In TEAM titles, during the beginning levels, deviation from parallel heel position in any direction up to 30° can be considered as allowable or as Q (questionable). Any further angle such as 45° is definitely a NY (Not Yet). As you get further into TEAM levels, heel position becomes all about precision.
I’ll explain very briefly what heel position is and how being a human moving target can take you down the rabbit hole to a NY score — unless you truly understand and can get the picture in your head of what heel position looks like, you may end up staying down the hole with the rabbits.
In most genres (dog sports), heel position is usually defined as dog on left side, with dog’s body parallel to handler, facing the same direction as the handler. When the handler and dog move out, their paths do not or will not collide. The area between the dog’s ears and shoulder should line up with the handler’s hip. The actual dog position will/can vary slightly due to size, but in general can be applied across breeds.
So, sounds pretty clear doesn’t it?
Then why do we have so much of a problem when it comes to initially teaching heel position when we’re using a perch or pivot pot? Our dog’s front feet should be on the pivot pot, ensuring their position is fairly planted. We stand beside the pivot pot in correct heel position — all is good right? Then we begin to move and our dogs either angle outwards (crab outward) or over rotate (end up behind us) and everything falls apart.
Why? Because there’s much more than just the dog’s position at play. There’s movement, not only from the dog, but from the handler as well.
For the purpose of this article let’s take a look specifically at the human, considering we’re the ones driving the direction of movement for the dog. We humans like to see everything. We’re not used to being subtle, we have to look.
But unfortunately, being subtle is sometimes exactly what our dogs need. They pick up on every small nuance — shoulder pull or twitch, eye placement, head turn, chin drop, elbow or arm placement, foot placement big or small, hip push or turn and much more than what I just mentioned. In short, our dogs are reading every single thing we do even though we may not be aware of it or even consider that a particular movement is at play.
So what can we do to help our dogs get it right?
Being aware of our body’s position and movement, for one, and understanding how those movements affect the outcome of where the dog will place themselves. Consider just one rotation around the pivot pot.
Did you just turn your head down towards your dog — which dropped your shoulder, which twisted your torso, which turned and pushed back your hip — all towards your dog, just to take a look at the dog’s position? Whew! That was a lot of movement. All that happened in a fraction of a few seconds but your dog responded to all of it. Consider as well that he’s got 4 legs to stop moving, so he over-rotated, ending up behind you or maybe even crabbed outwards.
Did you also mark that out-of-parallel position too?
I know you’re asking, “But how do I check his position if I don’t look?” There are a couple of options for checking position before you mark and reward: having a training partner, investing in a mirror(s), even working in front of windows where you can see your reflection are options.
If you practice keeping your body relatively smooth in its movement and less of a constantly moving target for your dog — who is trying desperately to line up correctly — you’ll soon find something like over-rotation begins to disappear. It doesn’t mean you can’t position yourself to be able to observe how your dog moves, certainly you can do that. Just be aware of how your constant body movement is affecting how your dog perceives their job or the position you want them to end up in.
By being aware of our bodies, we can help our dogs learn where to place themselves, when to move, when to stop movement and how to be more precise in their body placement (parallel to human or any other position required).