Obedience - Intermediate Training Tips Continued

by Cindy Rhodes

The last issue of the Bulletin was devoted to various concerns and trouble spots pertaining to training for “Open” competition. The previous issue discussed the dumbbell retrieve, the high jump and the broad jump. The dumbbell retrieve is taught as two exercises and then put together as one exercise. The purpose of the high jump is to practice angles and eventually be integrated with the dumbbell retrieve. The broad jump exercise is taught much like the high jump, keeping in mind two major problems: walking over the broad jump and cutting corners. This issue of the Bulletin will deal with off lead heeling and figure-8s.

In general, Toy Dogs, like your Shih Tzu, are trotters and need much encouragement and continual work with their heeling. Always keep in mind that your feet alone appear large and threatening to your little Shih Tzu.

Imagine how you would feel if you were accidentally stepped on even once or twice - you too would soon shy away, perhaps lag, or wander. Encourage running in a play setting, with a small squeaky toy to add encouragement. Avoid long periods of just heeling which can be counter-productive. Instead by insisting on acceptable heeling between other exercises, you can avoid overdoing it, improve skills, and have fun at the same time.

Trainers can also employ a few simple techniques to help with the process. First, use a smaller step to begin your heeling pattern. After you say “Heel”, step out with your left foot half the distance as the next step you will take with your right foot; then continue to move out. Timing and sequencing are important. Do not say “Heel” and step with your left foot simultaneously. Right away this will put your Shih Tzu at a disadvantage and lagging behind you. Consider this: if a stray dog dodges in front of your moving car, first you will see it, have to mentally process the danger, and then react to the situation by moving your foot to the brake pedal of your car. Your dog also needs the time to process and react to the command you have given him. The correct way to begin heeling is to say “Heel” (this tells the dog the exercise will now begin and to be ready to lift himself to move forward) and then move your left foot forward a half step. It is not necessary to do the entire heeling pattern with unnaturally small steps. In fact, nothing looks worse in the ring than trainers using small, slow steps hoping their dog will be able to keep up. This shows that the dog has trained the trainer instead of the other way around! Never go slower and slower hoping the dog will catch with you. He won’t! If you keep a quicker pace, he is bound to walk faster than if you keep a slow pace.

To help remedy this problem, give the dog a “jump start.” This consists of bending down and giving two or three forward pops with the leash to move him into position as you are moving forward. If you happen to be heeling off-lead at a dog match, keep a very short three to four inch lead attached to the collar so you can bend down, grab the tab, and quickly bring your dog into position. Above all, remember to give plenty of praise when using the jump start method. Although Shih Tzu don’t have a great reputation as great heelers, they can maintain the speed of a normal walk. I am sure your dog can carry on a lively pace on an afternoon walk about the neighborhood. If he can walk at a normal pace on a pleasure walk, then he certainly can maintain a normal pace during a heeling pattern. Remember to keep heeling sessions short, working other exercises in between. Encourage running with play, as Shih Tzu who enjoy running seem to be better heelers. Another way of training would be to use training tools. Your lead is one training tool you already use to teach heeling. Other “training tools” can be found at your local hardware store. Instead of always using your lead, use a light-weight string, which you can first use for corrections and then slip off without the dog knowing it. The dog won’t know when he is heeling on or off the string and you should see an improvement in heeling. It is not unusual for your dog to wander out from you while heeling. Your face is so far away and the only way he can really see you is by wandering out.

Another tool I use is a dowel to encourage my dog to stay closer to my leg. The dowel is used for guidance, not punishment. The dowel I use measures about 26 inches long, and I hold it in my left hand along with my lead (It may take some practice to get the knack of handling two items in one hand.). Introduce the dowel to your dog in a kind and gentle manner. Let him see it, smell it and try to get him to play with it. Continue this introduction of the dowel for several days. When you’re ready begin by touching his side with it, especially his left side; eventually introduce a few steps with the dowel next to him. As you become more skillful in using your lead and dowel together, you can lightly tap the dog’s side if he wanders away as you heel. If not done slowly and correctly, the dowel will scare your dog and will not be a successful tool.

Body language can also cause your dog to lag. If you constantly dip your left shoulder and look back, your dog will become accustomed to looking at you in this position and will assume this is correct heeling position. Do not allow this during practice, because the problem will certainly compound in the ring. Training small dogs involves much leaning over and getting up and down, which can be exhausting. However, you need to do your part by being aware of your body language - concentrate on proper shoulder alignment and head position while heeling.

The figure-8 is an extension of heeling requiring more skills. Key to a good-looking figure 8 is already having beautiful “on-leash” heeling, otherwise your “off leash” figure-8 will be poor. Begin the figure-8 by making sure you set yourself correctly before you begin heeling. Center yourself about three feet out from the two designated posts. Again, start with a small step. As you begin the pattern, move to your left with the dog on the inside, where he will be forced to slow down. Don’t step on your little Shih Tzu’s toes!

Your dog will probably have an easier time with the inside circle. As a drill, you can practice left 180-degree circular turns (don’t turn too sharply). It’s like making an “about turn” but the opposite direction. As you continue through the figure-8 pattern and begin the outside circle, your dog will have to speed up. So give your dog encouragement with your lead (or a treat!). Do not pat your leg as this will turn into a bad habit for YOU!

Another drill you can use is a heeling pattern where you heel straight, then make a 360-degree circle to the right (again, don’t make the circle too tight). As you come out of this circle heading in the same direction as you entered it, make a right turn, running to break off the exercise. Remember, figure-8s are about slowing down and speeding up in circular patterns. Whenever you can, make your training fun for your dog, and it can also be fun for you!