There is one method that has become extremely popular for teaching heel position, left turns, pivots, and rear end awareness. Different trainers call it different things. I’ve heard the terms brick work, perch work, pivot bowl, pivot disc, and more. I refer to this prop as the pivot bowl. Pivot bowls are the most essential foundation for competition heeling.
Your pivot bowl doesn’t need to be round, although the props I use tend to be. You want one that’s appropriately sized for your dog. I want to make sure my dog can stand comfortably and naturally on the bowl with both front feet.
I like the pivot bowls to be fairly non-skid. Plastic food bowls sometimes cause the enthusiastic dogs to slip around. If you have a plastic bowl, you can glue some non-skid material to the bottom. Alternatively, I have found that rubber feeding dishes found at farm and fleet stores work really well. Depending on the brand and the size of your dog, some do collapse easily, so stacking two or three together or putting a smaller bowl inside can help.
You can buy pivot bowls online too! Check out this store!
Your Dog’s Introduction to Pivot Bowls
We want our dogs to have a really good conditioned emotional response to the pivot bowl. I want my dog to get excited when he sees the bowl, and I’d love for him to run over to it and put his front feet up on it. In order to get this excitement, we are going to pair this prop with rewards that your dog loves, like high-value treats.
Start by placing the pivot bowl down in the training area before you bring in your dog. I keep my training area fairly small and free of other distractions, because I want my dog to notice the pivot bowl right away and be interested by it. Have your treats and clicker ready (or you might choose to use a verbal marker). Once my dog comes into the area, I am looking for that first moment of noticing the pivot bowl. When I see my dog notice or look at the bowl, I click and treat near the bowl. Depending on my dog, I might place the treat on the bowl or just treat near the bowl. If I think there’s any chance that my dog might be uncomfortable with taking a treat from the top of the bowl, I will just treat near the bowl. I do not want my dog to feel conflicted at all, so if I think he might be nervous about the bowl at all I don’t force him to get super close in order to get the treat.
I raise criteria fairly quickly. Within a few reps I would like my dog to be approaching and sniffing the bowl. I will either click and put a treat on the bowl, followed by a reset treat thrown a few feet away, or I will click and throw the reset treat a few feet away to set the dog up to the next rep.
When I know my dog is confident with the bowl, I have no problem with using a little bit of luring to help the dog. I will usually start this step after my dog is walking up to the bowl and sniffing or doing a nose touch.
Pivot Bowl Training Examples
Here’s a video of my friend Ann, with her puppy Dare. This was his second or third session with the bowl. Dare was completely confident and not at all nervous about the bowl, so she used some luring to help him.
Notice how Ann rewards several times on the bowl to increase value for feet being on, then sets a treat off to the side so Dare can get back on the bowl to earn more treats. At this stage, we really want to put a ton of value into staying on the bowl. As quickly as possible, we want to stop the luring and allow our dogs to offer getting up on the bowl. This will require a little bit of patience and allowing the dog to think through the problem and figure out how he can earn more treats. Don’t be afraid to give your dog that time he needs! If he gets stuck for an extended period of time, you can always throw a reset treat away from the bowl, then start clicking movement toward the bowl, sniffing the bowl, etc.
If you would like to shape this behavior, which I definitely recommend if your dog is a little nervous about the bowl, you will want to really split down your criteria. First click for looking at the bowl, then moving toward it, then sniffing it. Once my dog starts sniffing the bowl, I try to feed in a way that will encourage feet on the bowl. I’ll click then feed high so that he puts a foot on the bowl. Then I’ll click again and feed so that maybe the other foot gets on the bowl. Then I’ll click and feed several treats, telling the dog how brilliant he is. After the several treats I’ll throw a reset treat off to the side and start the process again.
Introducing Duration to the Pivot Bowl
Once my dog is a rockstar with running to the bowl and putting his feet on it, I really start working on duration. I use a very high rate of reinforcement for this, especially in the beginning. I start by feeding rapid treats, one after the other. If the dog gets off the bowl on his own, the treats simply stop and start up again if he chooses to put his feet back onto the bowl. I will feed 4-6 tiny treats in a row, then take a break by luring the dog off the bowl or placing a treat on the ground.
When my dog is showing some understanding of staying on the bowl, I will start using slow treats to test that understanding. I will also do a bit of proofing by showing him the treat and rewarded his effort to stay on the bowl. I keep my ROR super high and don’t give my dog many opportunities to make a mistake, and at the same time evaluate my dog’s understanding.
Here’s a video of Ann and Dare in the proofing stage.
When I am working with props, especially in the beginning when I am adding value, I am very good about picking up my prop as soon as the dog is done training. I don’t want the dog to indicate interest and interact with the prop when I’m not paying attention, and I also don’t want the dog to learn to ignore it because he sees it often. At this stage of the training, every interaction and all interest is rewarded.
Small dogs can do this too! Pick a pivot bowl that is appropriately sized for the dog. Once the dog’s front feet are up on the bowl, it should be pretty easy to feed the dog with his/her head up by bending over slightly. If you need to save your back, sit in a chair or get on your knees.
Here is Denise Fenzi with her little guy Brito, working on a pivot disk.
Taking the time to teach duration on the pivot bowl will make training an actual left pivot much easier! Don’t skip or skimp on this important step.