Reduce Dependency on the Visible Reinforcer (or Get Rid off The Ball Under Your Arm)
Having a clear focal point is an excellent tool while teaching to heel. The problem with any tool we use is how to reduce dependency on it and fade it successfully. It is a very common approach to heel with the ball under the arm, and once that step of heeling is completed, many of us put it in a pocket or hold it in the left hand. Very frequently, the dog gets lost or becomes unfocused. We then try to engage the dog and have him look up over and over and over. We are stuck in a cycle.
We try to break desired behaviors in small, manageable parts. It is easier for the dog and, in reality, takes less time as far as the length of the complete training process. It only feels longer because you have to think of smaller steps.
Taking the ball away from under the arm and putting it away is a massive change for the dog - huge, immense, enormous, gigantic, etc. One day it was there, and now it is not. How does the dog know where to keep his focus?
It is easier to create a bridge from one focal concept to another. For instance, remove the ball from under the arm and place it on the left side on the ground at about 90° from you and the dog. The dog will definitely stare at it. Ask your dog to “heel” and the instance he, out of the old habit, does look where the ball used to be - mark and release to the ball on the ground. Be patient as the dog might not be able to avert his focus from the ball on the ground quickly. Take your time and do this exercise while stationary for a few sessions. The dog will understand that when he looks up and focuses at a certain area - he gets the ball.
If he struggles, you can place the ball further away from you or even at an angle behind you. Just make sure the dog saw where you placed it. A little at a time, get it closer and closer.
When this works well while you are standing still, start with a half step. It is also beneficial to slow down your speed as long as the head is in the correct position - mark and send the dog to the reinforcer.
Very gradually increase the distance of heeling. Try to make it as variable as possible, and do not forget to reinforce stationary attention. Sometimes, you will heel 5, 7, 2, 0, 10 steps, etc.
It will always be easier to walk away from the ball vs. walking towards it. Every time you make it more difficult - lower your expectations. If the ball is ahead to the left - begin with stationary Basic Position and go from there.
Bit by bit, the dog learns how to focus up without a ball.
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