Thursday, May 13, 2010

Magical Heeling

One of the really cool things about obedience is that if you and your dog are having a good day, it looks effortless. You walk around, and your dog is right there, paying attention to your every move. If you're really good, you shouldn’t even need to speak a word. Your dog should be able to anticipate your every move, somehow knowing when you’re going to stop, speed up, or make a turn. In short, to the casual observer, it should look like magic.

Except it’s not. Instead, the hours upon hours of work you have put in with your dog has created a common language that you both understand: body language. Every move you make is intentional and has meaning, or at least comes close. The way you hold your hands, move your shoulders, and even the way you walk all can have deep meaning to your dog.

I’ve struggled for a long time to make my footwork clear and consistent. For one thing, a lot of the movements are kind of unnatural, and they simply require practice in order for them to become part of your movement. Once you figure it out, you have to do it every time, so that your dog comes to associate that plant-right-foot-close-with-left-foot as a cue to sit.

For a long time, I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was doing with my feet while Maisy and I were heeling. I knew where my shoulders and hands ought to be, more or less, but I didn’t even know where to start with my feet. However, over the past year, I’ve started to become more comfortable walking in weird ways (I often practice in the hallways at work- is it any wonder my co-workers think I'm a bit odd?), and I’m finally starting to see the payoff!

Because I thought it would be interesting (and it is, or at least, it’s interesting to me), here’s what some of my footwork and body language looks like these days:

Heel: Step forward with left foot, left hand hanging naturally at side. If she starts to forge, I drop my shoulder back slightly, which also brings my hand back a bit.

Sit: While heeling forward, slow slightly, then plant my right foot, and close with my left foot. It’s hard to describe what’s happening when I “plant” my foot- I’m sure the rest of my body changes somehow, and I know it feels differently than if I just stop walking, but I’m not sure how.

Stay: Left hand moves in front of her nose in a stop type of gesture, with the fingers pointing downward. I leave by stepping off on my right foot first. When I return from the stay, I walk around her, making certain that as I step into heel position, I put the left foot next to her, and close with the right one. If I do it the other way around, she thinks it’s a sit cue, and will break a down-stay.

Exception to the above: There is one time I break all these rules: On the 1-2-3 steps forward exercise in rally. When you do the odd number of steps, it’s impossible to both step off on the correct foot and give the correct auto-sit cue. In rally, you’re allowed to talk, so for the 1 and 3 steps forward, I step off on the right foot and give a verbal cue. This allows me to use the correct footwork for the sit cue, which is the part she has more trouble with, anyway.

Moving Down: We’re still working on teaching this one, but I pause mid stride, with one foot in front of the other, and kind of curtsy so that my left hand moves close to the ground in front of her nose. I should pay attention to see if she responds better depending on which foot is out front. I bet she does.

Moving Stand: No specific foot work yet, but I do give her the stay hand signal to indicate she should stop moving. What do you all do?

Pivots: Pivots should be done so that you don’t move in space, so I pretend I’m standing on a paper plate and move my feet. I don’t think much about it. I either drop my shoulder back, or bring it forward depending on if I’m pivoting left or right. I also point to the spot I want her to sit.

Right Turn: Still working on this one. What do you guys do?

Left Turn: Slow down slightly as I approach the turn for about 1-2 steps, then drop my shoulder back, and point slightly behind me. No specific footwork yet.

About Turn: Slow slightly, then plant my right foot before bringing the left foot up and placing it perpendicularly in a T shape. Then move right foot so it is next to the left foot, and step off on the left foot. Shoulder should be slightly forward.

U Turn: Still working on this one. I drop my shoulder more or less like the left turn, just further.

Fast Pace: Plant my left foot, lean forward slightly, and move off faster with the right foot.

Slow Pace: Lean slightly backwards, take a half step, and then slow down.

Normal Pace: Relax into a neutral body position and walk normally.

So… what did I miss? I’m sure there’s something. And what do you do differently? I’d love any guidance you guys have since I’m still learning (and occasionally switching things up as I find out what works better for us).


Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

why do you point on pivots and left turn? I know that pivots don't show up in the obedience ring, but I still try to train all my heeling moves with as little extra cues a possible.

I don't have foot work for moving stands or moving downs as I want my verbal cue (down) or hand signal (stand) to be the only relevant cue. I aim for really fast and really precise downs and stands and want the dog to be ready to drop/stay at any moment. I really do a ton of baby steps with these two behaviors and actually the moving down and stand are the two things I am the most proud of with my dogs!

I think everything sounds really good though!

Crystal said...

The pointing is actually a refinement of what I used to do: it used to be that my hand would make a HUGE sweeping gesture backwards. I mean huge and awkward, and my shoulder would drop WAAAAY backwards, too. So... yeah, I'm hoping to continue to refine those exaggerated motions, we're just not quite there yet.

I think the hardest thing I've faced is not quite understanding the competition behaviors, and constantly readjusting my handling as I better understand how they should look... it's part of why I want to do a lot of reading before I actually start doing agility.

Bea said...

Hi Crystal. Right turns...I lead with my left shoulder and left foot. Sounds awkward, but actually works pretty well. Thanks for breaking down all those moves. I used to be pretty unaware of my body placement until I had a great instructor who broke things down like that. She also suggested foot work for figure 8s: on the curves walk "single file" with each foot fall in line. I had to practice it alone a lot!

Crystal said...

Bea, it's funny you should post about the figure 8s- I was just wondering last night what kind of footwork would work best for them. I'll have to try the "single file" method.

Robin Sallie said...

Crystal, You forgot to tell them that you had to learn to walk in a straight line.

Crystal said...

Hmmm, that's a good point Robin. Walking in a straight line is a pretty important part! :)