In Chapter 2, Section 18 of the AKC Obedience Regulations Heel Position is defined as: “[This position] applies whether the dog is sitting, standing, lying down or moving at heel. The dog should be at the handler’s left side straight in line with the direction the handler is facing. The area from the dog’s head to shoulders is to be in line with the handler’s left hip. The dog should be close to but not crowding its handler so the handler has freedom of motion at all times.”
The last dog I trained a competition level heel with was Niche. He so enjoyed it. We had such fun and he had a nice heel. Could it have used improvement? Yes, absolutely. But his level of excitement and pure joy when we were heeling made me so happy. He would leap into position and practically tremble with excitement waiting for me to step forward.
I think one of the reasons I’ve put off teaching Zora to heel is because I still miss Niche. I wasn’t yet ready to face the memories of heel work with him quite so closely as I trained Zora.
Zora has an overall very nice loose leash walk, but general leash walking and competition formal heeling are two vastly different things. With formal heeling the criteria for what is ‘heeling’ is much stricter and well more formal. It is much more tightly defined. As you can see in the above definition printed in the rule book.
For example, Zora’s leash walk behavior for our general walks is for her to walk primarily on my right side (as I have Tom working on my left), to stay within a close enough range that there is no tension on the 4′ leash I walk her on, or if she’s off lead to stay with her front half approximately in line with my leg. When I stop forward motion I want her to stop, I don’t really care how she does that or in what position or if she turns towards me as long as she stops and maintains the slack leash criteria. If I turn I want her to turn with me, again maintaining slack leash but where she is positioned otherwise relative to me is incredibly flexible. When there is a tight space too narrow for us to pass 3 wide, her criteria includes her moving to allow Tom to safely lead me and shifting so she is now behind me. None of those would pass the heel portions of an obedience competition. Heck up till now I’ve essentially avoided teaching Zora how to sit on a reliable cue, in part because I figured at some point I would want to teach her to heel and train a formal sit at halt, which is a very specific behavior with specific criteria about how the dog moves into the sit, what feet shift where, where the body weight shifts, and so on, but I wasn’t ready to do that just yet.
Now I’m ready. Ready to teach Zora to heel. Ready to smile as I remember Niche. Ready to allow Zora’s heel to develop and progress without feeling I’m comparing her to Niche and faulting her when she does things differently. Ready for a fun winter project.
I don’t know if I’ll ever walk into the competition obedience ring with Zora. What I do know is I enjoy heeling. I enjoy teaching heeling. I enjoy the game, the dance, the communication of formal heeling. So I’m doing this for me, and for our relationship. Not for a score card.