The key to good heeling is Attention. So I start out with the “Watch Me” games.
Start with puppy sitting in front of you, the second the puppy makes eye contact give a yummy treat. Don’t use any words (commands such as “watch me”)…just wait – they catch on pretty quick to this. Do this same thing with the puppy in heel position, while sitting in a chair, and sitting on the floor. Vary the “picture”; each different position is like a new exercise for your puppy. Start lengthening the time before giving the treat. Here I would start using words…like “good watch” while you are working on holding that eye contact for longer periods. I would also start “marking” the eye contact, I use the word “YES” or you could use a clicker. When puppy is offering eye contact and holding it for 10 seconds you can than start using distractions. Start with holding a treat off to the side of the puppy…the second the puppy looks away from your hand to your eyes, use your “marker word” and pop a yummy treat into her mouth. Use other distractions…treats on both sides of the puppy, move treats closer to puppy, drop a toy near puppy, drop a treat near puppy (in both of the last two, be ready to prevent the puppy from getting the toy or treat). With each of the different distractions you will be going through the same steps for building the duration of the eye contact. You want the puppy to know that GREAT things happen when they make eye contact with you!
Once I have their attention I will start “nibble heeling”. With puppy in heel position I hold a treat at puppy’s nose. Start with just a couple steps letting puppy nibble the treat while moving, when you stop raise the treat and say “sit” (this is assuming the puppy knows the word), lower the treat and take more steps. Eventually you will be working in turns and circles using the treat to help the puppy learn how to move his butt. As puppy progresses start to raise the treat while heeling. You will go through the same steps as when you were doing the nibble heeling. The treat will eventually end up in your mouth (for this reason I like to use chicken or steak : ) But what ever your choice of treats make sure it’s of value to your puppy. At this point I also like to use “play” as a reward and will alternate between treats and a good game of “tug”.
I also like to teach the puppy that “heel” is a position…even if we are standing still.
For this I have the puppy in heel position and take one step away. Using a treat I lure into heel position using the command “heel”. I also will keep the leash on at this point. I will “mark” the correct heel position with my “marker” and give a treat. Slowly add more distance still using the treat as lure. Keep the “call to heel” a straight line…no turns or angles yet. When puppy is hitting the heel spot without any physical guidance, remove the treat lure, using your hand mark the spot on your leg…call “heel”. When puppy hits the heel position, mark it with your “marker word”, break it off, and have a good game of tug or fetch. You can also use stick on dots or a strip of masking tape on your leg to help the puppy with a visual mark for a while. Once the puppy is hitting the heel spot from some distance and without physical help, you can start adding turns and angles. Again, going though each of the beginning steps.
Don’t try to progress too fast – make sure the puppy is solid at each step of the way. There are no short-cuts. This is the foundation of developing “the Team” of you and your puppy for the journey into the world of Obedience or Rally.
“Keep it FUN!” was the biggest lesson my 1st obedience dog (Sierra) taught me.
Being that we are “just humans”, we can become a little impatient or frustrated…that’s when you take a deep breathe, take a big step back and do something you know your puppy will be successful at, end the training session, and go do something FUN with your puppy/dog. Remember – they are doing this for us…the least we can do is make it Fun.
Debbie Seder and the Wind Chaser Samoyeds (also known as “the White dogs” to their non sammy friends) have been consistently successful in the obedience ring, winning top obedience dog awards from both the SCA and the OWS.