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Principles & Techniques: Attentive Heeling
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Principles & Techniques: Attentive Heeling

Most of us are no longer competing in just one venue. Our choices have grown from obedience, fieldwork and tracking to include rally, agility, breed specific instinct tests, nose work, and more. As your knowledge expands, and your dog acquires the skills to compete in these other venues, stop for a moment, and understand how all your dog training is related. The principles of dog training are the same, regardless of the venue. As we discover new skills that we want our dogs to learn, we often fail to understand the underlying technique. How do I teach my dog the broad jump, contacts, weave poles, blind retrieves, nose work? How, how, how?

Be Guided by Principle Not Technique

You will save yourself countless hours if you understand that no matter what you are teaching your dog, you should be more interested in the principle that is behind that technique than you are in the actual recipe, or steps that are going to take you there. In fact, as my husband Pat Nolan so eloquently said, “If you don’t understand the principles, you are a slave to technique.” In other words, you will need the written instructions, the step-by-step manual, and the instructor standing over your shoulder forever.

Recently, at a particularly memorable seminar, I had three participants tell me that they intended to teach their dogs how to do obedience without a leash. I was confused. Using a leash is a technique. Leashes are not a principle. I was unclear as to why the leash had become the forbidden technique. I was further confused when I dug deeper into the situation and learned that all the dogs in question were learning to compete in hunt tests and the owners were using electric collars, as is customary in that sport. The message I received from these participants was that they wanted to prepare their dogs to compete in obedience without using negative reinforcement, but were very comfortable using negative reinforcement to train their dogs in the field. You should not be guided by a principle in one venue and then ignore it in a different venue?

Principles Do Not Change, Techniques Do Change

Write this down and memorize it: Principles do not change, techniques do. If a principle makes sense to you in one area of your dog’s education, it should make sense to you in all areas of his education. My conversation with the three participants at my seminar reminded me how we so easily abandon principle and become slaves to technique. What principles should guide you as you traverse through the land of dog training? If you start with the following four principles, dog training will become quite simple:

1. Dogs can solve problems- mindless repetition is out.

Dogs are Problem Solvers. In a world of tag lines and marketing, I have inadvertently branded myself with this statement. What does it mean?

On the first night of beginner’s class, I explain to pet owners how dogs solve problems. I use this example: If you put your dog outside, and he doesn’t want to be there, he will solve his problem. He will start by barking at the door. If you ignore him when he barks, he will scratch at the door. If you don’t want your door scratched, and you quickly go to let him in, he will learn that barking does not solve his problem, but scratching does. In other words, he will continue to offer different behaviors until he finds one that solves his problem.

Every time you pick up a handful of treats, you are getting your dog to solve a problem. His problem? You have the treats and he wants them. He offers behaviors, sometimes incrementally closer to the behavior that you desire, and he earns treats. He is solving his problem.

Understanding that “Dogs are Problem Solvers” will guide you into a world of dog training that embraces your dog’s ability to “figure it out,” and steers you away from techniques that embrace mindless repetition. If you believe that your dog can solve a problem, you will challenge an instructor or technique that states, “Do the following 1000 times and your dog will finally start doing it himself.”

Think about the skill you are currently teaching your dog that is giving you the most difficulty. Are you treating your dog as if he can solve a problem, or do you believe that if you “do it long enough,” your dog can learn it? I believe that if your dog sees the skill as a problem, he will find a way to solve it. He may first make an error but eventually he will find a solution.

2. Dogs make two kinds of errors- effort errors and lack of effort errors.

Please don’t pick up the leash until you understand this principle: Dogs make “effort errors” and “lack of effort errors.” Every time you ask your dog to do something, and he fails to perform, you need to ask yourself the question; was my dog trying or not?

“Effort Errors” are characterized by confusion and fear. If you look down at your dog and sense that he is worried, confused, or acting hesitantly, you need to gently and firmly show him what to do. You should not give a second command, beg, plead, hope, or pray. You should have one of two responses; either, you physically show him what to do (e.g. if he failed to sit, gently but firmly move him in the correct direction by pushing him into a sit, or if he chooses to take the wrong jump, set him up to try again (e.g. on Directed Jumping exercise).

“Lack of Effort Errors” are characterized by a dog who appears distracted or not interested. Your expectation must be that your dog remains engaged, trying to learn what you are trying to teach him. If you look down at your dog and he is not paying attention to you, you have a fundamental problem that requires a response.

3. Negative reinforcement can be used to address lack of effort errors.

Before using negative reinforcement, you must teach it. If you do anything to your dog that he does not like, you must have taken the time to teach him how to make it stop and how to prevent it from happening again. Read that sentence again --- Negative reinforcement is something you know how to stop and you know how to keep from happening again. Consider the seat belt buzzer in the car. When it goes off, you know how to make it stop. You also know how to prevent it from happening the next time you get into the car. You are in control. You are not bothered by the seatbelt for fear it will randomly start chiming at you. You completely control whether that negative event (the annoying chiming) will occur. Likewise, you must spend time teaching your dog how to control any type of correction that he perceives as negative.

In response to every questionnaire, at every seminar, with every group, the exercise that causing the most problem is poor heeling. In general, when I encounter a dog that heels poorly, and I ask the handler to get out a treat and try again, the dog looks practically perfect trotting next to the handler with enthusiasm. What is missing? The handler has started with the first principle, “Dogs Are Problem Solvers.” He has given the dog a problem to solve by offering a treat. The dog has figured out that he gets a treat when he trots enthusiastically by his owner’s side. However, when the treat disappears, the dog no longer has a problem. There is no longer a problem for him to solve. There is no treat and therefore, no reason to be attentive. What is missing is a consequence for not paying attention.

What does your dog think a quick tug on the leash means? If he could talk, and you asked him “What should you do when I tug on the leash?” His response should be “look at you!” It’s simple, and unbelievably straightforward to teach your dog that a tug on the leash means pay attention. Every time I give a seminar, someone (more often many people) want me to help with their heeling. The dog heels beautifully if the reward is visible, and stops when it is not. In almost every case, I fix the problem by showing the handler he has a tool to use that can easily communicate to the dog that he must pay attention. The tool is merely a quick tug on the leash.

Try it. Stand in front of your dog with the clasp of the leash under his chin and talk to him. If he looks away, stop talking, and give the leash a quick tug. If he looks back, praise him, and then give him the treat. You are giving the dog a problem. Every time he looks away, something unpleasant occurs. You are teaching him how to stop it. He solves the problem by looking back at you.

Please don’t miss this point! Just as you stop the chime of the seat belt when you buckle up, your dog can stop the quick tug by looking back at you. Furthermore, just as you can prevent the annoying chiming noise by buckling your seat belt before you start the car, your dog can prevent the tug by maintaining his attention on you. Try this. Have someone move around you, talking to you and your dog. Every time he looks away, you give a tug. Every time he looks back, praise him. Be sincere. Praise him from your heart. You are excited. He is learning how to stop a negative event when it occurs. Let him know how happy this makes you.

Watch carefully. Soon your dog will acknowledge that there is a person moving around you, but he will not look. He may flick his eyes or his ears, but he will decide to solve the problem by not looking away. He will prevent the negative event from occurring. Praise his good decisions. Get excited. Watch the principle at work. Your dog is learning how to stop and how to prevent a negative event. He is learning how to control negative reinforcement. The principles are starting to make sense to him.

4. Dogs are situational.

On the first night of beginner class, I teach my students that dogs are problem solvers, and that they are situational. What this principle means is that when you teach your dog a skill in one location, under one set of circumstances, he may not perform the skill in a new location or under a new set of circumstances. If you understand this principle, you understand that you need to change your location, position, or circumstances to determine if your dog still understands that a tug on the leash means “pay attention.” Understanding this principle is the answer to every student’s lament: “He always does it at home!”

So, change your position relative to your dog. Stand next to him in heel position instead of in front of him. Proceed through the same process. Praise him for looking at you. Stop talking and give a quick tug if he looks away. Praise him when he looks back, enthusiastically, genuinely, and sincerely. Still having success? Try changing your situation again. Try walking with your dog in heel position. If he looks away, give a quick tug on the leash. When he looks back, sincerely praise a job well done, take a break, if you feel compelled, and give him a treat. The important thing is that he feels how excited you are that he is figuring this out. If you have a dog that is willingly trotting around the ring, looking at you when you have a treat in your hand, but not looking at you when you don’t, you may work through these steps in one training session. You may be stunned to learn that even though you were not sure what your dog thought he should do if you gave a tug on the leash, he already understood that you wanted his attention. Soon you will be moving around the circle, dog in heel position, cheerfully looking at you most of the time, and if he gets distracted, a quick tug will regain his attention and you will continue to heel.

Sound too easy? It is easy if you understand the principles behind the technique:

  1. Your dog can solve problems.
  2. Your dog will make two kinds of mistakes, effort errors, and lack of effort errors. You can use negative reinforcement to stop lack of effort errors (lack of attention) but you must first spend time teaching your dog how to stop and how to prevent the negative reinforcement from occurring.
  3. Your dog is situational, so you will practice in numerous positions relative to his body, and ultimately, numerous locations.

The techniques you choose should be guided by the principles in which you believe.

When I cook, I am a slave to the recipe, because I don’t understand the techniques. I can read, therefore I can cook, but not really, because if I am missing an ingredient, I have no skill to replace it. In fact, if something goes wrong while I’m cooking, I not only don’t recognize it, I certainly can’t save it. The entire meal is ruined. Even though I have played the piano all my life, and I can play beautiful pieces of music, without the music, I am hopeless. Having never learned the principles behind the music, I am a slave to the notes that others have written.

Techniques are devised by breaking the exercises we are trying to teach into manageable pieces. If you understand the principle, you will not be a slave to technique. In fact, when your dog starts to respond differently than you expected, guided by principle, you will be able to alter the technique. (See the Flow Chart in the article How Dogs Learn.)

Connie Cleveland 2017©