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Heeling: Teaching and Maintaining Attention
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As I travel around the country teaching and giving seminars, it has become clear that teaching a dog to pay attention during the heeling exercise remains the most frustrating aspect of dog obedience. A dog that doesn’t pay attention is unable to maintain an accurate heel position and achieve the heeling scores of his attention paying counterparts. How do you get your dog’s attention, and more importantly, how do you maintain it?

Shaping the Behavior

Most trainers begin the heeling exercise by bribing the dog to pay attention. This is an important first step. However, there are lots of acceptable heeling “styles” as some dogs make eye contact with their trainer and some look sideways, keeping an eye on their handler’s body.

Having your dog walk next to you and look at you at the same time seems easy enough. However, it’s not easy for every dog. The following video has several dogs that are just learning to walk and look up at the same time. There are several techniques demonstrated that might help you get your dog’s attention.

No matter what technique you choose, when you begin to lure your dog into heel position, do so at a slow pace. Shape the correct behavior by using your voice to praise him when he is looking at you, and stop praising when he looks away. As he becomes comfortable performing the behavior, increase the speed and the distance that you go.

Some dogs are simply not motivated to look up, no matter what the bribe. With those hard to motivate dogs, it is tempting to give up the goal of attentive heeling. If luring will not illicit the behavior you desire, don’t change your goal, change your technique! Try using a “hands on” approach and hold your dog’s head in the position you desire. You can do this by holding the dog’s head up with your hand or by using a head halter.

Currently, it is fashionable to spend tremendous amounts of time bribing the dog into a hackney pony or dressage horse gait. Before you spend an inordinate amount of time creating an unnatural style, consider your dog’s conformation. Even if your young dog can maintain an artificial “prance” as you lure him, is it realistic to expect him to be agile and athletic enough to perform the same gait when he is older? Taking advantage of your dog’s natural style and body shape will make attentive heeling easier to achieve and maintain over the course of his career.

Requiring the Behavior
When your dog willingly allows you to bribe him to walk and look at you at the same time, it is time to require the behavior. Employing two aspects of operant conditioning - positive and negative reinforcement, will turn your bribe into a reward, and your dog will understand that he has a job to do, and that doing his job is lots of fun.

The definition of reinforcement is that it makes a behavior more likely to occur in the future. Instead of using your treat as a bribe, you need to teach your dog that when he pays attention, something positive will occur. He will earn the treat. Likewise, if he does not pay attention, something unpleasant will occur. It is a simple process to teach your dog that a quick tug on the leash will occur any time he fails to pay attention (negative reinforcement). More importantly, your dog can learn that he can stop the tug on the leash by looking at you. Furthermore, h”e can avoid having you tug the leash again by refusing to look away.

When you start your car without putting your seatbelt on, something negative occurs. The annoying buzz or beep begins. As soon as you buckle your seat belt, the sound stops. You are trained to stop the unpleasant noise. Furthermore, you can avoid ever hearing the noise if you buckle your seatbelt before you put your car in gear. You control the negative reinforcement. You know how to make it stop (buckle up!) and you know how to keep it from happening again (buckle up sooner!).

Just as you have learned how to control the buzzer, with some instruction, your dog can learn to control whether you ever need to tug his leash. Let’s review the steps used to achieve attention in heel position.

Step 1: In Front
Begin with your dog sitting in front of you. Praise him when he looks at you. If he looks away, give a tug on the leash. If he looks back, praise, and reward him because he has just stopped the correction. Don’t stop there; you also want evidence that your dog knows how to prevent the correction. This will be evident when he has heard something or is distracted by a toy or touch but refuses to look away.

Step 2: In Heel Position
If your dog successfully can stop and prevent the correction when he is sitting in front of you, move to heel position. Continue with the same drill. Your dog should look up any time you give a quick tug on the leash, but more importantly, he should refuse to look away with distraction because he knows he can prevent that annoying tug from happening again.

Step 3: Moving in Heel Position
Finally, start walking with your dog in heel position, bribing him to look at you. When he looks away, give a quick tug up on the leash. If you have done your job, he will understand how to make you stop by immediately looking back at you. When he does, praise, and release him and then give him the treat. You have just successfully used both negative and positive reinforcement. The pop on the leash starts the desired behavior of looking at you. The treat rewarded the correct behavior.

It won’t be long before your dog is trotting next to you looking up. He will completely understand that he is avoiding negative reinforcement and earning positive reinforcement. It’s simple and it works!