Lagging during heeling is a common problem with dogs. There are multiple reasons that dogs lag, but it usually comes down to one issue: the dog does not truly understand heel. A dog that understands heel will stay in heel position regardless of how the handler is moving.
Before we discuss some ways to improve the dog’s understanding of heel and prevent lagging, I’d like to mention that some dogs don’t lag in training, but do lag in the ring. This is a different issue of a dog not being ready for or comfortable in the ring. Check out this blog post that I wrote for ideas on how to ensure your dog is ready to step into the ring.
What is Lagging?
First, let’s define lagging. Lagging is when your dog is behind where he should be for heel position. Heel position is defined as the dog’s nose to shoulder lined up with your left leg. If your dog’s head is behind your leg, he or she is lagging. In obedience, you will lose points for lagging. Depending on how far back your dog is, you could lose points in rally also.
If your dog lags, a common response is to slow down and wait for the dog. This leads to a vicious cycle of dog lagging, handler slowing down, dog lagging more, etc. The number one tip for lagging is don’t slow down!
I find that the majority of dogs who lag start off lagging from the first step, so I spend a good amount of time teaching the dog to pop forward with me when I step out. I commonly use a hand touch to teach the dog to drive forward and up from the very first step.
How to Train Dogs that Lag
This video shows the steps I take to teach this. First, my dog needs to know the hand touch. Then I put it in heel position. When the dog is quickly popping up to touch my hand, I will start moving forward. Notice that as soon as I move my left foot forward, I’m asking for the touch. I want the dog to pop up from the sit to touch my hand.
Just a quick side note that my cue is the presentation of the hand. I am not saying touch.
Start With the Very First Step
Depending on the dog, I might do some other things to help the dog drive forward. I often start the hand touch exercise with the dog in the stand. I will move forward one step and ask for the touch.
Separately, I will teach the dog to pop up from a sit, like the video shows.
Sometimes I’ll pair my cue “heel” with tossing a treat forward. This can help some dogs think about driving forward when they hear “heel”.
When I’m teaching heeling, I always start off slowly. I teach all the moves at a slow before I start speeding up to normal.
Duration in Heeling
Once you’ve gotten your dog to stay with you for the first one or two steps, you can work on the dog staying in heel position. You want to increase the number of steps that you take slowly. Heeling is a duration behavior, so we need to treat it like any other duration behavior. You wouldn’t go from a 2 second stay to a 30 second stay with your puppy, right? It’s the same thing in heeling. If your dog can’t do 5 steps of heel, trying for 10 isn’t very smart!
There are so many ways to teach heel position, but an easy way to add some duration is hold off on your hand touch. Instead of presenting your hand on step one, present on step two, then mark and reward. After a couple successful reps, try three steps.
Like any other duration behavior, it’s a good idea to ping pong the difficulty and end on an easier note! If your dog can do 5 good steps in position, mix it up! Do 4 steps, then 2, then 5, then 1 and quit.
Keep Your Criteria Clear
Be sure you’re always thinking about your criteria. It needs to be clear to you so that you can make it clear to your dog. If your dog does start to lag, you need to have a plan.
Teach Your Dog How to Find Heel from Behind
Sometimes we don’t do a good job teaching our dog how to catch up to us. Once the dog starts lagging, he or she might not know what to do to get back into position. I make sure I teach this skill.
Start by tossing a treat behind you, then start walking forward slowly. When your dog catches up to heel, praise and reward. You can reward in position or you can toss the treat forward.
When your dog understands the game, you can start moving at a normal speed. Sometimes when I’m heeling, I’ll say get it and toss the treat behind me or off to the side and keep moving. It’s fun for my dog to run back and catch up, and I can mark and reward when the dog gets back to heel. It’s a fun little game! If you don’t want to toss a treat, you can have the dog circle a cone or other object, or you can even throw in some moving positions if your dog has that skill.
Dogs that Lag on Turns
Another really common place for the dog to start lagging is on turns, particularly right turns and about turns. Again, this is most often a lack of understanding from the dog. I break down each turn into tiny little steps so that my dog understands exactly how to stay in position throughout the turn. Just as an example, here’s a quick video on how I break down the right turn.
I also use a hand touch on right turns.
I use these same steps to teach each turn, breaking each one down into small steps so my dog understands how to stay in position. Again, I start everything in slow pace then speed up when my dog is doing well.
Dogs that Lag During Pace Changes
Another common place for the dog to lag is during pace changes. Going from slow to normal or normal to fast can be hard for some dogs. Once again, breaking down the pieces to show the dog what you want is important.
First, I teach the dog that when I lean forward slightly, the dog should accelerate. I start by leaning forward then throwing the treat forward. This is done with me standing. Then I start walking slowly, lean forward, and toss the treat. Then I start walking, lean forward and accelerate, then throw the treat. You could also mix up throwing the treat with a high hand touch that is out in front of heel position.
Use Reward Placement to Your Advantage!
One more thing to think about is placement of reward. Remember that how and where you treat will affect future reps of that behavior. For lagging, think about rewards that are high and forward. Think about ways to increase arousal, like tossing treats or using toys.
If your dog lags, just go back to some of these foundations and ensure that your dog truly understands heel. Teach your dog how to stay in position throughout the various moves. Keep your rewards fun and forward. The effort you put into this will pay off!