicest thing a judge ever said to me was, “your dog looked so happy.” I don’t remember my score or placement, but I remember that compliment. For me, training and trialing is all about having fun with Maisy, so when I watch others compete, I’m impressed not by technical perfection, but by the teams with the alert, happy dog. Picture this dog with me: He’s in heel position, and while he may not be perfectly aligned with his handler’s hip, his tongue is hanging out, his front feet are prancing, his tail’s wagging loosely, and above all, he is so into the game that his eyes never leave his handler’s face.
It’s a beautiful picture, isn’t it? I think so, and indeed, so many people want that focus and attention that they purposely teach their dogs to make eye contact when heeling. You might expect that I would teach eye contact as part of my heeling criteria, too, but the truth is, I don’t. It’s not that I don’t want her attentive and happy, because I do, but I have two reservations about constant eye contact heeling, and both are rooted in the fact that she’s short.
First, in order to maintain eye contact, the dog needs to move forward far enough that he can look up into your face, which can create forging. Of course, it’s not impossible to keep a short dog in the proper position and still maintain eye contact. They can do it, although they often either go wide or they have to lift their heads much higher, which leads me to the second (and more important) reason I don’t want to teach constant eye contact for heeling: the possibility for injury.
In the March 2008 issue of The Whole Dog Journal, there is an article on canine chiropractic. In a discussion of cervical problems in dogs, the article quotes veterinary chiropractor Dr. Sue Ann Lesser as saying, “and then there are all the problems that come with always heeling on only one side… any unilateral activity creates muscle imbalances that can profoundly affect the dog’s gait.”
Now this would be enough to concern me on its own, but last summer, I noticed that Maisy had a slight, subtle limp. We never figured out what caused it, only that because of her conformation (long back, short legs, and her hips are higher than her shoulders), she is prone to back and neck issues. As a result, I have decided that eye contact, no matter how flashy, is not part of the picture I’m trying to create with Maisy.
So, what is my criteria for heeling? To be honest, for a long time, I didn’t think about it much. I knew that Maisy needed to be on my left, that she needed to be in the proper position (which I define as having her collar line up with my pant seam), but I didn’t worry much about where she was looking. As a result, she’s learned that she can look around or at the ground, and she sometimes finds other things more fascinating than me, especially if I’m not handing out treats. This does not make for great scores.
Earlier this week, I created a training plan, and quickly found that I had conflicting ideas about what I wanted. I originally said I wanted to reward for eye contact, but not the entire time. Just that I wanted her to pay attention. But I couldn’t define what that meant, only that I knew it when I saw it. Well, that really left the criteria pretty subjective, and ultimately, that means that I’ll likely be inconsistent and confusing. So, after a lot of thought, I think I’ve nailed down what “attentive healing without eye contact” looks like.
When sitting in heel position, I do want Maisy to make eye contact. Sitting in heel is often a predictor that I’ll be cuing a new behavior, so I do need her focused on me and watching for my signals. Like this:
Pretend she isn't forged in all these pictures, okay? It was hard enough to get the head position right that I wasn't paying attention to her body position!
When we take the first step of heeling, I want her to maintain that eye contact. This isn’t because I’ll be cuing a behavior, but rather because she has a tendency to rush off. She almost always forges the first 2-3 steps of heeling, even though I’ve spent a lot of time clicking for perfect position in that first step. I suspect this is because she gets so excited that we’re Going Somewhere! that she forgets to pay attention. So, this week I started clicking for eye contact during the first step. It’s still too early to tell, but I think it’s working. She seems to be much more focused for the duration when we start with eye contact.
I do not require sustained eye contact, though. After that first step, she may move her head into a more comfortable position, as long is she’s still attentive. A lot of small dog handlers talk about teaching their dog to be attentive by looking at a different body part than eyes- their hip or their knee, for example- but I’ve never quite figured out how to train this; it’s more difficult to determine where the dog is looking when it’s not making eye contact. It’s just not something that I can easily observe, which makes it hard to click.
So, what does attentiveness look like? Attentiveness requires her head to be held higher than normal. Maisy normally walks with her nose pointing to the ground. If you were to measure the angle of her snout, it would be pointing down roughly 45 degrees. From the top, you can see her head, but very little of her snout:
When she is attentive to me, though, her head is held higher, so that the angle of her snout is 90 degrees or even angled slightly upwards. She will often lift her head and make eye contact, and I think she’s “checking in.” From the top, this head position allows me to see most or all of her snout. It would look more like this:
So. That’s what heeling means to me. What does it mean to you?