Sunday, December 18, 2011

Healing Your Heeling, Part 1

A few months ago, I signed up for a dog training class without my dog. It sounds weird, I know, but Nancy Little, a popular local trainer, was doing a two week class on handling skills for heeling right when I was struggling to figure out how to cue halts with my body, not my voice. The class was well worth my time. I'm going to share a little about what I learned, but honestly, if you live in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, you should contact her. Nancy is incredibly nice and encouraging, and she's a great teacher. No wonder she's so popular!

You'll notice that I described the class as a handling skills class, not as one on footwork. This was deliberate, as Nancy doesn't do footwork. Surprised? I sure was, but her explanation- that dogs aren't looking at your feet- made a lot of sense. Almost every dog is trained to look up as part of the heeling picture. As a result, Nancy taught us to use the way we move our bodies to cue what's next in heeling.

That said, you will see a lot of notes to what your feet are doing. This is partly because it's what makes sense to me. Some of what I'll write here is not exactly what Nancy said, but rather how it got translated in my head. (I guess I think about my feet a lot or something, but the point is that any stupidity in this post is probably my fault, not hers.) But I also write a lot about feet because they are part of your body, and there are times where what they do matter. You just shouldn't obsess over them; Nancy has found that excessive worry over feet tends to make people tense up. This throws off the rest of the body, which defeats the purpose.

Before we dive in, a reminder: handling is not training. You need to focus on your job, and let the dog do his. You can't compensate for the dog in your handling; if he makes a mistake, he needs to fix it, not you. You should always be predictable and clear in your handling so your dog knows what's coming next.

Going along with that, we had a conversation about whether or not you should make (and keep) eye contact with your dog when heeling. Nancy's preference is to avoid doing so. She's found that people who maintain eye contact struggle to walk in straight lines, which is a critical heeling skill. Also, dogs can't see your body as well when they're busy looking in your eyes. As a result, she prefers to look slightly ahead of the dog, keeping him in her peripheral vision, and looking up/where she's going regularly. That said, she knows people like to make eye contact, so if you're going to do it, you need to remember it is an indicator that the dog is in the correct position. If the dog forges or lags, you should break eye contact, and instead look where he should be. This will make an error in heel position very clear to your dog and it will help him know when he's right again.

The Basics of Heeling
For Nancy, almost everything revolves around the shoulders. They are the biggest, most obvious thing that the dog sees when he looks up. She emphasizes keeping your shoulders over your hips; not only will this help you keep your balance, but it will also keep your dog in line with your hips- which is, incidentally, where heel position is. You should never twist your torso forward or back unless you're turning, because this will pull your dog forward or push him back, too.

This applies at all times, including when you're stopped, waiting for the judge's command to heel. Many dogs- Maisy included- will forge on the first step or two, and then fall back into correct position. Nancy explained that this happens when the handler leans forward during the first step and fails to keep her shoulders over her hips. Make an effort to lean back slightly on to your heels, and step out with your feet first. (Of course, if your dog lags on the first step, you might want to lean forward slightly on the first step. Know your dog.)

It is also important to make sure that when you're heeling, you're making smooth, rolling steps. Nancy shared that many people tend to walk flat footed or even with their toe hitting the ground first. This causes something like a shock wave to go up and through the body, creating jerky movements that look to the dog like a cue to STOP.

Nancy advised us to avoid this by walking so that our heels hit the ground first. The step should roll through your feet: heel-ball-toe-heel-ball-toe. This feels a bit awkward at first- at least, it did for me- but it provides for a nice smoothness and helps the dog understand that forward motion is expected.

A Change of Pace
Going faster is usually easy for most dogs, but even so, giving very clear body language will help support your dog. It's also pretty easy: lean forward, so that your shoulders are ahead of your hips, raise your eyes/head so that your focus is higher, and bend your elbows to bring your arms up into a running position. If you heel with one hand resting on your belly, move it to the side in order to do this. When it's time to return to a normal pace, your shoulders should go back over your hips, your eye gaze will go back to its normal location, and your arms will resume their usual place.

The slow pace, on the other hand, is typically more challenging for dogs. Not only do most dogs prefer speed, but they also tend to get confused about whether you're simply slowing down or if you're going to stop. If you've ever seen a dog do that butt thing where he keeps almost sitting during the slow, it's because he isn't sure what's coming next.

Make it clear to your dog that you're going to keep moving forward by remembering your heel-ball-toe foot movements and leaning backwards slightly. Then quickly ease into the slow pace. Wait, what? I know that sounds confusing, but here's the thing: if you suddenly slam into a slow pace, it will look like a halt to your dog, no matter what your feet are doing. At the same time, if you take too long to change pace, you will need to go that much further at the slow, leading to the risk that you'll get "run into the wall" before a turn. Nancy suggested that we move into the slow pace over the course of two to three steps. Doing this allowed us to be prompt about the pace change without confusing the dog.

Stop Right There
If forward movement is communicated to the dog by rolling foot motions, then it only makes sense that the halt is cued by breaking that smoothness. We need to roughen things up a bit, and Nancy had us do that with our feet. Again, it's not so much about what the feet are doing, but rather, about how they are doing it. As a result, it really doesn't matter which foot does what.

The tricky part about the halt is that you don't want to slow down, because the dog will adjust his speed, thinking you've simply changed pace. If that happens, the dog will either sit very slowly, in a forged heeling position, or even fail to sit entirely. At the same time, you don't want to be too abrupt, because again, your dog will sit in a forged position. To combat both these problems, Nancy uses three distinct steps to clearly communicate to the dog what's expected.

The first will be what's called a break step. Nancy often shuffles this foot- you land on the front part of your foot and kind of slide so it causes a slight scuffing noise that acts as an auditory cue. The second step will be a half-stride in which you step flat; the whole foot should hit the ground at the same time, and it will remain planted. Finally, you'll “close” with the first foot by stepping in line and stopping. It takes some practice, but I found that it was pretty easy to do when I thought about my footfalls as: roll-roll-roll (judge calls the halt) break-step-close.

These are some of the basics of heeling. Again, this is not the only way to handle heeling, but it is one that Nancy has found to be quite successful. I really what I learned because it emphasizes a relaxed, natural feel. I also like it because it relies more on counting the number of steps than using the right foot or the left foot at a particular time. (True confession: I am awful at remembering the difference between left and right, especially under stress. I'd be in a lot of trouble if rally signs didn't have arrows or the judge didn't demonstrate the heeling position ahead of time. Oddly, I am amazing with cardinal directions.)

I'll post again soon on how Nancy advised us to handle all the turns, including Figure 8s, but in the meantime, I'd love to hear how others handle some of these same moves. Do you do something similar? Completely different? Do you even think about how your feet (and body) is moving? I'd love to hear what you do!


M.T. said...

This was a very interesting read, thanks for posting and sharing!! :)

Urban canines said...

Sounds like a great course! It is crazy how our unintentional body language affects the messages we are giving our dog!

Raegan said...

" I am awful at remembering the difference between left and right, especially under stress. I'd be in a lot of trouble if rally signs didn't have arrows or the judge didn't demonstrate the heeling position ahead of time."

I also have an awful time with left and right, especially under pressure. You really don't want me calling heeling patterns. I will run you into a wall every time.

What has helped me is thinking of it as inside and outside. Inside is left, the side closest to the dog. If you and the dog were a 3-legged race team (5-legged race?), the inside leg would be tied to his inside leg. The outside is the right side, the side away from the dog.

I try to use a brisk, rolling pace when heeling. I start on the inside leg, and leave for stays on the outside leg. Halts: Judge calls halt-inside foot falls-outside foot falls-inside foot falls-outside foot closes to inside foot. I count it out, the first inside foot fall is 1, 2, 3, close.

Lean forward for starts and fasts, back for slows.

Elizabeth said...

When I first started heeling I struggled greatly with handling (still needs work but I'm getting better). Perpetually leaning over was an issue for me but I think that's pretty common with small dog folks. I used to have a lagging problem and something that helped was making my steps shorter than my dog is long (again, not something most people worry much about)my normal wide gate had a tendency to leave a small dog in the dust. But then the small steps slowed me down so much that my dog perpetually though I was cueing the set. The brisk short rolling steps seem to work best. It defiantly takes a heck of a lot more thought than I originally thought just watching competition heeling.

thanks for he post, very helpful.

Tegan said...

I don't really have any insights here, but thanks for posting this. It has some great ideas that I think will help me. I am very aware that I am 'unsteady' on my feet and this is probably giving my dog mixed signals on what I should be doing.

Susanna said...

I so agree about the importance of shoulders! It took me a while to catch on. First clue was that my Travvy lagged on right turns if I was watching him over my left shoulder, which turned my shoulder back. Now "right shoulder forward" is my main cue for the left pivot, and my upper body and shoulders cue Trav to prepare for turns in either direction.

We're currently competing in APDT Rally.

I do find footwork important, but it didn't occur to me that my dog would be cueing off my feet -- partly because he's big, a malamute. Footwork is more important for me: it helps me move smoothly into halts, sits, downs, and turns. Trav is reading my body for sure, and my footwork affects my whole body, from legs up to shoulders and head.

Crystal Thompson said...

Raegan, I will try "inside" and "outside." I'm worried that my brain won't translate from "inside" to "left" fast enough, though... But we'll see! It's worth a try, anyway, and it's a great idea.

Elizabeth- I agree, that short-dog-thing makes it harder sometimes. Nancy was actually really good at talking about how I might do something differently than someone with a taller dog... I've tried to leave things kind of general here, but I'm sure there's small dog bias in what I've written. :)

Susanna- I don't think Nancy would say that the dog is cuing off feet so much (although I know others who say the dog does, so... I guess it's all in what you train), but it's DEFINITELY true that how your feet move affects the rest of your body.

Brianne said...

This is super helpful, I'm working on heel with Violet right now. Also, I nominated your blog for the Liebster Award. :) Details are in my most recent post! It's supposed to be for blogs with under 200 followers and while I don't know how many followers your has, I couldn't not. :)

Crystal Thompson said...

Wow, thanks Brianne! I have 68 followers on Google Friend Connect, or whatever it's called, 30 email subscribers, and 217 Facebook friends/likes on the Reactive Champion page. I'm not really sure where that leaves us, but I'm honored, thank you!

Joanna said...

Excellent, informative post, thanks so much for writing it up! I bookmarked it for future reference. :)

I heel with my left arm up along my stomach, and Dragon tends to look slightly to the right, at my feet. Craning his neck while walking is not comfortable, I'm sure! He does look up when we halt and change paces. I do look down at him a bit much; I need to practice looking slightly ahead of him.

My footwork for the halt is that I slow down a bit with my left leg and then plant my right leg down with a bit more force than usual. As I do this my body naturally shifts slightly to the right. The plant and shift are what cue him to sit, and he's great about sitting perfectly in position, so this must be working well for him!

With left and right turns, Denise Fenzi's videos helped me figure it out. I move my left shoulder forward/back and up/down first because they help me turn my body more smoothly. However what really seems to keep Dragon in place is the way I walk with my feet. I don't do a tight pivot -- I move slightly away from him. If it's a left turn I move slightly out along the turn and it gives him room to pivot without feeling like I'm running into him. If it's a right turn I move slightly in toward the middle point and he's shifting right a bit to catch up, instead of making a straight u-turn. Hope that makes sense. Also I have to remember to smoothly transition back to a straight line. I used to stop and jerk back to forward movement and he would over- or under-pivot.

Crystal Thompson said...

Joanna, I remain jealous that you can do privates with Denise. :(

I never intended to teach Maisy to look up during heeling- I actually wanted her to look more forward (because of neck issues)- but it sort of naturally happened. She's a big eye contact dog in other contexts, so I guess it makes sense. I do leave my arm down for heeling, and I think she looks at it as a focal point, too.

Joanna said...

Being able to work with Denise in person is awesome, but I've actually learned the most from watching her videos and especially reading all her posts on ClickCompObed. :)

Crystal Thompson said...

Good point, Joanna. I do love all her posts/videos.