I am really proud of Maisy’s heeling- although I never thought I’d say that. It used to be that her heeling was sort of dull and lackluster, but these days it's bright and animated. She is focused and excited and definitely having fun; she thinks it’s a huge game. Which it is, actually, because I taught Maisy to heel for a ball reward. This wasn’t easy, because every time I tried to use a ball, her brain fell out of her head. But I wanted the attitude that I was sure would come if she thought heeling was fun, so I needed to figure out how to use her ball as a reward.
Luckily, I was able to get a working spot at a Denise Fenzi seminar, who is a master at using play to get excellent results. Thanks to Denise’s excellent coaching, Maisy now has some awesome heeling skills. She’s still not perfect, but she definitely has a solid foundation. I documented the process last summer/fall here on this blog, but I thought it would be nice to organize all of that information into one post.
Step 1: Get the Dog Thinking
This is the hardest step. No matter how much your dog has heeled in the past, if he loves his ball, there’s a pretty good chance that he’ll forget it all when you bring the ball out. Prevent disappointment and frustration by starting from the beginning. Don’t worry- this doesn’t take that long. I trained for about five minutes a day, four times a week, and spent about two weeks on each step. In the end, I spent less than three months accomplishing more than I had in the three years before.
So, how do you get your dog to start thinking? Teach him that the ball only gets thrown when he exerts some self control. Since most ball-obsessed dogs will run forward looking for his ball (and thus forging at heel!), require him to be in line with your hip. Start the training session by walking. Your dog will no doubt run to your side, and yes, cross that imaginary line. Immediately turn and go in the other direction. You’ll probably do this three or four or more times. That’s okay, just keep changing directions until it’s obvious he’s try to control himself- it will probably only be for a step or two- and throw his ball.
Make no mistake, this is not heel position- Maisy went very wide, especially when I turned around- but don’t worry about that right now. All you want is for him to be thinking and demonstrating that he can control himself when excited. Continue building on that until he can stay in line with you for about 10 to 20 feet.
Step 2: Close the Gap
Now it’s time to get your dog close to you. The easiest way to do this is to temporarily relax the criteria of remaining in line with your hip, which means that you’ll see some forging again. That’s okay for now. Since your dog has learned some self-control, so it’s unlikely that he’ll go shooting off too far ahead (Maisy was about a half to a full body length ahead of me at this stage). It’s also unlikely that he will immediately get right next to your leg, so you’ll need to shape him closer and closer to you during each subsequent session. I generally expected my dog to be about three inches closer to me each time.
If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to simply capture this. If your dog accidentally moves closer, throw the ball immediately. If you’re not so lucky, you can try patting your leg, talking to your dog, and/or drifting away from him. As soon as he makes a move to get closer, throw the ball. Continue doing this until your dog is tight against your leg, and can maintain that for 10 to 20 feet.
Step 3: Perfect the Position
It is easier to get this than you might expect. Start walking. Your dog will be close to your leg because that’s what you’ve been working on. Now, however, when he forges, slow down. Your dog will probably slow down, too. Reward him as soon as he gets into heel position, both in line with your hip and tight to your leg. If you have to, shape him in stages, just like you did when encouraging him to get close.
When he can stay in place for about five feet, return to a normal pace. If he forges, slow down again. Throw the ball if he maintains the correct position. It didn’t take Maisy very long to figure out that she should both be in line with my hip and close to my leg. Keep working on it until your dog can maintain the correct position for 10 to 20 feet without you needing to slow down.
Note: you can also correct the forging by doing an about turn, and if that works for you, go for it. This made Maisy go wide, though, which defeated the point of close and in position.
Step 4: Change the Motivator
At this point, your dog is probably already watching you pretty closely because OMG YOU HAVE MY BALL, but you can’t take a ball in the ring, so you need to motivate him to pay attention for other reasons. To do this, you’re going to change your pace and direction frequently- like every three to five seconds. Go fast, go slow. Turn right, turn left. Do about turns. And most of all, be unpredictable. Not only is this way more fun for most dogs, but it also makes change to be the reason to pay attention, not just the ball.
At the same time, start using the ball way less often as a reward- about half as often, in fact. Again, the reason to pay attention is you, so praise your dog like crazy when he’s doing well, and reserve the ball for particularly brilliant moments, or for longer stretches of time (every thirty seconds or so at first, but stretch that out as he gets better).
Step 5: Start and Stop
So far, we’ve just started walking, not worrying about the sit at heel. Now it’s time to add that in. I found it easiest to work on adding the halt instead of starting from a sit. Again, you’ll need to tackle sitting in line separately from sitting closely from sitting straight. Once your dog is sitting where you want him reliably, stop rewarding it every time and work on starting from heel, too. Soon your dog will be a total pro!
Some Final Notes…
You can speed this process up if you are thoughtful about how and where you present your dog’s ball. Since dogs will often anticipate where the reward will show up, a ball thrown forward will often yield more forging. If you throw the ball out to your left, you’ll encourage him to go wide. The best option is to drop the ball to your dog in the correct position. If your dog is like mine, however, and relishes chasing the ball over catching it or possessing it, experiment with throwing the ball behind you. I found this a bit tricky at first (so did Maisy), but together we figured it out. If your dog starts anticipating the ball going in the new direction, simply change it up between throwing it forward and behind.
Keep in mind this isn’t the only way to train a dog. This is just how I did it. Obviously, it’s geared towards a dog who goes over-the-top in excitement. If your dog is lagging, you’ll handle it very differently (I would try speeding up and rewarding when he tries to match your speed). Know your dog. If this doesn’t sound like it would work with your dog, don’t do it. Well, except the having fun part. You should definitely have fun no matter what.
But if your dog is like mine and his brains just go to goo when he sees the ball, there’s a good chance this might work for you. I know that I am very, very pleased with the results. I’m still blown away by how happy Maisy has been in the ring in the past month, and impressed by her very nice performance.
Finally, let me know if you try this. I’d love to hear how it goes. If you’ve done something else to help teach your ball-obsessed dog to work for one as a reward, please leave a comment about that, too. I’m sure someone could benefit from your experience!