Thursday, December 22, 2011

Healing Your Heeling, Part 2

A few months ago, I attended a heeling handling skills class presented by Nancy Little, a popular local trainer. Earlier this week, I posted about her general strategies, as well as information about pace changes and halts for heeling. (If you missed it, you can find it by clicking here.) Today, I'll share what she taught us about all the turns, including the figure 8 exercise.

Get it Right (and Left)
While it might seem that the right and left turns have little in common (they do require very different skills from the dog, after all), Nancy actually had us handle them almost identically. Her biggest advice was that neither turn should be too sharp. She said you don't want to do a “military turn”- a very tight 90 degree turn- because that makes it extremely difficult for the dog to maintain the correct position. At the same time, if your turn is too round, the judge is very likely to deduct points.

Therefore, what you need is a very mild curve. Nancy used the visual of a street corner. I don't know what it's like where you live, but here in Minnesota, most street corners have a defined right angle while still being rounded off. Alternately, check out the way a notebook with rounded corners looks- that is the kind of gently curved path you should follow.

Since Nancy isn't big on exact footwork, she said you can start the turn on either foot, but recommend taking three steps through the turn. On the first one, your foot should be angled at roughly 30 degrees, the second at 45, and the third at 60. For those of you who struggle with math concepts, it will look like this:

Badly drawn Paint diagrams for the win.

Do a 180
About turns can be tricky for the dog since they can look a lot like right turns. As a result, it's not uncommon to see a dog go wide on the about turn. You'd think that the solution would involve very particular footwork, but that's not how Nancy taught it. In fact, she said not to worry too much about your feet; while they do have to do some work, it is more important to think about how the rest of your body moves through space.

As you enter the about turn, above all, you need to stay balanced and keep your feet directly under your shoulders. You should plant a foot facing straight forward (Nancy said it's generally easiest to do the right foot). As soon as that foot plants, look to the right. Your shoulders should follow, and this, more than anything, is what your dog will look at as his cue. Your feet should then rotate in place (envision yourself standing on a paper plate, and try to keep your feet in that area). I found this much easier than trying to remember how to make my feet form a “T” or do other fancy footwork! Don't get me wrong- you can do the “T” if you want- it's just that she doesn't think it's a deal breaker if you don't.

Figure it Out
The figure 8 exercise is possibly the hardest of all the heeling exercises because it has so many components: the dog needs to move fast, slow, turn both right and left, and halt several times. That is a lot of work in a very short amount of time! To handle this exercise well, you need to make sure that your dog has time to transition between each individual skill component.

Start by setting up several strides away from the midline of the figure 8. You want to get several strides of heeling in before you turn so that the dog is up and moving with you. If you starting turning or curving from the sit, he will likely lag or forge (depending on which way you go) from the first step, which will also impact his performance on the rest of the exercise.

You can choose to go to the left or the right first; either direction is acceptable according to the rules. No matter what you choose to do, you need to make sure that your circles are the same size so that your figure 8 is nicely balanced. Everyone's circles will be slightly different based on their dog's size and flexibility, of course, but as a general rule of thumb, you will probably walk approximately 2 to 3 feet away from the stewards. Whatever this distance is, make sure it is the same in both directions. Both circles should be the same size.

At this point, I must point out that using the term “circles” is a bit misleading. While you do want to make your turns nice and rounded, you also want to have straight lines, not curving ones, when you're moving between the two stewards. This is because straight lines give your dog the time he will need to recover and adjust his speed from slightly slower on the left turn to driving forward through the right turn.

There is a sweet spot in which you switch from straight line to turning and from turning to straight line again. To find this spot, mentally draw a line between the two stewards. Then draw a line perpendicularly between the stewards. Your spot will be 2 to 3 feet away from the steward (depending on the size of your circle) on this line.

When you get to one of those sweet spots (indicated by the blue dots in the diagram below), you should walk in a straight line to the next spot. The path you walk will walk something like this:

As you're moving from spot to spot through the figure eight, you need to make sure that your body supports what you're asking your dog to do. The easiest way to do this is by directing your gaze in specific places throughout the exercise.

As you are approaching a circle, you should look at the sweet spot; that keeps your gaze straight ahead, and as a result, your shoulders will be straight, too, which tells the dog to match your pace. Once you've entered the circle, you should look at either the steward's feet or the sweet spot on the other side of the steward (again, indicated by the blue dot on the diagram above). When you're going to the left, this drops your shoulder backwards, which tells your dog to slow down. When you're going to the right, this rotates your shoulder forwards, which lets your dog know he should speed up.

As you are exiting the circle, you should change where you're looking to the next sweet spot by the other steward. Again, this keeps your gaze and your shoulders straight forward, letting your dog know that he should match your pace, and giving him time to recover and prepare for the next change in speed. It will also help you to walk in a straight line. Make sure that as you move from one steward/circle to the next, you cross over the invisible line between the stewards as close to the middle as possible. This will help you keep your circles the same size.

Truthfully, this is all pretty tricky, both to do and to describe! We practiced quite a bit to make sure we were getting nice straight lines and evenly sized circles. While it is important to practice each handling skill before you introduce it to your dog so that you know what you're doing (and look natural doing it), it is especially important to do so with the figure 8.

As I said in part 1, this is not the only way to handle heeling. There are many options, and it is more important that your method feels natural and is understandable to your dog than it is to adhere to any particular style. I do like what I learned from Nancy, and I will be striving to teach these body cues to Maisy. Still... I'd love to hear what you do with these specific exercises. Do you do something similar, or completely different? Share in the comments!


Ninso said...

Working on stuff like this--sounds so simple, but actually quite difficult--really makes you appreciate your dog for what you ask of them!! This is the kind of thing that is good to keep in mind when you're getting frustrated with your dog for not getting what seems like a simple task.

Crystal Thompson said...

AMEN. We ask so much of our dogs.

Joanna said...

Wow, I hadn't realized just how complicated the figure 8 was! Thank you for explaining the breakdown so thoroughly.