Want Straighter Fronts? Here’s How!

If you compete in obedience or rally (or both), you've probably spent a fair amount of time training fronts. As you progress through the levels, the number of fronts increases, and with it the potential for lost points. If your fronts could use some straightening, or if you're training a young dog, keep reading to get some tips for perfecting those fronts!

Teach Solid Eye Contact

If the dog has a center focal point, it's more likely your front will be straight. Many dogs come into front focused on our hands or pockets in anticipation of the reward. If you always finish the same way, some dogs will learn to lean that direction. If you teach your dog to make eye contact coming into front, you can minimize some of these issues.

If you haven't taught your dog this skill yet, it's a great time to start! First, I set up my training session so that the environment is not distracting. I usually start with treats in my hands behind my back. At this point, I don't care about what position my dog is in. When my dog makes eye contact, I mark and reward. It's extremely important in this training that you mark without any body movement, THEN move your hand to reward your dog. If you start moving your hand as you are marking, the dog will look toward your hand in anticipation of the treat and you will end up marking the dog looking away from you.

In the beginning of training I will mark any eye contact, no matter how fleeting, but very quickly I would like the dog to really look at me, not just glance. If I'm struggling with getting duration, I will ignore the first quick glance, but mark the second one. Then I move onto marking the third quick glance. At this point the dog will usually start looking at you longer. Within a session or two I am waiting for 1-2 seconds of steady eye contact before I mark.

When the dog really understands eye contact with my hands behind my back, I will start putting them at my sides. I keep my hands low so I can really tell if my dog is looking at me or my hands. I continue to mark and reward eye contact. As the dog improves, I will start to put my hands in different positions, such as straight out from my body.

Here's an example of me working with Excel, showing you how I'd progress. Excel went through these steps really fast since he knows the game, so make sure you don't progress to the next step until your dog is solid.


If my dog looks at one of my hands, I try to reward from the opposite hand. I didn't always remember to do that, but I try. I always have treats in both hands during this teaching phase.

Props Can Be Super Helpful

In my opinion, it's easier to fade a prop than it is to fade extraneous body movements and cues. Trying to show your dog where "front" is with treats and your hands isn't easy! Here is a video of me luring Excel into the front position. It's difficult for me to get him perfectly straight and notice all that body language that I'm having to give him. Further, I'm doing the work for him by luring him into position with the treat and my hands, so he's not really thinking about what he's doing. He's focused on my hands and not my face, where he should be focusing. Do you see how I'm not able to do a good job communicating with him what I want?


Compare that to this next video, in which I use a sit platform to show my dog exactly what I'm looking for. The sit platform has already been trained and he is very comfortable on it. This video was taken the same day (just minutes apart) as the last one.


In this video, look at how still I am able to be, with my hands at my sides. Excel's attention is focused upward on my face. He knows exactly what his job is. Now I can go right to practicing correct repetitions of this behavior and putting a lot of reward history on the correct behavior.

Teach a Straight Front Before You Add the Sit

Before I add sit to my fronts, I like the dog to learn how to line his body up straight in a stand. There are a couple of ways that I do this and one way is using the pivot bowl. This exercise using the pivot bowl can help the dog learn how to control his or her movement and pivot the hind end in order to get a straight front.

Here's one of Strive's first training sessions with this concept. Strive had a ton of reward history for pivoting into heel, so she wanted to offer that a few times, especially if I had her pivoting counter clockwise in the front position. I just upped her ROR for being in front and she figured it out. As we continued to work on this, her fronts got stronger and straighter.

Note: This video is 6 years old, and my mechanics have grown stronger since then. Be sure you click/mark, then move to reward!

Use Different Props for Fronts

Using different props can help the dog generalize the behavior. The more ways you can show the dog a straight front, the more thoroughly the dog will learn and understand.

Here are a few examples of different props that I use.

Pictured above: Gates & Sit Platform

PVC Chute

Gates

Fade the Props

It's easy to keep using the props longer than necessary. In fact, not removing the props soon enough can be detrimental to your training, because your dog will start to rely on the prop and that will become part of the behavior.

Once your dog's behavior is predictable, you can name the skill. Once you've named it, you should start to remove the prop. Step one is to use multiple props, using your front cue for each one. Then I'll usually start my training session with one of the props, then remove it while the dog chases a reset cookie. Be sure you pick it up, or else the dog will be drawn to it. As my dog comes into me, I will cue the behavior.

I often will mark earlier in the chain when I first remove the prop. This will increase your dog's confidence. When I reward, I do so in such a way that will strengthen the dog's behavior. For instance, I might mark as the dog is starting to lift his head, but before he sits. I will reward by throwing the treat between my legs.

I will often ping pong between prop and no prop for a few sessions. I may lower my criteria slightly while making this transition, but I set up the dog for success to the best of my ability.

Some dogs do better with fading props more slowly. If you use a sit platform, you can work your way to a flat one, then you can start stepping on the platform so less and less is available to the dog. If you use gates, start so the dog is in between gates, but as you back up 1 step the dog will come out of the gates. For a PVC chute, you can use a half box instead of a full one. Here's an example of that:

Placement of Reward When Teaching Front

Where you keep your treats and how you deliver them is so important in all dog training, and fronts are no exception. If you always keep the treats in your left pocket, your dog will focus there and his fronts will be crooked. If you always reward with the same hand, you can expect your dog to sit facing that hand. Be sure that you keep treats in both pockets, and reward with alternating hands. When I reward fronts, I bring my treats up by my chin then straight down my body to the dog.

Another great way to reward front is throwing the treat between your legs. You can do this before or after the dog sits.

Here's a video showing me using these both of these reward methods with Strive:

Chin Rests & Fronts

I love chin rests! When I first taught them, I had no idea all the ways they could help my behaviors, and fronts are no exception! Many dogs struggle with coming into the pressure of our bodies, and this causes them to sit too far away. Chin rests can help teach stronger fronts for two reasons. First, the dog has a target, causing him to come in nice and close. Second, in order to maintain the chin rest while sitting, the dog must keep all his weight on his front end, resulting in a very nice tuck sit.

Once I've taught a chin rest, here is how I progress with the training. I simply start with the target (in this case a post-it note) on my hand and mark/reward my dog for doing a chin rest. Once my dog understands the concept, I start to move the target upward so his head is more vertical.

The next step is to reward the dog for coming in and lifting his head, so I throw the treat away from me. In the beginning steps, I don't care that the dog isn't sitting, I am looking for that head lift up as he starts to reach his chin for the target.

Eventually I add the sit cue. I expect my dog to maintain contact with the target through the entire sit process. Prior to introducing the target, I make sure my dog can do a chin rest to my hand and sit without breaking contact and without my hand moving.

The following video shows the first several steps. You can see how I react when Excel breaks contact with the target as he's sitting. Side note: I used a post it note for this video. This was a terrible idea because it got all wet and soggy and didn't stick to anything. I would recommend using some sort of tape. This will be especially helpful when you get to part two.

Once your dog is coming in nicely and maintaining contact with the target while he or she sits, you can move on to Part Two. This involves putting the target (preferably tape) on your body. You want to make sure it's centered and you want to put it in a place that encourages proper head position. Your dog should be reaching up and hitting the target with his chin. If you put it too low, you will get a nose target, which will not bring the dog in as close as a chin target will. For many of you, this might end up being a "crotch" target, or a leg target.

You can see in the first steps of this video, I had to show Excel the target to remind him what to do, but he quickly caught on from there. At first I click for just touching the target with his chin. Eventually I start moving backwards and clicking for contact. Excel adds in the sit by himself, but if he had not I would have started cueing the sit. You can see from the sideways view just how close he's getting to me.

By using the tips that I outlined in this post, Excel has a very solid understanding of front position. If you are thoughtful and methodical about how you teach this skill, your dog too can have lovely fronts!

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