Obedience training was introduced to America by Germans many from military backgrounds who were steeped in the European obedience-service dog traditions. They started on the left foot, so everyone else did. Then, as time passed, someone asked why. Instructors started looking for a justification of the left-foot start. At first glance it seems logical that the dog can see the left foot move and move with it, so that was the offered reason. It works for the average dog, and the exceptional dog can overcome most adverse conditions to rise above them, so no one challenged this method in the beginning. My first question when given this explanation was if the dog is expected to see a hand signal at forty feet, why can’t he see the right leg when it moves less than one foot away? The answer dug an even deeper hole for the instructor who told me the dog was trained to stay when you started off on the right foot.
Sounds good until you analyze it. Just for kicks, squat down beside a friend in the heel position. Look up at them. Have them give you a STAY then use the hand signal stay and step away. If you are looking up, as your dog should be, and they place their hand in front of you eyes, there is no way you can tell which foot they started out on. Plus, think about this, you have given two verbal commands (SIT and STAY) and a hand signal, if your dog doesn’t stay on those, he probably won’t pay a great deal of attention to your foot work.
In addition, I was doing Sit, Down, and Stand Stays out of motion while heeling in the Schutzhund competition. I had no idea which foot I was on when I left the dog because we were neither allowed to break stride nor look back when giving the command. As an added factor, you cannot use the dog’s name before any exercise in Schutzhund as it is considered an additional command. Later, I discovered others had adopted the right foot lead to great advantage as it raised their scores considerably with many breeds.
Today there are many research projects going on and information coming in from all over the world that enlightens us to the ways dogs think and learn. The results of these studies are giving creative instructors food for thought and are leading them to think as nearly as possible, from the dog’s point of view. This results in more attempts to modify the training methods to fit the dog’s frame of reference instead of the handler’s. So, back to the consideration of the right foot versus the left foot lead from the dog’s point of view.
Stand with your dog beside you on the left. Give your HEEL command and start to move out on your left foot in a normal manner. You will find, with most breeds other than those like the Golden Retrievers and Border Collies, that you will be six to 8 to 10 inches ahead of your dog before he realizes you are moving. As the dog starts to get up, he will have to speed up to catch up. This often causes him to overshoot the heel position and have to adjust his pace. If the dog is well trained, he will eventually fall into the correct heel position. Some breeds are extra quick and a few individuals within almost any breed can be found that can do an “instant” start, but the majority of larger breeds and many in the hound groups will do the lag, forge, adjust routine nearly every time they start up. This will cause major point loss in obedience competition.
Now, start out on your right foot. The dog can see that you are moving away, so he will elevate his rear end at about the same time your right foot touches the ground. Your left leg, which hasn’t moved yet, is still in the heel position with the dog. As you move your left leg forward, the dog is already standing and ready to move forward with you smoothly and in place. This happens very quickly in “real time” but it makes all the difference in today’s obedience ring where points are critical. If you video tape this or work into a mirror, you will see that you cannot extend your right leg without your entire upper body moving forward. This is a major body cue telling the dog that you are going. Compare this with moving your left foot first. You will see very little upper body movement until the right leg starts to move. In other words, you can take a major step forward with your left foot and keep your body straight; this generally does not happen with the right foot lead.
Performance is a kinetic learning experience. This is true both for you and the dog. Motor movements are memorized until they become automatic. Responses to motor movements also become automatic over time. Knowing this should help you analyze potential problems and figure out ways to fix them instead of trying to put the blame on the dog being difficult or stupid. Probably very few really good performers are exceptionally brilliant, they are more likely to be a team that has learned how to cope with their problems and enhance their skills. A good rule of thumb is never blame the dog for any failure. Never consider any failure more than another opportunity to learn something about you and/or you dog.
As we continue to analyze the right foot lead, look at what is happening with the dog that does not have zero-time responses. He receives the message that you are going to move through the movement of your right leg. The dog is then prepared to go forward with you when you move your left leg, thus maintaining heel position smoothly. As training progresses, the dog will come to realize that the right leg signals movement and the left leg signals direction. Thus, you are establishing communication at the level of the dog’s comprehension that is highly keyed to body movements.
We have found through research, that this simple change in body movement from starting on the left foot to starting on the right, will often raise the scores for some dogs as much as five to ten points in the heeling exercises. It takes little effort, and can produce wonderful results in the show ring. Read your AKC obedience regulations; there are no rules in the AKC competitions that mandate which foot you should start on. I once had a judge comment to me “Did you know you started on your right foot?” My response was “Doesn’t everyone.”
Since most people tend to have what is called a right foot lead when walking, starting on the right foot in heeling is very natural and easy to adjust to. If you want super heeling in competition keep your work sessions short, use no corrections when working with heeling exercises, and keep an open mind.
©2012 Dr. Mary Belle Adelman
Excerpted from the author’s book,
The German Shepherd Dog Handbook