E335: Petra Ford - Getting Started on Competition Heelwork

Petra and I talk about what it takes to get really pretty heelwork — namely, position, a good focal point, and strong engagement skills.  


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau, and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast, brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. An online school dedicated to providing high quality instruction for competitive dog sports, using only the most current and progressive training methods. Today I have Petra Ford here with me to talk about competition level heel work. Hi Petra. Welcome back to the podcast.

Petra Ford: Hi. Thank you so much for having me back.

Melissa Breau: It's always a pleasure. To start us out, do you wanna just remind listeners a little bit about you and your canine crew?

Petra Ford: Sure. My canine crew, sadly I went from four down to three. I lost my oldest, so now my oldest is Zeal. He's 11, he's retired, but he is just loving retired life, especially at work where all they do is give him food. And then I have Zayna, she's seven, she's actively competing. She has her championship so we're ha, this is like really fun time with her 'cause she's fully trained, so maintaining her is fun. It's a lot of playing games and showing her is a lot of fun.

Right now Zesty is three. He is, he is awesome. I love him. He's super cookie crazy in the house, so I apologize if you hear him later. He started showing this year, he got his, well I, he got his novice title, his open title, and his utility title so far. Wow. Yeah, he's a lot of fun. He tries really hard and he's a lot of dog. So I'm having fun with him now. Just kind of like building up his confidence, fine tuning everything so that hopefully in a couple months we can start working towards his itch and then move on from there.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. So as I mentioned, we wanna kind of focus on heel work today. So if we're talking about kind of beautiful heel work, what pieces make up that picture for you? Can you kind of describe it and break it down for us?

Petra Ford: Sure. So for me it's always been, I would like the dog to look happy, animated, relaxed. I like precision, but obvious. But I think the attitude is more important and I, and if I can maintain the attitude and I'm very patient, I can hone in on the precision. And it also, if I can really just explain every aspect of heeling to my dog in a way they understand, then, then it's easier to get the precision. 'cause my dogs understand exactly what they're supposed to do and where they're supposed to be. And I just love when I can heel with my dogs and I don't have to talk, I don't have to give them any verbal cues whatsoever, you know, from warming up to heeling and it just kind of looks, I just want it to look pretty and effortless. I, there was a time when I was thinking about getting my like Zayna prances, but that's very natural for her. I didn't create that. She kind of prances in life.

So when her head is up I get that prancy heeling. But I didn't push that and that's just because of my rehab background. Like with Zesty, the way he's put together, if I ask him to kind of throw his front feet in the air, same with Zeal, it will put like a lot of strain on their back end. So, so with them I just let them pick a more natural pace still with their head up.

So it's a little light in the front, but it's not super prey. I don't have anything against it. But mainly I just like the dog to look happy and relax. Not frantic, not stressed out.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. So what skills do we as handlers kind of need to master to create that picture?

Petra Ford: So I think the first and biggest thing is you have to have a very clear image in your head of what you want, right? As humans, we love grey. So we'll let the dog be a little bit ahead or we'll let the dog be a little bit behind and sometimes we let 'em be a little more ahead and that's super confusing for the dog, right? I know as humans we wanna help the dog, we want the dog to be right. So if the dog is out of position, sometimes we'll let it go. 'cause we're like, oh, they're trying really hard. But what's happening is sometimes you're saying that position is correct and other times you're saying it's not. And so that ends up being super confusing. So I think if a person says, okay, this is the image I have in my head, this is where I want my dog to be ultimately, and this is where I'm headed, that really helps them tremendously. Having that clear end picture. And then they definitely need to have an enormous amount of patience. Because if you want to teach heeling in a way that my, the dog truly understands it and that the dog has enough confidence to do their job so that they're happy and they're relaxed, it takes years, it takes me easily three to four years to have a dog that I would consider fully trained for heeling. I think people just tend to get impatient. Heeling is super complex, so it's super normal to take a few steps forward and a few steps back and then a step or two forward. And then if what appears to be a few steps back, it's, I don't think of it as steps back, it's just part of the process. It's the dog having to learn layer upon layer and try to put it all together. And then the ability to break everything down into pieces so that you can clearly communicate exactly what you want to the dog. 'cause if we're clear, then the dog will be confident 'cause they'll understand what we want.

Like it's, I see it a lot in heeling. A dog makes a mistake and the handler does something to indicate that it was wrong, even if it's just to stop right? Heeling. So it's not that they're letting the dog know that, that it's wrong per se. It's they don't tell the dog exactly which piece is wrong. So the dog, so then I'll say to a student for example, well, well why did you, what just happened? Well you know, my dog was forging. I said, but you didn't tell your dog they were forging. Your dog could have been forging, it could have been lagging, it could have been wide, it could have lost focal point, it could have gotten distracted.

So how does the dog know which piece they need to fix? Right? So having super good communication is very, very important. 'cause otherwise a dog just gets, you know, frustrated and demoralized and then heeling becomes a drag instead of something that's fun and enjoyable for both of them, both of us, whatever. So when you're starting to teach heel work with a new dog, where, where do you start? What foundations are you kind of starting with? So I, us, I start with my puppies like literally eight weeks old basically. First I teach, I would say I teach focal point first, right? Because focal point where they're looking is what they're thinking about. So some people don't teach a focal point, which is not necessarily wrong, it's just not what I choose to do. I like teaching a focal point because my dogs, if they're looking at something else, they're thinking about something else. If they're looking at me, they're thinking about me. So I teach focal point first and I just kind of manipulate, for lack of a better word, position, right? I just use food like where I hold the food or I use, like I'll tap my set, I'll help them with position to kind of just take that out of the equation. This way the dog can purely focus on focal point, which they learn. I think that's the easiest for them to learn. 'cause it's very straightforward, right? It's like this is the focal point. This is always your focal point. The focal point's always gonna be there.

So with a small dog, it's your hand with a bigger dog, it's usually your face, right? That's pretty straightforward for them. So I do that first and then once I have focal point I can work on teaching them position and I'm all I'm just always kind of working engagement that's just like inherent in working with the dog. So, but you know, again, like I said, heeling, it's constantly changing, right? So you can have a really good focal point and six months down the road something happens and all of a sudden the dog's losing focal point. So that's okay, just remind them where it is, review it, the dog figures it out. Just like my dog can be pretty fully trained with the mechanics of heeling.

And then I start going to different places and they may have brilliant engagement at my house, but then I go somewhere else and oh my goodness, there's so much going on. So then I have to do a little more work on engagement. So it's, it's all kind of, it's always ebbing and flowing and changing.

Melissa Breau: So you started to answer both of my next two questions. So I was gonna ask, do you start with a puppy or are there prerequisite skills that you kind of need on board before you can start heel work? It sounds like you start basically right outta the box, puppy comes home, you're ready to start working on this stuff. Is that right?

Petra Ford: Pretty much. I mean, you know, when I say I'm teaching them heeling, like I have a cookie in my hand and they're just kind of following the cookie around, but they're, I'm holding my hand in position where I want the puppy to be. So the puppy starts to learn, oh, like this is a really good spot to be. And yeah, so it's little baby things, but for sure I start right out of the gate.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, absolutely. And then you were talking a little bit about focal point in there. Can you elaborate a little more kind of on what you mean when you use that term? How you approach teaching it? How you decide kinda what the dog's focal point should be? So focal point is something for them to look at. So like I briefly mentioned for a small dog, if, if you are able to walk with your hand at your side and with your dog's head up, if it doesn't touch your hand, then I would use my hand as a focal point because, so it's what the dog is looking at during heeling, right? It's looking at something. If my dog's looking ahead forward, it's going to see things, it's inevitable, it's just going to happen. So they'll see something and that will, they'll think about it, right? Whether it's something they're interested in, they're curious about, they're nervous about either way they're gonna be thinking about that. And heeling requires so much concentration 'cause it's so completely unnatural that I feel like I want my dogs a hundred percent focus on me and on what we're doing.

So if the dog was small, I would want them looking at the hand the entire time. If the dog, some people with smaller dogs still prefer using their face as a focal point, that's fine. It's just a little harder to keep them in position. They tend to wanna forge. Then medium to larger dogs. I make my face a focal point.

Why I like that is because it's not just a dog looking at me, it's me looking at my dog. So I'm looking at my dog's face, at their eyes or part of their face, you know, maybe one eye and I can see exactly and read what my dog is thinking and feeling second by second, by second. So not only is my dog looking at me, I'm looking at my dog and it start sort of evolves into like a conversation. And it's, it's a pretty to me special connection 'cause we're pretty much communicating the entire time. So I prefer face. Now some people will use something like have the dog look kind of like in the direction of their armpit. That's fine as long as the dog's clear on where to look.

Some people have used like an armband that works well, that also works. Those are just, you know, the, my, I prefer my face if at all possible. So that all makes a lot of sense. I think some of the problems people really run typically run into when they've kind of taught heel work or teaching hall work, they run into problems with forging, they're into problems with lagging you.

Melissa Breau: You talked a little bit in there about position. How do you build a more balanced position? How do you kind of teach skills that help avoid those two things, right? Are there, are there things that you implement to remedy them if they show up? Like how, how are you thinking about position?

Petra Ford: Yep. So I never, I didn't use to, the way I learned was the dog looks at my face and I, we would have a leash and we would manipulate the dog into position, but we never actually taught them where to be. So when Zeal was like around three years old, I was like, God, my, you know, I'm losing points on heeling and I don't feel like my heeling's as tight as I would like it to be.

So then I watched a bunch of, you know, really good heeling dogs and I was like, oh, those dogs are like, they are like glued to the handler's hip, right? So then I went back and I said, all right, well I'm gonna teach him position like as a little game, right? So that's how I teach position.

I teach it as basically a trick. So I teach the dog to keep their shoulder in line with my left leg. So note, regardless of what my right leg does, stay on my left leg. So I just start that like in my house, in my yard 'cause I don't need a lot of room and I do it step by step, but I'm not like nitpicking them.

I let, I kind of shape it, right? I just let them figure out you, you keep your shoulder in line with my left leg. And so that's what I call position. So that has a specific cue which is different from my focal point cue. So once I teach them position, then they understand that no matter, you know, you can look at my face, but you also, no matter what pace we're going at in no matter if we turn left, right outside, inside, figure eight, no matter what happens, you stay in line with my left leg. So the way I teach it, my dogs love it so much that I use it as part of my warmup pretty much every time I train and at trials because they think it's funny, right? Like I'll do an about turn stop halfway through and they're like, look on your leg. And they're really pr you know, they think that's funny. And so it's a fun way to get them to understand where they should be. And if they understand that it gets rid of all position errors. There's no lagging. There's no forging. So at this point, if my dog does forge, I just stop. All I have to do is stop. And my dog goes, oh whoopsie, I'm not on your left leg fixes himself. I'm like, there you go. Do it again. The dog stays on my left leg. 'cause they understand it. It's very, very clear for them. And I actually think teaching it this way is much better for the dogs.

Like you could argue, well there's another step. 'cause now I'm teaching focal point and position, but it's so black and white for them and our dogs love that, right? Like it's very black and white. Here's my leg, here's your shoulder piece of cake. I just did a whole workshop just on because yeah. And then that will get rid of, and the same with like going wide on an about turn for example, or wide on a right turn. If your footwork is good, if the dog is out of position, it's just a position error, they're not, it works for pivots as well 'cause it's just staying on that left leg.

Melissa Breau: Are there other common mistakes that our dogs tend to make when we're teaching heel work? How do you just kind of approach errors overall?

Petra Ford: So clarity is important with errors. So if my, so let's say I'm heeling zesty and he drops his head, right? That's a focal point error. So I just stop and then I remind him with, I have a physical and verbal cue. So I point to my face, I say up here, he knows that means look at my face. So if that's the error, I just stop and I say look at my face. And then he is like, oh, got it, okay. And then he understands that that's where the error was. If he forges, or like I mentioned, I stop, I freeze as soon as he forges. I don't even have to say anything at this point.

But I could point to my hip and give him my position cue, which is close and I point at my hip and then he fixes himself and I'm like, good. That's who you're supposed to be. Do that piece over. They know what to do. So that is the most important thing is being able to say to the dog, this is what you need to do to be correct.

If I just stop or I just tell them they're wrong, they're gonna get stressed out because there are too many options. And if they knew what they did wrong, they wouldn't have done it in the first place. 'cause they don't really wanna be wrong. So I think that's the most important thing. And if I have taught focal point, clearly if I've taught position well if my,

I have an engagement cue that my dog understands. So I think the most important thing, they're all gonna make mistakes 'cause it's super complicated and they're gonna make mistakes throughout their career. 'cause it's just a really hard exercise. 'cause it has so many pieces and it's very unpredictable, right? They don't know if we're gonna halt or turn left or turn right or go slow or go fast.

So if they're gonna make mistakes, that's perfectly fine. It's just give them really good information, then they'll know how to fix it and then they'll be, then they'll not be that concerned about making mistakes.

Melissa Breau: I know you have your class coming up in December. You also kinda mentioned the workshop that's just kind of wrapping up. Do you wanna talk a little more about your overall approach in the class?

Petra Ford: So my classes are always interesting because I always have people, a wide range of people. So even though it's a foundation class, the class is good for people. So sometimes people teach heeling, but they're missing pieces, right? And that could just be because they don't have like instructors where there are any number of reasons. So I'll have some people that jump into these classes that just need some pieces.

So they might jump around a little bit and pull out the pieces they need. Then I'll have people with dogs that have absolutely zero foundation whatsoever, and they're starting from nothing. And then I'll have all kinds of people in between. So my classes tend to have too much material if you're starting from nothing. But that's okay because you just work at your own pace, do the pieces you can, and then you have access to the material for a long time. And, but then I also have the ability to work with people that are somewhere in the middle and people that are just trying to put the pieces together. So I like that it gives me a variety. And I think it's really good for the students because they can see the issues people are having and how to solve them at all different levels, which I think is a kind of a nice resource for them to have. And then I just encourage everybody to work at their own pace and pick, you know, pick wherever you are at. We'll start from there and just, we'll just build on that.

Melissa Breau: Any pre-reqs or anything folks need to know, is it appropriate for people who've never taught heal work before?

Petra Ford: Yep. You can have a puppy and you've never done any kind of heel work with the puppy and this is a good place to start and you can have taught your dog heeling, but for instance, you've never taught your dog position or you've never taught your dog focal point and that's kind of a hole that you have. Or maybe some engagement you're missing and you can jump in and kind of pull those pieces out and we can work on those holes.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Any final thoughts or key points you kinda wanna leave listeners with? I think, well for me, heeling is my favorite exercise. I love heeling because to me there's no better feeling than heeling with a fully trained dog. It's just, it's so beautiful. You're so connected to the dog, you know, like I know every thought in my dog's head, it's, it's beautiful. I love it. It just takes a long time. And I think that's where people struggle. I think they all want that same end picture. I think they get very hard on themselves if they don't feel they're getting there quickly enough. And I just always encourage them, just don't worry about it. Think of it as like a three, four year process and as long as you're headed in the right direction, just hang tight. Just keep going, you'll get there. It'll be worth it in the end, I promise. I think it's so helpful to have the reminder that it can take that long. I tell them every time, because I, you know, people have this, always have this skewed view with everything, right? Like training, like, oh, your dogs are so great. Like as if they never had any issues or problems, then I will tell them about a particular dog and some of the issues it had. And they're like, really? Really? I'm like, well, of course. You know? So yeah, I tell them all the time, like, this is how long it takes me to teach heeling years. Many, many, many years. But I think because I know that I don't have any different expectations. So if at two years old my dog's not heeling, well I'm not upset about it. You know, two and a half, three, I'm like, I still have another year.

So that takes a lot of pressure off. So I think if people, that's very important. People are very hard on themselves and everybody's always in a rush and you always see all these finished pictures on Facebook and everything and it just kind of really skews reality and then it'll take some of the joy out of your training, right? It's supposed to be a process. It's just supposed to be time you're spending with your dog multiple days a week doing something fun together and somewhere down the road you'll have a finished picture.

Melissa Breau: I like that. And I think that's a good place to kind of end things with. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Petra.

Petra Ford: Thank you for having me. As always. I enjoy it. Thank you for all of your hard work, Melissa.

Melissa Breau: Well thank you and thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week. Don't miss it. If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available. Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.

Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast, music provided royalty free by bensound.com. The track featured here is called Buddy. Audio Editing provided by Chris Lang. Thanks again for tuning in and happy training.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

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