In trials, heelwork is probably the most tedious exercise we teach, maybe excepting stays. At the end of the day there are only five points for heelwork (fifteen in CD) and of course it is possible to qualify at all levels without any marks at all for heelwork!
The Golden Wonder’s best asset is his looks so with that in mind I set about training him to look stylish in heelwork. I like to see a dog stepping out in heelwork lifting his head attentively and working freely, i.e. not leaning onto the handler, nor of course sniffing the ground, losing concentration or wandering off.
I teach heelwork in separate parts;
1. Food catching
2. Food following
3. Hand target
4. Heelwork position touching the hand
5. Heelwork position – no hands!
It might not seem anything like heelwork, but I teach the dog to catch food to get attention and a raised head. As most dogs are not well co-ordinated enough to catch until they are five or six months of age the Golden Wonder did not start this exercise until he was about ten months. I tried several times to see if he was developed enough to catch to no avail. Finally I reckoned he must be old enough – just not quick enough, so I set about teaching him to catch.
Twice a day, before feeding, I stood with a pot of large kibble on the work top in the kitchen and the other dogs shut outside. I took one piece of kibble in my left hand and let the Golden Wonder sniff it. As he was smelling it I raised my hand about a foot over his head and dropped the kibble. It hit him on the head and fell to the floor. He quickly followed it and ate it off the floor. I got another piece out of the bowl and repeated the game. We tried again and again without success so the Golden Wonder tried his own variation – he tried to snatch it from my hand, when he did this I simply raised my hand; he had to learn to catch after I dropped, not jump and snatch. When he stopped jumping I would drop and he would head butt it and chase it around the floor. I dropped piece after piece. Each time he tried his best to catch but missed. No matter he got them off the floor. I experimented by dropping at differing heights. Closer to his mouth (easier to catch?) higher up (more time to see it coming?) and finally he caught a piece! Good Dog! I rewarded him by putting the whole bowl with remaining contents on the floor for him to devour. I wanted him to know that catching the kibble was far preferable to scrabbling on the floor to get one bit.
Each meal time we repeated the above process and after a couple of weeks he finally began to improve. At this stage, to give more catching opportunities when he caught a piece I would give him a free handful of food but not the whole bowlful, so we could have several more goes per meal. Slowly, slowly he was becoming more eye – mouth co-ordinated. and I learnt the height from which he caught the most.
As we became more proficient I raised the bar. Now he had to catch two successive pieces to gain a ‘free’ handful. We stayed at this level for about another week with twice daily practises until two successive catches were occurring regularly. Then I upped the reward criteria again, he had to catch three in a row to get a free handful. We stuck at this level for a very long time and at times I nearly threw in the towel in despair, but suddenly we progressed and he learnt to catch three in a row successfully. All this time he had been learning to concentrate on watching my hand. There was no warning when the food was dropped so he watched it like a hawk. He learnt to concentrate because he wanted the food. He also developed the ability to hold his head up for several minutes at a time and he learnt not to look away at any distraction because if he did I just walked away from the bowl and terminated the game. All this and I did nothing but stand still and drop his kibble one piece at a time. Now we were ready to progress to the second stage of heelwork training.
I am fortunate to have a large kitchen so the progression to this second part of heelwork training was easy. The Golden Wonder had got used to me dropping food from above his head. All I had to do was to take a step or two forward with the piece of kibble in my hand and drop it as soon as he attempted to follow it. I needed to tease him a couple of time and soon he learnt to keep his head – or rather his mouth directly under the kibble as it moved forward. Now we were moving it felt a lot more like heelwork. I found he was more successful in the beginning if I stopped and dropped once he got the idea of keeping his mouth under the titbit as I walked. Soon we were able to move this exercise out onto the patio where instead of taking a bowl of food I simply used a pouch on my right hand side so I could replenish my left hand quickly from my right after each drop. The Golden Wonder really got into the swing of this and before long he was able to catch most pieces even whilst moving at a reasonable pace. At this stage I dropped the titbit when he stepped out smartly, - dropped when he trotted with style. Now I was shaping style as well as attention. He was still not in the heelwork position but he was moving stylishly at arms length on my left hand side and he looked stunning!
This week I whilst practising my heelwork, I was looking at my dog and thinking how stunning he was when I did not notice a branch lying on the ground and walked straight into it. Not having time to think I hit the ground at great speed and lay there full length in the mud. The Golden Wonder thought this new exciting addition to the exercise was great fun and jumped all over me with delight! The Golden Wonder might be pretty but I guess I am not so stylish then.