When training a show dog, we first start by teaching them to stand still while we move their feet, then we teach them to back up or adjust their feet when we give them small cues with our own feet. You will rarely see a show dog pulling his owner around the ring, simply because he has been taught from a young age that his feet and his movements are being controlled by his handler. You, as your companion dog's pack leader, can easily teach your non-show dog these same things with a few simple exercises.
First, teach your dog a stand-stay, a true "four on the floor". Have your leash in your right hand, your dog on your left. If your dog has been taught to target your hand, with the "touch" command then you can simply use your hand to lure your dog into a stand position at your left side. Keep the dog on your left, as this will help in the future when you are teaching him heel position. Although you may eventually want your dog to sit in heel position whenever you stop walking, in the beginning, it is much easier for the dog to understand walking in heel position (versus forging ahead) if he only has to hold the position from a stand to a walk. Traditional training starts teaching the heel position by placing the dog in a sit on the handler's left side (usually through luring the dog in to position by guiding him with a food treat). The problem with this approach is that dogs can have a hard time realizing that they need to remain in the heel position (in line with your left leg) once they stand up and start moving with you. It simply is not an easy transition, in the dog's mind, to go from basically a sit-stay to moving while remaining in the same position (in relationship to your body). Once their bottom pops up from the floor, they think they are on a regular walk and off they go, right out of heel position. It is an easier transition for the dog to be taught to stand still in heel position, and to wait in that position until we give him the "with me" or "heel" command, where he will then be basically in the same position while walking that he was while standing beside us.
To teach an untrained dog (or one who has not been taught to target your hand) a stand command, simply take your right hand and loop your fingers on his collar underneath his chin and pull gently forward, while placing your left hand underneath his tummy, while saying "stand". Pups or small dogs can be taught the concept of a stand first on a table. Large dogs can be taught on a raised platform (easy to build by putting a piece of plywood up on four concrete blocks) as this is easier on the trainer's back, but once the dog understands the stand, it should quickly be transferred to ground level, since we will be using the stand and "wait" before we start heeling.
Have your dog hold the position at first for only a couple of seconds, while you are gently rubbing the palm of your hand down his back .At the very beginning, he may be prone to sit if you pet him so you may need to hold him up with your hand underneath his tummy instead, and just softly praise, "stand, good stand, goooood boy, that's a goooood boy" in a calm voice. You can also use food in your hand to lure the dog's head a tad forward, while keeping him in a stand position.
As he becomes steady with holding the stand, use your left hand to move his feet into position, such as you would to "stack" a show dog. Or you can simply reach over his left shoulder (he is on your left, you are holding him by the collar or later just with the leash with your right hand) and move his front left foot a little ways back under his body. Even if your dog is not a show dog, move his feet, gently, one at a time, into a stable position underneath him.
Once he understands to remain standing while you stack his feet, then you can remove your right hand from his collar, and give him a hand signal for "wait" while you move in front of him and then back to his right side (dog on your left).
As he begins to understand,start giving the cue to stand by simply taking the palm of your right hand and putting it in front of his face and quickly pulling your hand slightly forward as you say "stand", then ask him to "wait".
Release with an "okay" and a pat on the shoulder.
Once your dog understands the stand without you having to hold him in position, then stand up and position yourself with your left leg in line with his right shoulder (for a small dog, you are lining him up with your ankle). This is heel position.
Require him to wait a few seconds, then give the "okay" command along with "let's go" and step forward on your RIGHT foot. Starting on your right foot gives the dog a half second to realize you are moving and keeps him from doing a little jump to keep up with you (hence getting ahead of you) - it just overall causes a smoother transition into your walk. In another article, we will address how to keep your dog in heel position while walking.
As your dog catches on to standing and waiting before moving, start another exercise to help him think about his feet - ladder training. Remember that short training sessions (5-15 minutes several times daily) work as well, sometimes better, than one very long training session so if you don't have a lot of time, then break your training sessions up into short sessions.
Doing ladder training before you do straight line walking in heel position, will, once again, help instill impulse control by causing your dog to think about what he is doing with his feet. For ladder training, use a short leash. Place a ladder on the ground. Bring your dog to the back of the ladder, put him in a stand and wait position, then tell him "okay, EASY" and SLOWLY lead him through the ladder, with the goal being for him to step in-between, not on, the rungs of the ladder.
If you don't have a ladder, you can lay pieces of wood about 14 or 16 inches long on the ground or even pieces of PVC pipe (if you are working on a paved driveway, then a ladder works much better, as PVC or sticks can roll). For small dogs, put the pieces only a few inches apart, for medium to large dogs, put them 6-8 inches apart (similar to the way the rungs on a ladder are positioned). Remember, we are not teaching the dog to climb a ladder, we are teaching him to avoid the rungs (or the pieces of pipe)--the whole goal of this exercise is to make the dog think about where he is putting his feet.
Be creative and think of various other ways to make your dog think about where he is putting his feet. You can build a small dog walk, such as is used in agility, a piece of wood about 8 inches across and sit it on some heavy books if used indoors or on a couple of patio blocks if outdoors, and teach him to walk slowly across it, you can teach your dog to "back" (walk backwards), you can make a small maze out of straw bales, anything where the dog must walk slower and think about where he is going.
Making your dog "aware" of his feet will be a help in teaching him overall impulse control, which is valuable in any type of training, whether for the companion dog or the competition dog.
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(c) 2010, Melanie Schlaginhaufen, all rights reserved. For reprint permission, get in touch with Melanie through our Contact form. Many thanks to Donna Arnold, breeder and photographer of Wyatt (Slydrocks Wyatt Burp, JS-N, GS-N, CGC) the Aussie pictured in this article. Wyatt is Melanie's training demo dog and beloved companion.