Motivation problems in the heeling exercise

Often I work with people and their dogs and the goal is to improve the dogs performance in the heeling exercise, whether that be for Rally O, ANKC or IPO, they are usually coming to see me to learn my Training in Drive system as they may have seen dogs that I have worked with or some of our videos etc.

I can usually identify where the problem is very quickly when I watch the dog in training.

Here are some of the key signs that I look for: –

  • The handler may either have or pretends to have food pinched between fingers or in their hand.
  • The handler is excited and jumping around like crazy to try and get some level of energy into their dog.
  • They lure the dog through every exercise as the dog will not complete the exercise without the lure.
  • They give commands / cues in a booming voice or the dog will not complete the exercise.

Just to name a few…

All of these problems stem from one major problem, the handler does not have a system that helps create, develop and channel drive in their dog.

Here is what I mean, “the handler pretends to have food“, this is because at first the dog cannot be motivated without showing food, so to get training started, luring is used. Then the food becomes the cue and without food there is no motivation or drive.

The handler needs to be excited to get some level of energy in the dog“. I would alsways develop drive as a separate exercise before teaching the heeling exercise, when you don’t you have to use over exaggerated movements and sounds to get your dog motivated.

They lure the dog through every exercise“, this happens because the dog needs constant visual connection with the reward or the dogs drive disappears.

They give commands in a booming voice“, often this is aimed at pressuring the dog to perform the exercise, but with repeated applications of pressure the dog becomes desensitised and ignores even when the handler is screaming.

These problems have been going on in dog training for as long as I have been training dogs, and I guess a long time before that too and they are some of the major reasons I developed my Training in Drive SYSTEM.

When I first started using drive to motivate, train and reward dogs I was met with quite a lot of resistance as most people back then were into correcting a dog and making it work, which of course I did too, hey that was 30 plus years ago…

But even back then I felt that dogs I owned pushed harder for things such as chasing a rabbit than any exercise I taught them, and it meant I was never really getting the best out of my dog.

I lured, raised my voice, pretended I had food etc with the best of them but there was always something missing.

My Training in Drive SYSTEM

heeling exercise
Steve presenting to a packed house

Once the worlds resistance was lessened from me wanting to use “Super Reinforcers” like tug games and food games that raised the dogs level of interest, people became interested in using these attributes and through workshops, seminars, distance learning and lessons I must  have taught over 100 000 people some of the attributes of this system.

Over the last 30 years I have changed and modified many pieces to ensure it works with new sports and goals, because as a “system“, each piece connects to another piece and this is what makes it different to random applications of various techniques.

I feel it took about 10 – 15 years to get to a point where I could call this a system of my own and feel confident it can stand along side any system designed by anyone, whilst it is always in development and improvement, I didnt feel it I could call it MY system until I had totally designed and redesigned it over that time period, otherwise I would be just selling someone elese’s work.

When I am teaching a person, I aim at teaching them the “concepts” of my system rather than showing them technique. In fact for certain things I have many techniques but only one concept.

In the last 10 years or so, there have been many trainers brought to Australia to present their version of training and some most certainly use drive for many aspects. This has become so common, that quite a lot of my clients that come to see me, have been to these events.

But yet here they are, standing in front of me with a dog that is not working and they have attended many seminars and workshops, so why doesn’t it work?

Well for one, if I wanted to learn to play guitar, I would not go to a concert. I instead would seek out a teacher that has taken people from my level to the level I want to go to, then follow his or her system until I was accomplished.

Something else to know, is that successful trainers use a system. A system is a set of steps and phases that rely on their interaction with each other to work.

So when people go to many of these events and “Cherry Pick” information and throw it at their dog, well you can imagine it doesn’t flow the way they would like it to, nor does it look like the presenters trained dogs.

When someone uses a bit of my system with bits from other programs, this collection of pieces from various systems has not been tried before and is totally experimental.

As I work with a lot of people coming to learn motivational techniques that will later be used to drive many different outcomes, many more than just the heeling exercise, I have focussed hard to make a foundation system that can be used to drive any sport or job.

heeling exercise
Janay Robinson and Herzhund Chase prep for BH

My system is not limited to training IPO or ANKC Obedience but can be used as a foundation for any activity, in fact many dogs that are  working in Government Roles use this foundation system or concepts from it.

Obedience, Agility, Retrieving, IPO, Protection, Scent Detection, Herding, Search and Rescue, Tracking, Flyball, Disc Dog you name it and my system can be the foundation for them all.

Very experienced trainers may take pieces from many places and experiment with this combination over many years with many dogs and come up with a system they call their own, but just attending a few seminars does not make a system or success.

You need to know this because you may not be winning due to these reasons or at least they may be contributing.

Teach what you want

People want drive but don’t in any way shape or form teach the dog what that is and when to display drive. They just either expect that it is all genetics or luck, when in fact drive development is quite a complex behaviour of its own and as it is the foundation, it is probably one of the most important phases I teach.

Separating drive development from teaching positions is something I do with every dog I train so we can focus clearly on the goals of this session.

Teach your dog energy is a requirement for reward

heeling exercise
Herzhund Agent exceeding all criteria

When I am setting criteria for an exercise, it always includes what energy the exercise should have. For example, the heeling exercise for me may have the following criteria: –

  • Left side
  • High engagement
  • Eye contact
  • Energetic movement
  • Position
  • Intensity

I will work on each one of these criterion separately and then put them all together. The reason for this is that, asking a person who is learning how to train their dog to develop, monitor and reward all of these elements at once, on the fly is not easy for the new trainer, and more often than not, some of the above problems will creep in.

Rewards won’t do it all! Gasp!

heeling exercise
Sue and Puzzle developing drive

When training a dog in drive and using food as the reward, people have often gasped “wow what food is that!“. They think there is some  magic flavour in it that is making the dog work this way, when in fact the food I choose usually has little to do with flavour.

The drive development phase in my system focuses on the “way” the food is delivered, how the food “behaves” and the dogs “mindset” I am conditioning.

When finished, dogs will work like this for old, tasteless kibble.

We sell many different types of tug toys but for me this is more about the material, size and shape so we can use a toy that suits the dogs physical attributes, such as mouth size etc and also the end goal such as it the dog is going to be carrying a dumbbell or doing bite work, there may be some tugs that work better for that end.

But having that said, big fluffy, squeaky, rattling toys are not something I use on dogs in training for the heeling exercise, ever.

Handler Help

When heeling I aim to have my clients be able to walk at a brisk pace and look straight ahead and not have to continually motivate, lure and micro manage the dog in the heeling exercise AND have the dog highly focussed on the handler without any rewards in sight even under distraction.

Moving from trainer to handler

When you are training your dog, your role may be teacher, trainer, motivator, reward provider etc but when you compete your role needs to be handler.

heeling exercise
Rebecca Chin and Herzhund Blaze competing at WMA Nationals

Handlers have a number of responsibilities to meet such as follow judges direction, run the pattern, move in straight lines etc, but if you’re still training and motivating your dog in the ring, and trying to present yourself as a handler, you may fall down on a some of these.

Certainly there are transitional steps in moving from trainer to handler but if you have been actively luring and motivating your dog in all previous stages, you may find this transition very difficult to impossible.





All things in order

In most performance training, I will start the dogs in my system and the first step is Drive Development. In some dogs this means building more drive, in others it means teaching the dog how and when to switch on drive, others it means running repetitions to develop a super high value for the rewards, each dog starts a little differently.

heeling exercise
Candace Spicer developing drive with Sabre

Next I will move to engagement, which is much easier to train without lures when you have a dog that triggers into drive easily without the need to see a toy or food.

Engagement is the constant connection the handler and dog share whilst in the training model. Strengthening engagement happens by extending the duration of engagement needed to gain the reward and overcoming distraction.

I will then teach the dog the static positions and for that I will often suggest people use a control box. This is a box I made more than 20 years ago to control the way the dog forms the positions. They are becoming more common place now.

Now looking at the above some dogs could be six months in and we have not taken a single step in the heeling exercise, but I feel rushing ahead with a handful of food over the dogs nose is not the ideal way to get the desired outcome.

This can be tough for the new trainer who just wants to see heel steps but if you really want to develop something magic and reliable, I suggest being patient.

There are thousands of dogs that look amazing in the heeling exercise that have been developed in my system, so there is plenty to look forward to!

If you go back to the common reasons that handlers have problems that I listed above, you will see my system develops many elements of the system before any obedience or heel work is attempted.

Todays heeling exercise goals (world goals) are a bright, motivated, happy dog that wants to heel and is engaged with their handler, if you want to get your heel work looking amazing look at a system that encompasses all the elements you are looking for!


As always feel free to comment and share!



About SteveK9Pro

Steve Courtney is a Nationally Accredited Canine Behaviour Specialist, Obedience Trainer, Law Enforcement Dog Trainer and ANKC Breeder. Steve has been training dogs all his life and in these articles he shares with you his experience...

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  1. I could do with some help with my new dog, for he came from the police K9 to me because he failed his hip score being just below their line for cut off. His Mother & farther are both police dogs & his brother & sister have both made it into the team also. He has had no training of any sort that you do with a normal pup but he has been through the police section for them to say they want to keep him on but he is below their cut off line so he is out. He is a good dog & has leant a lot in the short time I have had him but with my disable getting worse I am having trouble training him. He has settled down a lot but is still jumping & I am still trying to stop him from doing that with praise when he does stop & the word NO when he looks like he is about to start again, it holds him for a little bit but then he goes straight back to jumping. That is only 1 of the tasks I have a head of me he has not done lead or search lead as yet because he has no control & until I get control of him with a few commands then I start with the lead. Sadly with me not being as well as I have been my training is down & this boy is a big hand full but I am going to get the better of him so that we can work together on jobs, if you have any ideas that might help me a bit I would love to hear them it just might make it a lot easier for me. He loves to search for things so that is a game we play just to keep him on his toes for now & I plan to change that to more stronger searches later when he’s on the lead, Heather.

  2. Christina Stockinger

    Great and very plausible article!!!
    I’d love to know if you offer online courses too. I have no possibility in my region of Brazil to take any courses.
    I have already taken Leerburg online courses about varios basic behaviors. I’m especially interested in body awareness, relationship, pre-heeling and later on heeling.
    Thanks for answering – Christina

  3. Hi Steve. So where can read or find out quite a bit more about the precise details of your system?
    Regards Michael

  4. I am not seeking such ‘focus’ in my dogs — but I have never ever found ‘food treats’ and good rewards in training. As I am elderly and arthritic I cannot use rough or energetic rewards (at least in class — at home, ball retrieve and some of the dog’s favourite Agility obstacles can work.)
    But I do like to develop verbal praise and physical touch as a very strong secondary reinforcement. This works very well with Working Dogs (mine are/have been German Shepherds and Kelpies) and it develops a very strong personal bond with the dog. Probably NOT useful for ‘service’ dogs who might need to work with various handlers.
    BUT, for my sins I now have a Speagle (Cocker Spaniel/Beagle) who is SO food motivated that the thought of food makes her so excited she rushes to second guess me and goes through any sequence that is supposed to be cued in parts. Unfortunately she had the Beagle characteristic of not boding with humans. So far about the only thing that will work is a retrieve game 🙁
    I’m hoping that by reading through your article more closely I MIGHT be able to get her ‘triallable’ even if only on lead. Have you had any experience /success with Beagles? Millie is almost 100% Beagle in behaviour.

    • You may have to develop a reward event you can deliver so your dog can anticipate that and be more motivated, if you come for a lesson we can help you with
      this too.

      • Geographically Impossible 🙁 If you come to Coffs Harbour to give a presentation I’ll come. I don’t even go to Grafton any more 🙁
        I have seen a sort-of improvement in Millie’s behaviour since I’ve started ignoring her if she is too demanding. 🙁 She is, for me, a challenging learning experience.

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