E185: Petra Ford - "What goes into heelwork?"

Ever wondered what it takes for your dog to accomplish beautiful heads up heeling? Petra and I talk about the conditioning and body awareness work she does to achieve that picture for her dogs!


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 we'll be talking to Petra Ford.

Petra graduated from Rutgers School of Health Related Professions 17 years ago with a degree in physical therapy. She attended the Canine Rehabilitation Institute in 2007 and is a certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist.

Petra trains and trials her Labrador Retrievers in obedience, agility, and field. Her black Lab, Tyler, had the distinction of being the 2008 and 2009 National Obedience Champion and First Runner Up in 2010. In 2012, Petra and Tyler became the first American team to win the Obedience World Cup.

Petra has also written several articles on canine conditioning, canine injury prevention, competing with your dog, and more. She has been published in a number of magazines including Clean Run, Front and Finish, and Whole Dog Journal.

Hi Petra, welcome to the podcast!

Petra Ford: Hi, thanks for having me back. How are you?

Melissa Breau: Good, good. Excited to chat today. To start us out, do you want to remind listeners who your current crew is and what you're working on with them?

Petra Ford: My crew is growing. I have Zayden, he's my retired agility dog, Zeal, he's 8, he's still competing in obedience, Zayna, she's also now competing in obedience, so now I'm competing with two dogs, which is a little ambitious I'm finding, and now I have Zesty, he's a 4-month-old puppy. So yeah, they're all keeping me busy.

Melissa Breau: And on top of the new puppy, you're teaching your first-ever six-week class for FDSA this term.

Petra Ford: I am, and I'm very excited to be doing that, yes.

Melissa Breau: If I read everything right, it's on conditioning and body awareness for heeling, so I want to talk about heeling. To start us out, why does teaching heelwork require more than just doing heelwork practice?

Petra Ford: Because if you're asking the dog for heads-up heeling and you want it to be relatively accurate, they have to shift their weight back and their drive has to go up. Otherwise it goes forward and they end up wrapping, and if apt to do that, they do need core and back end strength and just overall good fitness to be able to heel properly. A lot of what people perceive as heeling problems are actually fitness problems that will go away if the dog has some core strength and that kind of thing.

Melissa Breau: What about the dog's natural structure? What role does that play when we're talking about this stuff?

Petra Ford: It plays a huge role, and I actually go over that in the course. I do a structure eval on all the dogs, and I broke down structure on my dogs, and you'll see that all three of my dogs heel very differently. They have very different style, and that's because their structure is different. So structure will absolutely impact their style and how they look. Even though I like my dogs to have animation, I don't like to force them to do more than their structure naturally allows them to do.

Melissa Breau: Can you break down a little bit the kinds of body awareness skills that the dogs need and that it makes sense to teach separately for heelwork.

Petra Ford: I always teach them how to walk with their head up, because that's not a natural skill. Getting up from a sit, it's super common, all my students, when the dog takes a first step or two, they drop their head because in life, when a dog gets up, they don't get up with their head pointing at the sky. They get up looking forward. So they have to learn how to do that. They have to learn hind end awareness. Hind end awareness in dogs is absolutely not innate. If you take a clicker-trained puppy and you throw some object on the floor and ask them to interact with it, they will touch it with their paw, they might bite it, touch it with their nose, but they're not just going to turn around and put their back feet on it. That's purely a taught behavior. So it's important to teach them hind end awareness to get good turns, good halts, and in general just to keep position and also body awareness so they're comfortable with their body and they can hold position. Otherwise they just kind of float a little bit to the left, a little forward back, left right.

Melissa Breau: They waddle all over.

Petra Ford: Yeah. I think heeling is so crazy and so complicated, if you think about it from a dog's perspective. It's crazy. Stay in position, not too far forward, not too far back, not too far out, not too far in, look up at me or at some focal point, and we randomly change position, randomly change pace, and then ignore everything in the environment. I think it's easily the hardest obedience exercise for dogs to learn, so that's why I like to break everything apart and build everything up. It stacks the odds in the dog's favor for being successful, I think.

Melissa Breau: I think people underestimate how difficult it is. I know one of Denise's seminars, I think a couple of years ago when she was still doing them, I went, and she had a person heel with another person, so she had a person play the role of the dog. I think she was the one playing the role of the person. Somebody was walking around with her and trying to heel with her. It's surprising, when you try to do what you're asking of your dog, how difficult it actually is.

Petra Ford: It is. You're saying "Don't look at …" It's really hard, and I always emphasize that with my students that it takes me three years, sometimes more, to teach my dogs to heel for a fully trained heeling dog, three to four years. That's a long time, because I don't like to push them too hard because I have an appreciation for what I'm asking them to do and how challenging that really is.

Melissa Breau: Can you talk a little bit about why strengthening and stretching exercises can benefit our heelwork?

Petra Ford: A lot of dogs, like I mentioned earlier … for example, dogs that pace. A lot of the time people think, "Why does my dog pace?" A lot of times it's because they're not strong enough to shift their weight back and drive up, and the handler can't walk fast enough, so it's a bunch of factors. But it's also happened a number of times where a dog is pacing because they were sore in their back end or in their core. So it's really important that they're very strong there, so that they can perform the task and perform the task continuously over time. So I don't just mean heel in one session, but week in and week out, month in and month out.

The same with their neck and shoulders. If they're tight or sore, then they're not going to be comfortable when they're heeling, and that's absolutely going to impact their heeling. That could be mistaken for lack of attention, or lack of animation, or lack of engagement, and really it's a physical issue. So I always go to the physical first. I always make sure that's really strong, and if there's a problem, if there's a change in my dog's heeling, I always first want to check everything out physically, because more times than not, that's the root of the issue.

Melissa Breau: Can you share an example or two of what you consider to be strengthening or stretching that might be related to heelwork?

Petra Ford: The most important thing that I always start with are good posture exercises, which sounds kind of crazy, but most seminars I do, most classes I do, the large majority of dogs are tight and weak in their core — that's from their ribs to their pelvis. So I'll go over that in detail.

If they're tight there, compensating there, then any work you do is only going to make that more sore. Imagine if your back was bothering you and then I put you in a Pilates class or asked you to do some core work on a fitness ball or something. You would only be making it worse. The same if I ask you to heel. You'd be heeling, but you'd be uncomfortable the whole time.

So I do the posture exercises. I teach the students how to do that with their dogs first and how to maintain that, because that's the foundation for everything else. And then we do doggie squats and down-to-stand, sit-to-stand, but everything is done a very specific way so that it's done correctly with good posture, so to speak, because I've had many instances where people came to my clinic and their dog had a problem and they were stunned. They were like, "I do all this ball work and disc work," and when I ask them to show me how they do it, the dog's form isn't correct, so they're actually inadvertently making it worse.

Melissa Breau: I know you're including quite a bit on motor skills needed for heads-up heeling. Can you talk us through some of those pieces?

Petra Ford: The physical skills I'm asking my dog to do are not natural, so there's going to be a learning phase, and during that learning phase they're going to do it slow and they're going to have to think about it. Ultimately I want the motor skill to become so fluent that it's a habit, that my dog doesn't even have to think about it at all.

If you take Zeal, he just doesn't have to think about it; it's just been motor-patterned in over and over. You take a puppy like Zest, he doesn't have any of the motor skills. So I break each motor skill down, teach it to him, initially I lure him and lure him and lure him until he just starts doing it, and then I give him the right information so that he's doing the motor skill exactly the same way every time, over and over and over, and then over time he doesn't have to think about it anymore. He just does it.

So, like, moving from a sit into the first step or two of sit into heeling, like having to drive out of the sit with the head up and really drive. I don't want to take off and pray that my dog is coming with me. I want to feel like, "Hurry up, judge, because my dog is ready to go." How to make turns with their head up, and for example a left turn, not just head up, but I also need them to move their back end in and do it early enough so that I have a nice, smooth, rounded turn. Doing about-turns, it was a very different motor skill for my girl than it was for my boy. She's built completely differently and so it's a lot harder for her. She prances naturally, so she had to figure out her balance point.

So pretty much every piece, how to use their body on the slow, how to use their body on the fast, I break it all down and teach each piece as a motor skill, and I recognize that just because I've helped my dog do it a few times, it's not yet necessarily in their subconscious like a habit. I just want it to be something they don't even have to think about anymore.

Melissa Breau: So even beyond what most people think of as fluency then. It's like a muscle memory.

Petra Ford: Correct, yes. Muscle memory. Perfect. It's like driving. You really shouldn't have to think about what you're doing when you drive, once you've been driving for a long time. It's just automatic. And if you space out, maybe you went somewhere you didn't want to go, like if you always go to work and you're headed in that direction — I've done that. I'm supposed to be going somewhere else and all of a sudden I'm driving to work. I'm like, "Oh, how did that happen?" It's just patterned in. You don't have to think about it. It just happens. So that's what I want for my dogs. It just needs to be in there so that they don't even have to think about it, because they have plenty of other things to think about.

Melissa Breau: When we're practicing heelwork specifically, should we be starting with a warm-up and then doing a cool-down afterwards? If so, can you talk a little bit about what those should look like?

Petra Ford: For the warm-up, I go over that pretty much in detail. There's some … I don't want to say stretching, but putting the dog through the range of motion using cookies, because this way you can't inadvertently hurt the dog. If the dog is sore, you can't overdo it. The dog is going to just go as far as they are comfortable going, so it's a good warm-up. It's also really good information because, for example, if a dog can put their head easily to their right shoulder but has a hard time putting their head to the left shoulder, that's an imbalance. That's a little bit of a warning sign, your dog's a little tight, let's work this out before we start heeling. So I use stretches using food, I do the posture exercises every time, and then I also always start pottying the dog and just walking the dog around a bit so everything is loose. Once I do all that, I always heel first when I train because I feel like that's a good overall warm-up in general for the dog before I do other activities. And then, when I'm finished with my dogs, I always just walk them around, I make sure they're not panting before I put them away, heavily panting, and do a few more stretches using cookies again.

Melissa Breau: Can you talk just a little more about what else you'll be covering in the class?

Petra Ford: In the class were going to be doing structure evals, which are always fun. I love doing those. We're going to go through the whole warm-up, give them stretches to do for that, we're going to build up hind end and core strength every week, so it's going to start with Step 1 and build up every week. Every week we're going to do body awareness exercises, teach some easy tricks that will get drive and maintain drive up when they're heeling, so that when they're driving, they're not going forward and wrapping, lots of body awareness and hind end awareness skills for turns. We're also going to dabble a bit on some position games, helping the dog understand to stay on your left leg. Because when I teach heeling, even though this isn't a true teaching heeling class, I do focal point, engagement, and position. I never used to do position in the past, but once I started doing that, my heeling got so much tighter and it helped my students as well. So basically my dog's shoulder should always be lined up with my left leg, and there's fun doodly games you can do for that, and that's the dog just understanding where they should be in relation to your leg.

Melissa Breau: You said focal point, engagement, and positioning. Could you explain what you mean by each of those?

Petra Ford: I know some people don't teach a specific focal point. I do it for two reasons. One is I teach eye contact just because I love eye contact. That's a huge part of my training in general. I just think it's part of my relationship, and I can see my dogs and I can kind of see what's going on in their little heads, so I like eye contact.

But I like a focal point, because if they don't have a focal point, then what are they looking at? They have to be scanning, and if they're scanning, they're not as focused. If I'm walking down the street and I'm looking around, my brain is jumping left to right — "Look at that car, look at that person, look at that tree" — and I want my dog to be focused on the task at hand.

So focal point I teach, I teach engagement, so I don't just want the dog's attention. I don't just want them looking at me because they have to. I want them to be actively engaged and interacting with me and offering behaviors and really in the game. And if they're engaged, then the environment becomes a non-issue. And then I teach position, which is just what I mentioned: stay on my left leg, which gives super, super tight heeling that's very easy for the judges to score.

And I think it makes a lot more sense to the dogs. I think it makes the whole thing more black and white. Because the way I used to teach it, the way I was taught to teach it, is the dog has a focal point, and then you use your leash to keep putting them in place, and then over time they're supposed to know to and stay there, but my dogs always ended up a little bit forge-y that way. So I think this is tighter, but I think it's much more clear to my dogs.

Melissa Breau: Do you mean with platforms and cookie positions? What do you mean when you say you teach positions?

Petra Ford: I just teach it like it's a trick. I do it stationary. I'm actually doing it with my puppy now, and he's only 4 months old, because it's just a game, and I help him: If I turn a little to my left, line yourself up with my left leg.

A lot of people do it with platforms, which is fine. I don't use them for that. Why do I not? Because I think I give my dogs so many different tools, body awareness tools, they don't really struggle with it. It's just a game: find my left leg. So I do it stationary, where I'll move, then I'll move my left leg forward and then move my left leg back, and my dog should just move with my left leg. Then I'll move my left leg forward, and then I move my right leg forward, but my dog shouldn't move. It should stay on my left leg.

It's actually a little game I do as part of Zeal's warm-up, because I taught him position after he already knew how to heel, so he still tends to get forge-y. So as part of my warm-up, I do it like a little game and he thinks it's hilarious, and it just reminds him to stay tight. He thinks it's funny. So I do it for stationary, and then one step, and then at a slow, and then build from there.

Melissa Breau: To go back to talking about the class for a minute, who is the class really targeted for? Who is a good fit? Is it all ages, all sizes, all skill levels of dogs, or do they need some foundation stuff in place?

Petra Ford: No. I'm using my puppy to demo a lot, as well as my adult dogs, so I think it's actually applicable for all dogs. It doesn't matter if they know how to heel. If they know how to heel, it can improve their heeling. If they don't know how to heel yet, that's perfectly fine.

My puppy doesn't know how to heel, but these are all foundation things I put in there. Even for my adult dogs, a lot of the skills I go over are still things I do with them today for maintenance, for a refresher. And so I think it's good for all dogs, all sizes. I'm like, this is really good because I have a puppy and I can pretend he's a little dog, because I always struggle with that. I don't have a small dog to demo what I would do if I had a small dog. So he's going to be my small dog.

Melissa Breau: At least for now.

Petra Ford: Yeah, for a week or two.

Melissa Breau: What about dogs who already have maybe a couple of years of heeling under their belts and there's something the handler really wants to fix?

Petra Ford: It's not a problem-solving class, but for sure if they would like their dog to have more drive in the rear, if they would like their dog to have better hind end awareness, or awareness for position, or if their dog seems sluggish when they're heeling, that kind of thing, I think that's helpful for those dogs as well.

Melissa Breau: And no fitness background needed in advance.

Petra Ford: No, no. It's almost better if you don't, because then you don't have to undo anything.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. Alright, I've got one last question for you that I've taken to asking everyone when they come on, which is, what's a lesson that you've learned or that been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?

Petra Ford: I think every time I get a puppy, I'm just reminded to have fun with our dogs always. It's like you get a puppy and they're this clean slate and everybody's so excited, and every little thing they do is like a big deal. And then your dog is more advanced and you start to have expectations and goals, and then people tend to get frustrated or disappointed, and I think it's just good to go back and remember how you felt when they were a puppy, that they're still learning, they're always learning, they'll be learning forever, because that's how it is with obedience. People think, Once my dog gets their UD or their OTCH, it's easy. I'm like, oh God, that's when it gets really hard.

Just remember to always have fun with your dog, and don't get caught up so much in what they can't do. Think about all the great things that they can do, and the rest is just part of the process.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Petra!

Petra Ford: Thank you for having me. I always appreciate it. You're the best little interviewer. You are. You're always good. You always sound really good.

Melissa Breau: Thank you. And thank you to our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week with Lori Stevens to talk about foundations for good fitness, a little more on fitness.

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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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