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Improving heelwork, who learns first

Further to my last article about teaching heelwork to your dog and to yourself, it is always necessary to set time aside to practice. This is something many people loathe; often preferring to look for some method that is an instant panacea for dog walking problems. Indeed some head collars and some types of harness, do instantly reduce pulling. The question always remains however, how did their dog learn to pull them in the first place.

Walking your dog to heel requires handlers to learn motor skills. As with all such skills, these take time to practice. It is for this reason that dog-training classes are so popular.

Whilst such training classes exist, many people still do not wish to spend the time attending them. Those that do go to classes once a week, often that is the only time they actually practice. This means that they may become frustrated that their dog only works in the class, but not out in the real world, which was their intention.

Many years ago as instructors at the York Road Safety training course, we would regularly look outside the hall before the beginning of the next class. There we would see handlers actually practicing with their dogs because they had not done any other practice during the week. The problem remained that many dogs only worked in the hall. Once outside the dogs would go back to pulling again. This is simply because having completed the class it is easier to let the dog pull. This is just a lazy compromise rather than continuing to correct their dog away from the training area.

There is no easy way to teach heelwork without regular practice whatever method of training you choose to use. Some people still think sending a dog away for two weeks to a professional trainer will work. They expect that on its return, it will walk to heel perfectly for them. Initially it will, but because the owners may know how the instructor trained their dog, they lack the actual motor skills needed to keep the dog corrected. Within one or two weeks the dog is soon back to its old ways.

If owners are not prepared to spend time practicing with their dog then they simply blame it as a compulsive puller and learn to live with it. All I can say to you is you should not blame your dog for pulling.

In my classes for beginners, I do not train the regimented Barbara Woodhouse method with everyone being quiet and all lined up. I like all the other owners to move about, talk, and play with their dogs. Such distractions are just like the real world, but here I am able to manipulate these to the correct level for the dog that is training so it will succeed. Some dogs will take many distractions whilst others just one thing will sidetrack them from what they are doing.

For the owners who then go home to practice they can begin without any distractions. As they progress, they must introduce more little by little as they gain more control to correct their dog.

It is important that when we train our dogs we must recognise when we have a good chance of it succeeding in whatever exercise we are teaching it. If you do not think your dog will do heelwork in a certain environment, then do not do it. Find an area where you will succeed. Failure leads to more failure and the handlerís frustration.

Simply knowing how to correct our dogs and then taking them straight into the real world with its many interruptions, the training will fail. Would you take your first driving lesson in the streets of London in the rush hour?

I watch the novice handlers gradually coming to grips with their new motor skills. It is then I divide each exercise into sections, such as turning left or right, making the dog sit, heeling up and when you move sideways.

Such exercises are turning right in a small circle with your dog by your side and gradually reduce the circle until you are turning on the spot with your dog still turning with you at heel. Turning left also starts in a small circle and ends up with the handler turning on the spot until dizzy whilst the dog is jumping out of the handlerís way.

For heeling up, the handler simply stands in front of their sitting dog. Then they take the lead in the right hand; take one-step backwards with their right leg, pulling the dog round their back. Whilst doing this they exchange the lead into their left hand and move their right foot forward again pulling the dog along to their left side and then make it sit. Then they turn and stand in front of their sitting dog again and keep repeating the exercise until perfected.

As for walking in a straight line I have the handlers do something like dance steps. Start by walking forward first on the left foot, then the right then the left, but this time the right foot comes together with the left then sidesteps to the right. They then move the left foot across to the right and their dog should follow to be by their side. In order to make their dog come parallel with them they take one-step forward and stop with feet together, making their dog sit by their side.

When handlers attempt this exercise, they find themselves exaggerating each step, almost like goose step marching trying to control their coordination. Once completing the exercise the handlers come away mentally drained in the same way they feel after their first driving lesson. Handlers are by this method beginning to learn their correct motor skills section by section until they can combine them all with normal heelwork. When they have their coordination right, they can then concentrate on training their dog.

For all dog-training lessons, the trainer is not training their dogs; they are training the handler to train their own dogs.

It is important for novice handlers to know what they are doing and understand why they are doing it. They must be able to see that their dog can do each exercise when it works for the trainer. Then they can appreciate that the reason for this is simply that they do not yet have the motor skills to be a trainer. Seeing their dog working properly for someone else, then they know all they need to do is practice a little more.

I am not asking handlers to need the trainerís level of skills; they only need a small percentage to become competent trainers able to teach their dog their necessary skills. This is why it is so important to train the handlers first before training their dogs.

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