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Fancy Heel Part 2: Lure, Lure, Go Away

Updated: Jun 27


As “fancy” heel exploded in popularity (see part 1 of this series), so did the heavy use of luring as a technique for teaching heel. I increasingly witness trainers keeping a treat to their dog’s nose as they prance in heel for months, some even upwards of a year, before they have their dog do any heeling without a lure. 


The rationale behind this technique is primarily to build muscle memory. I believe this approach makes particular sense in a sport like IGP (formerly known as Schutzhund and IPO), where even at the lowest level, your dog performs approximately 100 steps of heeling, most of which are in a straight line. (How exciting!) Moreover, this technique emphasizes the style of movement and gaiting, which proves helpful when luring a dog that is still growing, with their body proportions changing every day.


But I am seeing more and more baby trainers lure their life away, and I suspect that they are using this technique simply because they saw someone else do it, without having a plan for exactly how they are going to fade that lure out. Good on you guys for trusting the process – but lucky for you, I have trust issues, and I am constantly analyzing the entirety of every training plan, wanting to understand things from start to finish. So let’s talk about how to fade that lure, because you might be more ready to do so than you realize. 


Firstly, I want to point out that you can get a high head and big prance (if that’s your goal) without ever having used a lure at all, just by being thoughtful about your reward placement. In other words, if you put your reward where you want your dog’s head to be, that’s where the head will go. And where the head goes, the body follows. My Rockin’ Rally-O curriculum does not include luring after the pivot bowl stage. 


Now, let’s talk about what exactly luring affects: 


  1. Attention and motivation: Just like when you’re working a distracted green dog and get the food out to lure a sit, you can practice skills and cheat engagement by using a food lure. Heeling is a way harder skill than sitting, so it makes sense to do more “thoughtful cheating” in your heelwork than it does in a simple skill like sit. 

  2. Head position and focal point: Your dog needs a visual focal point while heeling. They need to decide where to fix their gaze even as they move their body through turns and pace changes with you, in order to have the consistent picture that will earn you top scores. A direct lure (food right against their nose) allows you to manipulate head position and not worry about a focal point as you work on body position. (An indirect lure, meaning food/toy above the dog’s head, will have a relationship with the focal point, as we’ll discuss below.) 

    1. Prance: The higher the head, the more prance you typically get, as the dog aims upward. And the higher the head, the more weight-shift you typically get to the back legs, which leads to higher front legs (and even more prance).   

  3. Body position and movement: Depending on your sport of choice, the dog’s head/shoulders need to be around the seam of your pants. And regardless of your sport of choice, the body needs to be straight. Your lure places the dog where you want them, including through turns if you lure your dog’s head to the side. 


You should be thinking about these 3 components and working on different exercises for all 3 in order to fade off of the lure. 


Attention and Motivation 


Your dog should be giving you their undivided attention in heelwork, even as they are perceiving stimulus in the background. This is high level stuff. Impulse control, focusing around distractions, motivation, and engagement are imperative to good heelwork. Understanding chaining and duration is also imperative. Those are big subjects that I’m not going to go into detail about here, but in short, if your dog’s work ethic and self control are questionable, you need to deal with that first – outside of the context of heeling without a lure – before working on anything but a few steps heeling forward in a quiet environment. 



(Photo by Amanda Amil)

Warm Up


Even if your dog is well-versed in ignoring distractions, you need a contextual warm-up routine that lets them know you are expecting not just polite behavior but 100% focus. Sometimes that warm up routine needs to involve acclimating to the stimulus of the environment you are in. Here is a video where I work on that with a younger version of Cupid in a brand new space. The exact right routine is going to depend on your dog’s individual personality, as well as expectations based on what other activities/sports they participate in beyond just competition obedience. (For example, you should probably have a different warm-up routine for nosework, where you want the dog to be outwardly focused, and competition obedience, where you want them to be focused on you.) 




Head Position and Focal Point


You have a few different options here, and you will also decide how much you want to pick the dog’s focal point versus letting them find one naturally. 


Rally Note: In AKC Rally, you can keep a hand or closed fist above the dog’s head as a “final picture,” even at a competitive level. 

You cannot have a hand above the dog’s for AKC Obedience or most protection sports. 


Natural Focal Point


For a “natural” focal point, many dogs will try to make eye contact with you while heeling, since so much of our training reinforces eye contact. This can cause problems as the dog attempts to wrap around you in order to look into your eyes more easily. However, if your body position criteria is precise and upheld well, it is possible for some dogs to make eye contact and heel correctly. Just be careful not to stare back at them and thus further tempt them to get in front of you like they are used to. 


A natural focal point can also be a product of simple reward placement. If you consistently put the cookie right by your hip, the dog is likely to look at your hip. The stranger the focal point is (like staring at your armpit or forearm), the more repetitions you have to put in in order to be successful. Looking at your face feels intuitive to dogs, but staring at a weird part of your body takes more convincing. 


The position of the head - straight or crooked - is also a factor. The bend in the neck and the focal point obviously have a relationship with one another. A head that is straight up is easier to pull off in sports where you put a hand on the outside of the dog’s head (not AKC Obedience) – because the dog learns to balance their head in between your hip and hand, and also because you can stash rewards in your armpits and drop them to the dog. 





Touch


A “touch” skill, either a single bop or holding the nose to your hand, can act as a substitute for a perfectly placed reward, since you can ask your dog to touch your hand exactly where you want their head to be. The above link also contains an example of this. 


Similarly, some trainers teach their dog to touch or stare at a target such as a piece of tape or post it note on their hip, arm, etc. Gradually they blend this stimulus into the actual part of their body that they want the dog to focus on. 



Fading a Direct Lure


To fade out of a direct lure (either cookie to nose or a continuous nose touch) gradually, there are 2 main techniques I’m familiar with. For the first, you bring the target up higher, then bring it back down. For the second, you flash your target behind your back, and then bring it back to the dog to reward. You can do this in motion walking a straight line or stationary. The trick is being sneaky. 


In my favorite overall system that I currently teach to most of my competition obedience clients, I start with a lure on the pivot bowl. Over the course of a few weeks, I bring the lure up higher while working on left turns on the pivot bowl, and then fade it out completely to my final desired hand position (still on the bowl), before taking the bowl away. (See “rear end awareness” section below for a video example.) For AKC Obedience, I actually like to teach the dog with my hand behind my back, to make sure that the head position is not dependent on hand placement. This is a technique that my Rockin’ Rally-O Course covers extensively. 


If you want to keep a hand above your dog’s head for Rally, it is worth proofing distraction with an empty hand, too, in case your dog is wise to the presence of food in your hand even with a closed fist. Practicing off-site rewards (e.g., food bowl on the ground as a reward) is also very helpful. 


I find that people have a hard time if I let them keep the lure in play for a long time. They get a beautiful heelwork picture, but then they don’t do everything else that I write about here. The lure becomes a crutch, they fade off of it too quickly and sloppily, and then their heeling falls apart. 



Body Position and Movement 


Head Position Relationship 


Body position is related to everything written above, as the position of the head influences the position of the body.



Rear End Awareness


Most people I come across who have at least dabbled in using a pivot bowl to teach rear end awareness. But if you haven’t… get on that! It is my favorite tool for teaching heel, and even pivot bowl techniques that I find to be inferior still get the ball rolling in a helpful way. The pivot bowl is my favorite way to fade off of the lure because the prop by itself can start cueing “offered” side-stepping with 0 hand help, if you play your cards right. Again, my online rally course goes into this in depth, but the linked video tutorial above can get you started for free. 






Trotting 


If you want a prancey trotting heel, you can shape that motion outside of heel, so that you can get the motion without worry about perfect position. This step is not strictly necessary for heelwork but will likely release you from the chains of direct luring if you are worried about prance in your heel. You can shape the behavior by walking backward instead of forward, having your dog follow your high hand on the right side and/or away from your body, or having them trot in a circle or straight line following a target stick. Combine with an encouraging and continuous verbal cue if you want to get fancy with it. 



Turns, Halts, and First Step Forward 


I like to practice first steps out of halt, halting, and turns all in isolation - meaning in separate foundational exercises - since all of these elements contain significantly unique movements that are easy for the dog to get sloppy about if you are not paying attention to exactly how they perform them. If you haven’t done your due diligence truly teaching the dog how to move through these skills, you will have a hard time fading your lure. (Not to beat a dead horse, but yes, my online rally course covers this in depth as well.) 



In Conclusion


The more you follow your dog’s natural way of moving, the less upfront work and less maintenance training your heel will require. If you’re not sure what you want your heel to look like or why you have a certain video from social media in your head as the gold standard, revisit part 1 of this article for my limited history of the fancy heel. Heelwork is hard work, but if you do it right, it should be fun for both you and your dog. Now, get off that damn lure! 






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