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Fancy Heel Part 1: A Limited History

Updated: Mar 25

And Some Rulebook Citations for Good Measure 



One of the things that makes heelwork so important to many trainers is that the variety of techniques available to teach it lends to the feeling that every dog’s heeling is that particular trainer’s own work of art. Please bear in mind accordingly that because this skill is so dynamic, any technique I mention can typically be substituted with at least a dozen other methods. But before we talk about how to train heel, we should talk about what exactly we’re training and why we want it to look that way. 


But first, a brief history – from my own limited perspective. I remember approximately six years ago learning about Bridget Carlson, a dog trainer who taught her Golden Retrievers to heel for AKC Obedience in the same style as shepherds doing Schutzhund/IGP – a sport she also competes in, with shepherds. The dog’s head is very high and straight, the front legs rhythmically shoot upward, and the back legs are crouched to further lift the front end higher. Another trainer Janice Gunn similarly teaches this “European style of heeling” (her words) for AKC Obedience, and she cites IGP influence on her youtube videos. At the time that I discovered these trainers, their style felt VERY unique compared to the AKC OB trainers I was surrounded by at the time. I was involved in AKC Obedience culture well before being involved in any protection sport culture, and this heeling looked so different to me that I felt like it deserved a distinct name from the heeling that I had witnessed previously. But I settled for thinking of it as “fancy heeling.” Around the time that I discovered this, general competition obedience culture was shifting. A head up, uber-prancing heel was increasingly admired by more and more people. 





Examples of Bridget and Janice's heelwork.


Is this perhaps related to rewards-focused dog training hitting the mainstream? I’ll admit that I’m 28 years old, and I wasn’t around for the OG popularization of positive reinforcement in the 90s-ish. But I do think that even closer to the time of my career, there has been another shift in dog training culture to reward techniques, even for pet skills, that involve higher arousal patterns. I’m talking about the terminal marker users (“yes” = explode to my hand) and trainers who integrate more toy play into regular skills and behavior modification. I dare say that this “toggling arousal” or “drive capping” popularization also owes itself to trainers associating with protection sports, just like the heeling style described above.


Social media has also played a role. What better medium to show off a physically and mentally exhausting skill than a platform that loves 5 second long videos? You only need 1-3 steps of fancy heelwork to make a cinematic slow-mo Tik Tok. And these videos end up looking very dazzling and beautiful to people who admire dog training. 


At this point in the narrative, it would be good to hear from someone competing in dog sports in Europe, because I don’t know the history of FCI heelwork scoring, or the history of European IGP scoring, and the potential relationship between the two. But I can tell you that despite the fact that European heeling has influenced the style of heelwork in American competition obedience, at this point in time, the judging criteria in America remains unaffected. 


Drumroll please… Because I think a lot of new trainers who are mostly self-taught and very online do not know what I am about to say. 


Nominally, you do not earn points in any American dog sport for your heel being flashy and prancey. 


Of course there is some unaccounted-for judge discretion in any sport, but in AKC/UKC Obedience, IGP, French Ring, Mondio Ring, and PSA, you can get the exact same score for heeling if your dog is prancing beautifully at your side with a straight-up head OR if your dog is simply at your side, attentive, head curved way to the right, and walking with low feet and even a stiff, pacing gait. 


WHAT? So why is everyone teaching this dramatic style of heeling then? That’s right! The answer is mostly because

It 

Looks

Cool


:-D 


Some people might have other answers related to the dog’s mental state, arousal level, and focus, but still – there are plenty of trainers who compete at high levels in AKC OB and protection sports that have dogs who are extremely attentive, perform well, and do not prance with a dramatically high and straight head. As far as I can tell, it is mostly about “style.” 







Here are some examples from an AKC OB nationals highlight reel + a video of full PSA OB routines at nationals. Notice all the differences in heelwork style.


Why does this matter beyond being interesting? Because when you’re training heeling, you should know what you want your dog to look like. What criteria will you be flexible on, and what is a “must have” for you before competing? This information will guide what techniques you utilize to train your heel. 


The flashiest heeling on social media is currently being done by people competing in IGP and PSA. I have included their rulebook entries for heelwork below. I also added AKC’s. Notice what they DON’T say. (I did not include the rulebook for mondioring or French ring because their heeling exercises are worth so few points.) 




From the PSA Rulebook 


Basic Position:

Each obedience exercise shall begin and end in a basic position. Basic position is defined as “heel position” when halted. (Author note: I could not find heel position defined beyond what I’ve copy/pasted here. Please message me if I’ve missed something!) Dogs may either sit or down in basic position according to their training. Heeling may be on the left or the right side, according to the dog’s training. Consistency must be shown throughout the routine.


Performance  Picture:

The  Judge  will  be  looking  for  dog  and  handler  teams  that  epitomize  the characteristic  of  teamwork.  The  dog  and  handler  should  provide  a  picture  of  work  where  the  dog  is attentive to commands, quick in their responses, and powerful in their performance. Judges are expected

to consider overall performance in their scoring to balance the picture of attentive, quick, and powerful work against any mistakes the dog and handler may have mad. 


On Leash Heeling (20 Points):

During the exercise, the dog shall remain at the handler’s side in proper

heel  position.  Heeling  shall  be  judged  on  teamwork,  and  how  quickly,  fluidly,  and  attentively  the  dog follows  the  commands  of  the  handler.  Heeling  should  demonstrate  attention  and  continuous  focus

throughout the heeling portion. Points will be deducted for deviations from

focused heeling, but focused heeling is not mandatory to pass the  heeling  portion. The dog should be tight without crowding the

handler, be neither forged nor lagging. The dog should be straight in position during heeling and at halts. Some leeway is given

for minor crabbing or forging if the dog is displaying attention while walking…


Author note: I couldn’t believe how vague this was. For additional research, I also listened to this podcast episode by the founder of PSA. 



From the USCA IGP Handbook


When assessing each exercise, the dog's behavior must be carefully observed, starting with the basic position until the end of the exercise. Correct position is… always parallel to the handler in basic position or heeling, as close as possible without touching or crowing the handler.

Basic Position: 

Each exercise begins and ends in the basic position. The basic position may be taken only once in the forward direction before each exercise. Taking additional basic positions will result in a point deduction or termination of the exercise (0 points “M”). In the basic position the dog must be attentive to the dog handler and sit with shoulder blade at knee height to the left of the handler and parallel (straight alongside) of the handler. In the basic position, the dog handler must not have a splayed leg stance and both arms must be relaxed /loosely hanging at the side of the body. The hands may be inside or outside of the dog as long as they are not intentionally being positioned to influence the dog. When the handler approaches the dog to pick it up for Basic Position, the Handler must be in line with the dogs’ shoulder, if the dog moves back to assume basic position on command the pick up to Basic Position is faulty.

Heeling on leash and off leash heeling (free heeling): 

The dog has to follow his dog handler out of the basic position with a verbal command to Heel, the dog must walk in a natural purposeful manner without stress, confident, attentive and in harmony with the handler. The dog must at all times move in a normal purposeful gait with attention to the handler. Its position must be parallel (straight) alongside the handler with the dogs shoulder in line with the handlers hip or knee (forging or lagging is faulty). Hopping or excessively dropping the rear end that causes an unnatural sloping top line or unnatural gait, crowding the handler that interferes with the handlers natural stride are all faulty heeling positions. 

Evaluation Criteria: 

Forging, heeling wide, not remaining parallel to the handler, lagging, slow or hesitant sits, additional commands, handler help, excessive hopping, errors in the b a s i c / i n i t i a l position, crowding / bumping, inattentiveness, lack of motivation, stress and the dog showing pressured behavior are faulty and lead to a corresponding deduction.


From the AKC Obedience Rulebook


Section 18. Heel Position:

The heel position as defined in these regulations 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 shoulder is to be in line with the handler’s left hip. The dog should be close to but not crowding its handler so that the handler has freedom of motion at all times.

Section 19. Hands and Arms:

 ...In all exercises where the dog is required to heel free, one of these options should be followed: (1) when the handler is in motion, the arms and hands must move naturally at the sides and must hang naturally at the sides when stopped; or (2) the right hand and arm must move naturally at the side, while the left hand must be held against the front of the body, centered in the area of the waist, with the left forearm carried against the body. There will be a substantial deduction if the hands and arms are not carried in one of these positions. The hands and arms may be adjusted during the fast portion of an exercise in order to maintain balance…



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So, there you have it. 


The popularization of the fancy heel has led to an increase in usage of the food lure as a training technique. Click here for part 2, where we talk all about the lure, and how to get rid of it. 

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