A Practical Approach to Motivational Dog Obedience Training
Lori Drouin            Fall River Mills, California

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How do you work on heeling and keep it fun?

How Do You Work Heeling?

    This question comes up a lot, and is usually accompanied by some comment about heeling being boring or difficult. No question about it, precision heeling is detailed. Motivating a dog to pay attention to those details is a challenge, but only in terms of presentation. Otherwise, what motivates your dog to do anything at all will motivate heeling. The question is one of deciding if you are working on attitude and anticipation, or selectively rewarding position accuracy.


      Racing games, tug games, and wrestling games with your dog can build play/prey/ pack drives in your dog. It motivates your dog to enjoy simply interacting with you when it's well done. These activities must be well-trained interactions themselves before they can be used for heeling. The games begin on cue, are played by rules, and end on cue without confrontation. For example, the racing game is the dog chasing you. There is a set of cues: “on your mark...get set.. ready...go!”; also your body posture and the run away from your dog. There is a set of rules:

  1) The dog must wait for the “go” cue.

  2) There must be no hard biting of any human appendages in the course of the game.

  3) The dog must minimize vocalization to keep the game going without interruption.

  4) The dog must accept and respond to control commands quickly at the end of a race.

    Similar rules apply to toys and tug games:

  1) The toys belong to you.

  2) The dog may grab the toy and tug on command, without pushing before the command, and without grabbing human appendages.

  3)  The dog must let go on command at your discretion without argument, and be cooperative and responsive to commands that follow the relinquishment.

    The rules have to be well established as trained issues all by themselves. If you have to end a tug game by grabbing your dog's collar and opening his mouth to take the toy out, your game hasn't been refined enough to make it a useful tool in the rest of your training. The arguments about letting go will undermine the motivation you wanted to build. Keep working the get it/ tug it/ give it up/ get it/ tug it/ give it up sequence until your dog stabilizes his responses to the toy itself and your commands.

    Once established, the games can be used according to the Premack Principle, in which you use the play activities to reward the technical activities of heeling (or anything else you want to train). But break your heeling down into simple components. For me, it begins with hand targeting, having the dog hit my left palm when it is presented parallel to the ground as a flat surface. That target is the core of his heeling task, and recognition of it by hitting it on cue is the primary skill. That  skill was taught initially with food in the hand to reward the touch in place, but when the dog has graduated to being able to hit the hand target when it is empty, I have the freedom now to reward with food after the fact, or to mark the targeting behavior verbally and move right into the tug game or racing game. When using games to build enthusiasm, we work hand targeting without the dog being in heel position at first. I just want to build excitement and enthusiasm about recognition of the cue and strong response. At first we play a game or I offer rewards after every hit; then I ask for 2, 3 or even 5 hits to earn a game. 

    When the dog is sharp on the correct response to the target, we move on to the set up, or left finish. I ask the dog to get into position, and the game begins. After the game ends,  he is to get back into position on command and the game resumes. At first this is not nearly as easy as it sounds, since the dog will inevitably try to grab the toy again rather than move back to heel on command, and may require you to use some physical guidance at first; but repetition will get better fluency as the dog makes the connection that the game begins with his cooperation.

   Next we add hand targeting after the dog has hit position, and then add on to the sequence so that we have the set up, the target in place, and a one step take off and hand target, with praise and release to the game. Once that is accurate, we move on to more distance in straight line heeling, turns, and changes of pace. The dog's job is simple: Stay focused on that target hand, and change direction or speed as needed to keep yourself in position to hit it on cue. The duration and complexity of navigation changes a bit as we go, but with sufficient motivation, the dog is well able to learn to adjust to keep himself in the win zone. He'll learn to speed up for the right and about turns, and maintain focus in anticipation of the game coming soon, soon, very soon! This process is a lifetime aspect of training and maintaining good attitude in heeling.

   Now games can have some problems with superstitiously learned position shifts in heel position. While we love the attitude, for heeling there must be a lot of balancing work done to shape, clarify and reward correct body position. Praise used in an informative way goes a long way on this effort. Carefully placed food can help refine head and body line work for straight line heeling and for halts, left turns, and pinpoint attention on straight line work. Games sometimes inspire overdrive physically, and some head position choices that push the dog forward and around, looking for The Move to produce the toy or cue the game. Likewise, food delivery routes from right to left hand can cause the same lean and wrap problems. So often, I will praise good position, then release the dog to play, get a treat prepared while playing the game, bring the dog out of the game and back into the technical position I want to reinforce, and deliver the treat with the dog in as accurate a placement as possible.

   When you are attempting to improve something specific, like about turns or right turns, you can use either direct rewards or premack activities to achieve your goals. The key is in repeating the skills enough times for your dog to see what you want, and achieve the pleasure of either reward type by giving you the response you want. When he is anticipating success, you then push for two repetitions before rewarding, then three, then four, so that the dog begins to push harder on each repetition. In this process, praise of effort all along is important to assure the dog that he is correct, even though the game or the food isn't happening right this instant. As the dog becomes comfortable and confident, the amount of praise might be tapered off, but certainly should always come back to precede actual rewards. While working the turn skills, bring in more frequent hand targets to assure that the dog is pinpointing his focus and head position throughout all individual parts of your skill set. This is a way to check on your dog's active WORKING focus. If he misses the target touch, he may be forging to look for the toy or game, or he may have checked out. If he can hit the target quickly and easily, then he is in good position and remembers that he is supposed to be looking for those opportunities to DO THE TASK.

    There's a place in training for working on patterns for the sake of handling, and learning the limits of your dog's quickness of responses to halts and distraction resistance to gates and ribbons and people. But on an average training day, your job is to work on motivating and refining the components, and then doing a little sequencing work, and then ending your session with some motivational set ups and short action segments that include rewards during the work or lead to releases between segments. As with any obedience exercise, attention is the foundation upon which your work is built. Breaks in the foundation always take priority on the action list. It's pointless to practice take offs and halts on a dog that is spacing out too much to see your footwork and physical cues. So while that might be your goal for this session, you need to do the racing game, then the hand targeting, and maybe some distraction resistance work on hand targeting so that you have enough dog to accomplish the goal with the halts. Revisit those foundations often, and keep them sharp and strong! Always leave your session with your dog wanting more!