This will be the final article in the series about certain mistakes we as trainers make from time to time, and how to avoid them. Sometimes, dogs can surprise you with just how smart they are at figuring out your system!
Gator was a beautiful, picture perfect black male lab. He was eager to work and always went full speed on retrieves. His obedience work went extremely smooth; he was walking at heel, sitting when I stopped, and would come to heel when I called him just like we all want. Once his sitting hold was solid, it was time to combine the heel work and the hold.
This is the step that I dislike the most. Usually, the dogs that hold well and heel well, absolutely hate doing both at the same time! That never made sense to me, but that is how they typically feel. And Gator was no different!
So when we started this dreaded step, he would shake his head, trying to get rid of the bumper, as I pulled him along at heel. Eventually, like normally happens, he started to hold better during the heel work. We would go a short distance, with me holding the lead rope with one hand and rubbing him behind the ear with the other, then I would make him sit and maintain the hold. Then I would give the “drop” command, take the bumper from him, and praise him. We were still going short distances because he was still figuring it out.
Once he figured that part out, it was time to move on. It was at this point, when we were progressing through the hold at heel work that I saw the problem that I had set myself up for. When we were learning and getting the hold at heel down, I would take about six steps with him holding, while I held the rope and rubbed him, then we would stop. Well, when I was ready to start having him go further with it, like I always do, he showed me what I had inadvertently taught him.
I would have him sit at heel, put the bumper in his mouth, tell him to “hold” and we started walking with him in the heel position. Things looked just right, and I was very hopeful. I intended on going about 20 yards or so, but after six steps, he immediately sat down, while keeping the bumper held tightly in his mouth! He was smart enough that he realized just how far I made him carry it in the beginning stages, and he felt that was what I was wanting from him!
This was not just a one time thing either; each time I did this, he stopped after about six steps. It took about a week, but I finally broke him of it. I had to be ready, and when I saw him start to sit, I had to pull him forward with the rope and reinforce the “heel” command. Eventually he learned exactly what I wanted, and stayed right there with me, but I had created a hurdle that could have been avoided.
Out of all the dogs that I have trained, he is the first and only one to ever figure that out about me and my training system. So now, with every dog I train, I mix it up and go different distances when beginning heel work. I may go six steps the first rep, then 10 the next, followed by five steps. By doing this, the dog never learns a pattern and is taught to stay right with me, rather than take a certain number of steps and then automatically stop.
Gator turned out to be an exceptional dog, and I taught him a lot in our training. But he definitely taught me something too, something I will keep with me and will improve my training for years to come!