LEFT FOOT OR RIGHT FOOT – What is the best foot to start forward when heeling?
by Barb Levenson
For years most obedience people, except yours truly, have been taught to start heeling with their left foot, the foot closest to the dog. I started my obedience training in Dallas with two individuals who were teaching a beginner obedience class at a local high school. I didn’t know at the time they had multiple OTCH’s (Obedience Trial Champion) on their dogs and were well known in Dallas obedience circles. They taught me to start heeling by going off on my right foot. Not knowing any better I did exactly as I was told.
Last night I was teaching “scoot sits” to my beginner rally class. I use scoot sites to teach understanding to the dog about how to maneuver into a fast sit for halts. In order to develop a scoot sit the handler takes a small “shuffle step forward” with a lure at the dog’s nose. The behavior is to have the dog offer a slight hop forward of his hind legs and then right back to the sit. I often describe it as the dog sweeping the floor with his feathers.
Several of my new students were having difficulty getting their dogs to move out of the sit. Even giving the dog a release word such as “OK” did not help. Suddenly I realized what the difficulty was. They were starting on the wrong foot. They were starting with their left foot. I asked them to do something different. I requested they start off on their right foot and then bring up the left. To their amazement all of the dogs immediately knew they were to move forward and they got scoot sits right away. They asked me to explain.
Anyone who has read my book, Flatwork – Foundation for Agility knows obedience has taught me a great deal about agility. But the reverse is also true. Agility has taught me even more about obedience. In agility the most important and largest cue or signal we give our dog is the motion and direction of our body. Dogs are very skillful at watching our bodies and are experts in predicting where we are going next. But most people don’t think about that as much in obedience as they do in agility.
Mary and Jack, my Dallas trainers, instinctively understood something. By teaching me to start on my right foot instead of my left they taught me to give my dog a “pre-cue” in obedience. I remember several agility seminars where we were taught to use a pre-cue which was simply an early cue telling the dog what is coming next. Here’s how it works for obedience:
Let’s say my dog is on my left side sitting in heel position. If I move forward with my left leg, even if I have said “heel,” it may take a second or two for the cue to compute, register with the dog and the dog to respond. This response rate may result in my dog being a little late in getting up to move with me. This is especially true of the bigger dogs that have a lot of body to get up and moving quickly. My dog at that time was a German shepherd and a bit slow to respond to her very novice trainer. So starting with my left foot would have resulted in a lag, the dog slightly behind my left leg.
However, if I start off on my right foot my body is signaling to or cuing my dog that I am starting to go forward. As I step forward on my right leg my shoulders and my body incline forward indicating forward motion. My dog who is still sitting by my left leg is getting a pre-cue and being told in advance we are moving forward. With this information he then gets up at the very time I move my left leg and is able to maintain PERFECT HEEL POSITION!
I have been starting off all my heeling for 35 years with the “Heel” cue and forward motion signaled by the movement of my right leg. My novice students last night suddenly saw the benefit of also starting with their right foot. I think each and every one of them will work very hard to change. It was pretty exciting. Here is a video of Class and I doing scoot sits. Watch as he clearly understands what is going to happen and moves fluidly with me. Which foot are you starting with when you heel?
Here’s how I teach scoot sits if you want to try them for yourself.
Have several treats in your left hand. Lure the dog into a sit, give a treat. Hold the food directly above the dog’s nose positioned so you keep the dog’s head up, his butt on the floor and body aligned. Don’t move your hand. Take a small shuffle step forward being very careful to move straight ahead. The dog should just scoot forward into a sit almost sweeping the floor with his hind leg feathers if he has them. If your dog actually gets up you are moving too far forward and the food may be too far in front of his nose. Since you are only moving a tiny distance, the hind legs can even just hop forward to get back into the sit. And that is what you really want with this sit – the front legs stop moving and the hind legs quickly hop, scooch and tuck up into a sit.
If you want to learn more about Barb’s training techniques then watch out for her educational webinars with PPG. Barbs next webinar is Teaching A Great Dumbbell Retrieve – From Spoons To A Retrieve – It’s All Fun & Games. Click here to learn more