No bones about it: When I adopted Fly, I had competition in mind. The performance bug bit me good and hard when I started competing with my American Bulldog, Cerberus, in local UKC events and I knew I wanted to keep going in that direction. I also knew that I wanted to avoid the mistakes I made early on in Cerb’s training. I’ve learned so much in the past few years and I was eager to apply it all right from the start. With Cerb, I took a crooked and winding path through several different training philosophies before I found a great community of positive reinforcement (R+) and force-free trainers. Once I found it, I never looked back, and I knew that my path with my next dog would be much more straightforward!
Enter: Firefly. ‘Fly is a Jack Russell/bully mix (the shelter said Bull Terrier but I don’t see it – she’s more APBT-y). She’s approximately one year old and is best described as a motley combination of Jack Russell teeth, Yoda ears, bulldog snort, and the personality of a three-year old on a five-day PixyStix bender. She’s a little bit bigger than I was looking for my second dog (I had wanted something a little more Jack Russell in size), but from the moment I met her I knew we’d be leaving the shelter together. She just has so much GO. She’s sweet and affectionate, but driven and willing to please. She works well for food and I have an inkling she might work well for a toy, too. She has approximately zero focus right now, but focus can be built… right?
I didn’t have a very structured plan for Fly beyond “Let’s do all the things!” My first task, of course, was to get her settled into her new home. That’s probably not so big a deal for other adopters and their new pets, but I had to integrate Fly into a household with two cats and a dog-reactive American Bulldog. I had amazing support from my trainer and my friends and I felt like I could make it work, and I’m pleased to say that it is going really, really well – I guess I’ll have to write a post about it one of these days! The first few
days weeks were rough, but I’m now able to walk both dogs through our neighborhood by myself with absolutely no trouble (though I don’t, because I’ve got no desire to partake in Urban Waterskiing — that, and I don’t want to be by myself with two dogs if something goes wrong).
So, integration (mostly) complete, it was time to think about my competition goals and pick a place to start. While I’m interested in eventually doing all kinds of crazy activities with Fly – agility! nose work! weight pull! freestyle dancing! – I knew that I wanted a solid foundation of basic obedience. For me, everything starts with a solid heel. This means heel position, Fly’s shoulder by my leg, her head up and eyes on me. I picked this task as our starting point.
I started by simply rewarding Fly for being in heel position. I wanted to make that spot next to my leg pay off BIG TIME. When she sat there and looked up at me, treats rained from the sky. I would do this if she put herself there or if I encouraged her to take up that position, and once she understood the concept, I rewarded only for what I wanted – a straight sit, square front, and eye contact. This was a change from when I first started working with Cerb. At that time I really didn’t appreciate how important it is to tell your dog there is only one right answer. I would reward Cerb for anything even resembling a sit in heel position, long after I should have raised my criteria, and as a result it took quite a long time to get a consistent, competition-worthy sit in heel position. I was determined not to make that mistake again! So for Fly, sitting in heel has only one right answer. Everything else is a blown opportunity for cookies.
I also introduced a new activity for both of us, something I hadn’t known about when I was training Cerb: perch work! I learned about perch work only a year or so ago when I needed to teach Cerb that he had a back end. He had a solid heel at the time, but I wanted to teach him to heel in reverse, and we were really hitting a wall. He just had no idea how to work his back legs – it was like he didn’t know he had them! Perch work is a great way to teach spatial and hind-end awareness, and I thought it would really benefit Fly’s heeling and left and right finishes if we incorporated this activity into her heeling lessons.
What is perch work? Good question! A “perch” is just something your dog can put his or her feet on. You could use an upturned bucket, a concrete block, a tupperware dish — anything that is size-appropriate for your dog and sturdy enough to support her weight. I went through a couple of options with Fly. At first, I tried an upturned bucket. That was a good height for what I wanted to do, but it wasn’t sturdy – Fly kept leaning too far forward and flipping it over, which certainly wasn’t encouraging her to get up on it again. I eventually settled on an old “kitty condo” thing we had stashed in the basement. It still tips a little too easily, but it’s heavier than the bucket.
Okay! I had a perch. Then I had to do some shaping with Fly to teach her to put her front feet up on the perch. I used a clicker for this and click-treated any interest in the perch. Then I click-treated for pawing at it, and within moments I had her doing her circus pony thing with two feet up on the perch.
Now the tricky part. I had to teach her to move her rear feet in a circle around the perch while keeping her front feet up on it – basically, to pivot around the perch. This was easier than I thought it would be! Fly caught on to this much more quickly than Cerberus, who tends to be a little more ballistic with his guesses when we’re shaping something new (see: Cerberus learned to launch himself OVER the perch, but refused to pivot gently around it). I grabbed a handful of treats, stood in heel position next to Fly, and encouraged her to turn her head to the left while I shuffled to the right. The movement of her head turned her body and she shifted her back feet – click! In just a few attempts, I had her following me dutifully around the perch:
I also introduced movement to our heel position practice. I started off with just a few steps at first, rewarding Fly for staying in heel position and maintaining that stellar eye contact. Over a few days of short mini-sessions (which is all Fly’s brain can handle right now), I increased the distance Fly needed to move to get her reward, but I also maintained a random reinforcement schedule – she could get a treat for one step in heel position, or she might need to give me five steps, or seven steps, or two steps. It’s important to be random and not fall into a pattern like giving the reward every five steps, otherwise you might end up with a dog who lags/looks around for four steps and just looks up at you for the fifth, the delicious cookie step. While that might not sound too bad, in a competition setting it could mean the difference between a bang-on halt and a late, laggy halt, or the difference between a sexy left turn and… tripping over your dog, who was looking at that-lady-in-the-hat-over-there because it was only the third step and the cookies don’t come until step five, right?
Put it all together, and after two weeks it looks something like this:
Not bad, I think! From a multi-dog kennel at a county animal shelter to… um, somewhat attentive short-distance heeling champion in only a few weeks! In the future, we’ll be working on increasing distance, incorporating left and right turns, getting a snappy insta-sit when we come to a stop, and polishing up her left and right finishes.