I recently had the occasion to address a group of obedience buffs and, as is customary, following the prepared portion of the program there was a question and answer session. After the audience had worked me over pretty well I decided that turn-about is fair play and I asked them a few questions. First I asked them to tell me what they, individually, considered to be their principal difficulty in training. As one might suspect, many different aspects were raised. Curiously enough, heeling was not mentioned and yet when we look at the score sheets after a trial, of those dogs qualifying, most will have lost more points on heeling than all the other exercises combined. Viewed in this light it is fair to assume that most everybody’s “problem” is heeling and perhaps quite understandably so because it requires the most continuous and sustained attention on the part of the dog. Not so with most of the other exercises during which a dog’s attention may wander momentarily without the sufferance of a penalty. Aside from these rather obvious observations, specifically where are points lost in heeling? Generally, most of them are lost because of lagging. I am fully aware of the shortcomings of generalizations, including this one, and yet they serve to demonstrate a point. Loss of points during heeling is understandable. What is not understandable is that they are lost due to lagging. The natural instinct of most dogs is to lead which, when they are on leash, translates itself into pulling. In a beginners class, for example, during the first few sessions most dogs actually physically pull, the euphemism for which is “forging.” And yet, by the time we get through with them, that is by the time they get into competition, most dogs will lose most of their points because of lagging.
Once I had posed this elaborate question to the audience I received a number of answers to explain this, some of them extremely perceptive. The consensus seemed to be that when we begin training a dog perhaps we are over-reacting to his forging and overemphasizing the correction. (Correction here meaning the quick snap on the lead.) While this would be a perfectly satisfactory explanation in isolated instances, it does not sufficiently explain the widespread occurrence of lagging. If we are willing to accept the assumption that most dogs start out forging and wind up losing points due to lagging, it raises a more fundamental question as to our entire approach to training. I say this because lagging does not appear to be confined to any one particular method of training or “school of thought” but is pretty much a universal problem. Could it be something in our training that induces it?
Several months ago I referred to Colonel Most’s “Training Dogs” written in 1910 and specifically the observation that “when the dog first starts to learn, only a mild form of compulsion should ever be employed, so as to avoid intimidation and to accustom him, so to speak, to whatever routine behavior it is desired to impose upon him.” The traditional method of teaching a dog to heel places primary reliance on the use of the correction, a strict form of compulsion rather than a “mild form of compulsion”.
Unfortunately, I do not have the answer and perhaps even my underlying assumptions are incorrect. Lagging, however, is commonplace and to me, at least, its existence is incongruous in light of the way in which a dog starts out. I also do not believe that it stems from inept handling or “stupid” dogs for these same inept handlers can teach their “stupid” dogs the various other exercises and yet will continuously be penalized heavily for lagging. Nor does any particular breed or size of dog have a monop- oly on lagging. I would be interested in anything you might have to contribute, as I am sure everyone else involved in training would be.
©1974 J. J. Volhard