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If you are training your dog for obedience trials or the show ring, then you already know that having him walk with his head up is just part of good form. However, “Heads-up!” has plenty of use for the home dog owner as well because it will instantly get your canine’s attention when you’re out and about.
For example: Imagine you are walking your dog in the neighborhood and they suddenly get fixated on another dog and get distracted. Pretty soon you can have a situation on your hands if you are not able to get your canine’s attention back on you and the walk!
Another benefit? If you have a sniffer dog that likes to regularly try to pull you into the bushes for a good smell, this is a great alternative behavior to get your dog used to for more pleasant walks.
Read on to find out how!
Being able to get your dog’s attention during a walk with the 'heads-up' command is relatively easy to train for most dogs 6 months or older, especially if they already have good leash manners. Expect your companion to have a solid understanding of 'heads-up' within a few weeks of regular practice.
A “Heads-up!” walk is when your dog keeps their eye on an elevated focal point of your choosing, usually somewhere on your body. The location of the focal point depends on the type of work you plan to do with your dog, their natural gait, as well as personal preference.
If you are planning to train your dog for competition in obedience, then you will want to make sure that your regular 'heel' already includes 'heads-up' from the beginning. In such cases, you will usually want your left forearm as the focal point for the best form and to prevent forging, that is, the dog trying to get ahead of you during the 'heel'.
For less formal settings, you may want to make the focal point for 'heads-up' to be your face, a common preference for professional trainers because it really intensifies your dog’s attention on what you might ask for next.
The 'heads-up' walk is special. It would be hard for your dog to maintain it all the time, and might even hurt their neck. Save it for practice, special occasions, alternative behaviors for problem walkers, or the show ring!
This guide assumes that your dog already knows how to walk besides you, in other words, 'heel'. If you do not care about perfect heel form, then as long as your dog already has leash walking basics down, you are ready to teach 'heads-up'.
Some things to have ready:
- Clicker: If you use a clicker than have it ready, if not, you can use a word that “marks” perfect behavior while it’s happening. Always reward after using your marker word.
- Reward Pouch: A treat bag stuffed with some very small pieces of food that your dog really loves.
- Long Line: If you plan on doing off-leash work outside, a long leash (24’ or more) can be used to work without holding the leash, while giving you the option of grabbing your dog fast if they try to make a break for it!
Remember to choose a focal point before you get started, and stay consistent. Once you have decided on that, then grab your clicker, your treat pouch and let’s get busy!
The Wall Method
Find a long wall
You will need access to a long wall to use this method, which is nice because it keeps your dog from turning their body when first learning 'heads up' during a heel. This is a great method for those destined for the obedience ring!
Walk the wall
With the dog to your left, between you and the wall, start walking with some food in your hand in a position that has your dog looking directly at the focal point. Click/treat for 5 times.
Fade the lure
Immediately start to “fade the lure” by just using your hand without the treat indicating to the dog where to look. As soon as you get the right look, click then use the other hand to treat. Repeat 5-10 times, or until you have the behavior without the lure.
Fade the hand signal
Immediately fade the hand signal over a few repetitions so that you are essentially walking normally. Click/treat for every time your dog looks at the focal point for even a split second. Repeat 5-10 times.
Extend the duration that you expect the dog to hold the focal point gaze, gradually. Be sure you are keeping your criteria low enough to click/treat at least every 5 seconds.
Add the cue
Once your dog is regularly holding their attention on your chosen focal point for 10 seconds reliably, start adding the command “Heads-up!” right before you know they are going to volunteer it, or right after they give it to you. This starts to associate the verbal cue with the behavior.
Practice makes perfect!
Continue to practice this behavior on command in low distraction environments as you slowly raise the expectations for length and perfect form. Once your dog has it perfected, you are ready to start practicing in higher distraction environments so your dog can master the behavior no matter where they are.
The Off Leash Method
If you are less concerned with form, and more concerned with getting your dog’s attention while on a walk, this is a great method to use. Start in a familiar environment with your dog either off-leash, or attached to a long line if they are not in an enclosed area.
Capture the look
Start walking with your dog in the heel position. As soon as they move their head in the direction of your focal point, click/treat.
Take what you can
At first, click/treat anything that is a glance in the right direction. Over time, raise the bar until they have to look directly at the focal point before click/treating. This takes timing, patience and a dog that has some experience with clicker training.
Once your dog is looking right at the focal point with no prompt from you while heeling, then you can start to increase the time you expect your dog to look before getting a click/treat. Do this very gradually.
Add the cue
Once your dog has their attention on the focal point while walking for 10 seconds, you can begin to add the verbal cue “Heads-up!” right before you expect the behavior.
Practice makes perfect!
Continue to practice for longer durations until your dog has this command down. As soon as your dog is ready, start practicing the behavior in new places to be sure you will always get it – no matter the distraction!
The Look Method
Focal point looking
This method involves training your dog to look at the focal point independent of walking. Once they have the focal point down, then you can easily add it during a walk – or any other time, for that matter! This method is particularly good if you want the focal point to be your face, since being able to have your dog look at you is helpful in other contexts as well.
The eyes have it!
During a training session, while your dog is looking you in the eye, click and treat. Every time they look you in the eye, click/treat. Repeat until they are automatically looking you in the eye as soon as their last treat is down the hatch. Usually this takes 5-10 repetitions for experienced canine learners.
Add the cue
Say the command “Look” when you feel you can predict that the dog will look at you. Click/treat if they do! Repeat 5-10 times.
Continuing to use the command, wait for a few seconds after your dog starts looking at you before click/treating. Gradually increase the time they must hold the 'look' before earning a click/treat.
Practice makes perfect
After your dog learns 'look', you can practice asking for it while they are walking with you. Remember to start in a low distraction environment before making things more challenging for your dog!
By Sharon Elber
Published: 12/29/2017, edited: 01/08/2021