What We've been up to

This page is dedicated to the endless search for knowledge and for the passion captured while training our dogs. As Lila and I discover new adventures and try new things, I will be posting them here.  The goal of this page is to highlight the inspiration to try new things with your dog. It is also important to understand that even as professional dog trainers, nothing is perfect.  And to have some good laughs as we maneuver our way through each adventure. 

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The road to a focused heel

Have you ever seen a working dog walking next to their handlers while their heads are completely straight up, staring directly in to their handler’s eyes? I wanted that.  I wanted that power, precision, and connection with my dog.  Little did I know how much work was needed to achieve that one behavior.  

In August of 2015 I drove to a Maryland truck stop to pick Lila up from a rescue organizations’ halfway point. Lila was originally from Tennessee, where her foster parents found her tied to a tree. She was reactive to people and dogs, somewhat unstable in new environments, and did not like being handled by anyone. I believe this was mostly due to her lack of socialization as a puppy.  After working with a trainer and becoming a professional trainer myself, our true relationship building started the following year when I joined an online training course in order to help achieve our goal of a focused heel. It was called “Heelers Toolbox 1,” and our instructor was Forrest Micke. During this course there would be a series of videos to watch, homework to record, and live chats with Forrest. Within the first week, I realized Lila had little to no motivation for anything. The only things she really had the drive to do was roll in poop and chase squirrels. She was sortof interested in kibble, and a little bit excited about food roll; but I needed more than that. I needed her to wantto participate in training sessions and wantto be a part of what soon turned into a journey. 

I had to find what was actually motivating to Lila.  Anything. So, on I went—trying different feeding techniques, and sampling a multitude of different treat varieties.  As soon as I found something she was mildly interested in, I began the foundation for shaping her head placement.  Some dogs are very comfortable with their heads straight up, others are slightly to the side, and some are flatter with their eyes towards their owner.  This is based on the techniques used to achieve head position, reward placement, and the comfort of the dog, along with various other factors. Lila’s head is always about 65% straight, with her nose turned slightly in towards my body.  Amidst the mild progress we were making, it was about this time that I had started to notice subtle differences in our relationship.  Nothing major or earth shattering…however, she would actually look at me once in a while.  “Look at you, you say? Dogs do that all the time.” Yes, yes. You are correct. But this was different. She looked at me with intent. She started to want to participate in activities together and was excited about our sessions.  I’ve heard people talk about this instant bond they have with their dogs. Oddly enough, I have had that experience with my first dog, Abigail. That connection was there from the moment I picked her up.  Her and I never did any formal training, nor was I as obsessed dog behavior and training as I am today. With Lila on the other hand I had to work for it. Work really damn hard to develop that bond, and I did it though training.  I knew what I was looking for but I didn’t know what it felt like to create it until it began to happen. Not only was I training Lila on a daily basis but also I was completely submersed in the training world. I was surrounded, near and far, by passionate people who loved working with dogs.  These are the trainers I was aspiring to be like. 

By the end of Heeler’s Toolbox 1, Lila had some nice rear-end awareness, and an okayhead position, and eye contact.  Yes, after all 10 weeks of the course, that is what we had accomplished and I was ecstatic. It might not sound like a lot, but together, Lila and I had gained so much more than that.  The knowledge, the relationship, and the pure fun we were having, was all worth it. Lila looked at me like “we were in this together”.

Next, was Heeler’s Toolbox 2. With Lila in heel position, head up, eye contact…we took our first step.  Boom! Reward. Excitement, smiles and tail wags!   Lila had a decent foundation now. She knew what I was looking for and what would get her a reward. She however did, and still does for that matter, a lot of “crabbing.” Crabbing is a term used when your dogs butt is behind you, while their shoulders and head are by your side.  I could not figure out what the issue was. I thought I was marking and rewarding the incorrect position when she would get into heel. Then I thought my dog was just a weirdo. However, one night while having a friend record our training session, we figured it out.  I can’t stand straight. Mhmm, you read that correctly. My feet turned to the left, when my body was facing straight. This caused Lila to adjust herself accordingly. She angled herself with the direction of my feet, which evidently caused her to be pushed that much further behind me…another thing added to our list of things to work on. 

I have an ongoing list of little things I want to try. Things like teaching a completely new behavior or cleaning up old ones.  We maneuvered pretty well through this heeling course; starting to increase length of time in the heel position…Four steps, then five, then… eight steps! After that, we could almost go the entire length of the training room. This was a huge accomplishment.  As we built the pieces, I started to notice a certain expression on her face when she was really into the exercise. I would say “Focus!”, Lila’s ears would go back, mouth open she would flip... or bounce into a heel position on my left side, mouth still open, her ears would then perk up as she’d bring her head and eyes up to meet mine.  Once in a while she’ll now shut her mouth and look directly at me, almost to say “alright that was damn near perfect, are you going to start walking so I can put some work into this or are you going to reward me; choice is yours but you better get to it”. 

Lila’s left turns were tight, fancy and she would swing her butt around elegantly, but her right turns were nothing to get excited about. She would consistently drop her head when I would turn away from her. This was probably due to me not working on these turns early on.  Left turns are perceived as more difficult because of the rear-end awareness needed in those turns. To counteract the dropping of her head, I rewarded heavily out of the turns, explosive jumps with her head high.  Many hours of practicing, and failing, and practicing and succeeding later, and we almost have the turns we are looking for.My footwork was nothing to be sauté after. A judge once described my footwork once as “a drunken sailor.” This was probably something I should have been working on the entire time, although I wasn’t really aware of it…just another learning experience. 

            During our last course I found one of Lila’s favorite things. Indirect rewards.  An indirect reward is a reward, which is placed out in the environment away from her and I. The only way she can access this indirect reward is when I give her the terminal mark “get it”. This technique invites a sense of biological fulfillment in the case of a dog. She has to use her brain, in order to access something in the environment, and in turn, gets to run to it and consume it.  In my case Lila knows what and where the reward is.  It also is one of those incredible techniques, which has so greatly improved our relationship because she has to work through me to get the reward.  When we first started utilizing this reward event, I required only eye contact from her.  I then slowly moved into rewarding her for the focused heel position. She thought this was the just coolest. Her intensity into the work to get the reward was much greater than before… as much intensity as Swamp Dog can muster. This also allowed me to work through our pattern without having a reward on my person, which I knew would come in handy, as you are not permitted to use any form of reward during trials.

            After all was said and done, one of our biggest hurdles has been generalizing the behavior to feel comfortable enough to perform the behavior in different environments.  Lila is what you would call an “environmentally sensitive” dog. New people, new dogs, and enclosed spaces concern her even without the request for a very specific obedience behavior. Each new place is a challenge; a challenge that we work through even if it isn’t perfect.  Even if she gives me just a little effort, I will give her 100%.  I owed it to her. 

            Our journey to build one strong obedience behavior has opened many doors, taught me an immense about myself and my dog, and really showed me how many opportunities there really are out there for people who love training their dogs.  It seems as if the goal of achieving this one little behavior has thrown us down a rabbit hole only to enter an entirely new world. 

October 12th, 2018.