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!