Cheryl May's Quick Fixes for Obedience Scores

Copyright by Cheryl May. May be reprinted without permission 1) if used in its entirety without editing; and 2) provided copyright notice remains in place.

I first prepared this as a handout for a workshop I did for a group of advanced 4-H dog handlers. I wrote a much more extensive article on this topic, complete with judges' comments about the handler errors they see most often, for the 2002 Popular Dog series publication, "Training for Obedience" available at pet stores nationwide.

Successful obedience showing is the result of many hours of solid work with your dog. But there are a few things you can quickly fix that will help you get better scores. These include improving footwork; fixing handler errors; and decreasing your own nervousness in the ring.

How to improve heeling

Be consistent. Keep moving. Stay out of the way of your dog.

You are the team leader and must give timely and correct signals to the dog. Practice correct footwork without the dog. Then, when you are working with your dog, your improved footwork will come naturally. Correct footwork gives the dog a better chance to be right because he "sees" a signal before the change of direction. There are several methods that work very effectively. The important thing is to select one method that works well for you and your dog and stick with it for now. Some modifications might need to be made as you and your dog progress in the training process due to how fast the dog works and the size of your dog. Practice walking in a straight line by walking on lines in a parking lot, or lining yourself up with floor tiles in a long hallway.

The first step of heeling

Starting on the left leg: Probably best for the slower or less attentive dog.

Starting on the right leg: Probably best for the fast, ready to go dog. This start has a tendency to keep the dog in more of a straight line when beginning to heel and avoids a bump on the first step.

Modifications: The length of the first step of heeling depends on how fast the dog works and the size of the dog. Don't leave your dog behind because you took too big a step!


Feet: It is best to teach the dog to stop whether you plant the left foot and bring the right foot up or vice versa. (Note: the "plant" of the foot should be a soft one.) The length of the last step as you plant your foot depends on the size and speed of your dog.

The signal: What happens naturally when you stop walking? If you are clipping along in a hurry to get somewhere and must suddenly come to a halt, your upper body leans back just before you stop. In training, exaggerate the lean as you plant your foot so your dog "sees" a definite signal before you stop. As time goes on, drop the exaggeration and just have the slight natural lean.

Change of pace

Just as in the halt where there is a natural backward lean to slow your forward motion and change your center of balance in order to change to a slower pace, so too is there an opposite natural lean in order to speed up. When you start to go faster, there is a natural forward lean to change your center of balance and collect yourself as you move out briskly. Exaggerate these leans in practice. Then gradually wean the dog off the exaggeration to the natural.

Left and right turns

Round off your corners slightly. Rounded corners are much more smooth and natural looking than military style 90-degree turns.

You can signal the turn on either your left or right foot by swiveling your foot slightly before you actually begin the turn. Practice both because sometimes the dog will dictate which signal works best for your specific team.

Keep in mind that you must signal the dog before you actually turn, so you must initiate the turn in a straight line, then turn. Shorten your stride slightly through the turn and gradually move back to a normal pace.

Figure 8

The dynamics of this exercise dictate the footwork. You must maintain a consistent pace and distance around each post. Your dog should do the work changing pace - not you. There are things you can do to help your dog: Make sure you walk a straight line through the middle of the figure eight. In training, teach your dog "easy" and "hurry." Exaggerate these speeds in your training session so your dog learns and understands the pace changes he will have to make.

About turn

This is the most difficult turn to execute well. You must be able to maintain your consistent pace through the turn while staying out of the way of the dog. Teach this exercise by luring the dog around the turn with a treat. Treat when he reaches heel position, if he has executed the turn quickly and accurately. Make a game of it. A very fast turn earns the dog a bite of cheese or liver. A good turn earns the dog a bite of kibble. A slow turn earns nothing. You might say, "too slow, too bad." I do not believe that corrections or pulling the dog around the turn are effective in speeding up about turns. Keep training positive and make it fun for your dog.

Footwork for the about turn

Step 1. When judge calls "about turn," place your left foot in a "T" with your right foot.

Step 2. Pivot with your right foot.

Step 3. Small dogs. Bring your left foot around and step out in the new direction. Your step must be shorter for a small, or a slower moving, dog.

Step 3. Large dogs. Bring your left foot around and step out in the new direction. Use a larger step for a large dog, or one that moves very quickly around the turn.

When I learned that I was going to be making the presentation to the 4-H group, I asked other members of obed-teach, an e-mail list comprised of obedience instructors, for their "quick fixes." Here are their tips.

Handler nerves

Practice deep breathing exercises (away from your dog) and repeat this mantra: "I am having fun; I am doing this for fun; this is what I do for fun; this is fun." Bev Watson

A friend of mine has a mantra she repeats to conquer "ring nerves." She's even set it to a cadence that matches her heeling. "I will float around the ring like smoke." Jill Morstad

Arrive in plenty of time. Keep track of when you show. Prepare to warm your dog up with a little heeling just before it is your turn in the ring. Mary Jo Gallagher

Getting into heel position to start

Always line up to start an exercise with a half or full circle to the left with a sit command as you come to a halt. Follow with praise. This gets the dog into the correct position with a minimum of fussing, gives you a chance to praise your dog, and makes you both feel more confident at the beginning of the exercise. Margie English


When you leave your dog for a recall, walk away with confidence and mentally mark the place at which you will stop and turn, not on a dime, but close to it. Bev Watson

Stand for exam

Make sure you have your hands off the dog when you say "stay." Lots of people do this and fail for a double command. Edell Marie Schaefer

Be sure to leave the dog from heel position and return completely to heel position after the exam. Mary Jo Gallagher


Keep moving at a brisk pace. Don't look back for the dog. Keep your feet together and keep moving on turns. Command, pause, move. Watch the heeling pattern and know it before you go in the ring. Don't overtrain the night before the trial. Concentrate on your dog. Roger Greenwald

And a final few words - Have fun. Be a good sport. If you win, don't gloat. If you lose, don't complain (at least not in public.) Appreciate your dog.

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