by Edith S. Atchley

My name is Edith Atchley. I have been training dogs in obedience since I was about 16. As I am now in my late forties, I have been doing this for quite some time. I have shown several breeds of dog in obedience, including mixed breeds (in fun matches), Beagles, Dobermans, Pekinese, and Black and Tan Coonhounds. I have completed 10 Companion Dog titles (CD), 4 Companion Dog Excellent Titles (CDX) and have earned one High In Trial along the way. I learned obedience in the days when using food was considered cheating. I have adjusted my way of thinking quite a bit and am still learning.

There are a few points you need to have in your mind all the time when you are training. First is that when the dog is learning a new exercise, the training should be done in a place as free of distractions as possible. Also, when teaching a new exercise, help the dog succeed as much as possible. Corrections are not given very much in the teaching phase of training. Help the dog succeed and only correct when the dog refuses to do what you are asking. Only add distractions after the dog understands the exercise.

Train your dog at a time when you are in a good frame of mind. Do not feed the dog before training. If you feed the dog twice a day and you plan to train before lunch, do not give the dog his breakfast until after you train. That way, the dog will respond better to the treats and when you feed him at the end of the session, that will be an extra reward. If you train in the evening, do not feed before you train. If you have the rare coonhound that can be self fed, take up the dog's food in the morning for the day until after the training session.

In training, every exercise has a beginning and an end. This is obvious to us the trainers, but it is not obvious to the dog. It is very important that you choose a release word such as "OK" or "FREE". The release word should always be given in an excited voice so that the dog knows that it is praise.

To train a coonhound you need lots of treats. You can use any kind of treat that is small and easily chewed. You do not want a crunchy treat as you will be giving treats often and you want something that is ingested quickly. I use "dog trainers hot dogs". This is simply hot dogs that are sliced and then put in the microwave for 6 minutes. Then remove the hot dogs from the microwave and let them cool. Then microwave the hot dogs for another 4 minutes. This dries out the hot dogs and makes them sort of like hot dog jerky. They can then be stored at room temperature for up to a week or more. Do not store the hot dogs in a closed container, they still need air. NOTE: My microwave is OLD and you might need to adjust the power or the time. You do not want the hotdogs to be blackened, just dried out. The cooling between cooking sessions makes the hotdogs plump up again so they are not totally dried up.

At the risk of raising everyone's ire, I am going to recommend using a chain choke to train a coonhound. I have found that a buckle collar does not give me the level of attention I want out of my hounds. First, let me say that I DO NOT choke my dogs and the training collar is never left on the dog when not training (unless we are travelling). The collar is kept loose except when a correction is needed. The collar should be small enough to ride high on the dog's neck, so that when you make a correction, you only need a small correction. If the collar rides low on the dog's neck, there is much more muscle and a stiffer correction is needed. Also, when the collar rides high on the dog's neck, you have control of where the dog's head is. I recommend using a Toggle Chain choke made by Herm Sprenger and sold by Jeffers. Measure the dog's neck close behind the ear and then order the next closest size collar. Magic, my current obedience coonhound, takes a 17" collar.

A correction is a short, sharp snap of the collar that is immediately released. It is simply an attention getter and is very effective. If the correction has no effect on the dog, you did not make quite a sharp enough correction. If the dog slinks while heeling, you made too stiff a correction, OR you did not praise after correcting. The dog will forgive a correction as long as you praise the dog when he is right! I do not recommend using a prong collar on a coonhound, my dogs tend to shut down when you put a prong on them. Be sure that you put the choke chain on the dog correctly. When you are facing the dog, the chain should make a P. When the dog is at your left side, the ring that the leash attaches to should have the chain going over the dog's neck, not under it (see photo). This is important because the collar will loosen after each correction if it is put on the dog properly.

Heel position is with the dog at your left side with his right shoulder aligned with your left leg. If the dog is too far forward, he is forged and if he is too far back, he is lagging. When moving, the dog's shoulder should stay aligned with a straight line dropped from your hip. The photos below illustrate correct heel position (left), a lag or dog is too far back (center) and a forge or dog is too far forward (right).

There are two ways to teach the dog to sit. In the first method, you have the dog on your left side. You put your right hand in the collar to control the dog's head, kneel or bend over and with your left hand positioned at the dog's back leg (see photo), tuck the dog into a sit. Say "Sit" as you start to tuck the dog into the sit.
The second method is using food. Have a piece of food in your left hand with the dog positioned at your left side. Put the food right at the end of the dog's muzzle, but have the food held in your hand so that the dog knows it is there, but cannot take it. The dog could sort of nibble on the food, but not take it from you. Move the food slowly backward and say "Sit". The dog will sink into a sit. If the dog tries to back up, move so that his rear is close to a wall or put your leg behind him so that he cannot back up.

Just as with the sit, there are two ways to teach the dog the down. The first is the physical method. You might want to try one method or the other, but you can easily use both. If your dog is not food motivated, you will have to use the first method. This method is not harsh, just physical. First, kneel beside the dog with the dog in a sit. Reach over the dog and take the dog's left leg in your left hand and the dog's right leg in your right hand. Pick up the legs slightly so that you are supporting the dog's front but have not moved the dog enough so that the hind end moves. Your arm over the dog's back helps the dog understand that you do not want him to move (see photo). Then, say "down" and slowly lower the dog to the ground. Your arm is still over the dog's back and use some body pressure to reassure the dog that this is what you want, him to stay down.

The second way of teaching the down is with food. Have the dog sitting at your left side in heel position. Have the food in your right hand. Tell the dog "Down" and give the down signal which is your hand passing right past the dog's nose, straight down to the ground. Have the food in your hand at the same time and move your hand slowly and the dog should follow the food down. Be sure you do not move your hand away from the dog as that will make the dog want to get up and follow the food. Once the dog is on the ground, you can place your left hand on the dog's withers to reassure him that you do want him to stay down. Keep the dog in the down a few seconds and release and praise enthusiastically.

The down exercise is a vital one. The down is a naturally submissive posture for a dog. You know you are really the boss (alpha) when the dog will do a down stay for you. Be sure and give lots of praise and treats at the end of the down as this is a difficult exercise for the dog and you want to be sure he knows you are pleased.

To begin training anything, you must first have the dog's attention. The best way to get the dog's attention is to start with the dog sitting at your left side. Give the dog an attention command such at "Watch" and holding a bite of food in your left hand, show the food to the dog and raise your hand with the food to your left hip. This is where you want the dog to watch while heeling. Keep the food at your left hip and repeat, "Watch, watch" a time or two. After about a count of 5, give the bite of food, release and praise the dog. While the dog is under command, do not let him jump after the food. If he tries to take the food from your hand before you release him, say "NO" firmly and put him back in the sit. He should not get the food until you are ready for him to have the food. If the dog does not respond to the food, put your hand under the dog's chin and raise his head to look at the food. For this, you will need the food in the right hand and the left hand under the dog's chin. Soothingly praise the dog when he is looking at you. Work your attention until the dog will keep looking at you for several minutes with some distraction. Gradually work the dog in places where there are more distractions and correct the dog if he looks away. As soon as he looks back at your hip, tell him "Good dog", wait a few seconds, give the bite of food and release.

Once the dog will sit at your left side with his eyes glued to the food, you are ready to start heeling. All moving commands in obedience should be preceeded by the dog's name. For this example, I will use the name Magic, the name of my current coonhound. You will say, "Magic, Heel!" and step off on your left foot. Make sure that the dog watches the food as he steps off. You can do this by moving the food slightly or patting your left hip and talking to the dog. Once you have said "Heel", do not repeat the word "heel" but rather say, "good dog, good watch" or something like that. The reason for this is that only single commands are allowed and if you use the word "Heel" repeatedly, the dog will come to depend on you repeating the command. Take about 3 steps, give the dog the food, release the dog and praise. Get the dog back in heel position and repeat the process. Keep your heeling distances short in the beginning. Nothing frustrates the dog faster than someone teasing them with a bite of food and never giving it to the dog. If you start out heeling in a line or a big circle and keep walking and walking, the dog is going to get distracted. By starting with small increments and building on success, the number of corrections needed are minimized. Make a correction when necessary but try to use lots of food and praise, especially during the initial teaching process.

Gradually add steps until the dog is heeling about 5 feet before being released and praised. Once the dog is heeling about 5 feet while watching you, still with the food to help the dog, add a sit at the end. Once again you will say "Magic, Heel!" and step off on your left foot. Take about 7 steps and as you stop, say "Sit!" If the dog sits, say "GOOD" and give the bite of food. If the dog does not sit, give a collar correction straight up and repeat the word "Sit!" As soon as the dog sits, give the bite of food. Do not put the heeling and the sit together until the dog is sitting on the first sit command at least 90% of the time. If the dog does not sit, you can physically correct the sit after heeling. To do this, you should first have your hands in the correct position to sit the dog. While still walking, position your right hand, holding the lead, over the dog's head and your left hand (with nothing in it), over the dog's body. Be sure you are holding the lead fairly close to the buckle. Then as you stop, say "Sit", and raise your right hand up high enough to control the dog's head and push down on the dog's rump at the same time. Be sure you do not wait until the dog stops standing to try and sit the dog. If the dog is still moving when you put pressure on the rump, the dog will naturally sit. If the dog already has his legs under him and you put pressure on the rump, he will just stand there and look confused. Do not string up the dog, this is not a correction. You only want enough pressure on the collar to control the dog's head.

Before I tell you how to properly execute turns, let me say a word about footwork. If you watch the best obedience trainers, you will notice that their dogs stay with them effortlessly, or at least that is how it seems. Well executed obedience has been compared to "Dancing With Your Dog" and like dancing it is not as easy as it looks. I took dancing lessons when Samantha was younger and in dance herself. They had an adult class so I did not feel like the only one out there who was not young and in shape. Let me tell you one thing, dancing is the art of making very difficult moves look effortless. Heeling is much the same way, but there are things that you can do to help yourself and the dog.

The first rule of thumb is to keep your feet together when making turns. If you turn suddenly, there is no way your dog can stay with you. Try an experiment. Get yourself a helper. Tell the person that you are going to walk in a straight line and make a right turn, an about turn and a left turn BUT you are not going to tell the person when you plan to turn and you want that person to stay on your left side. You can even link arms to help the person stay with you. Keep your pace even and then make the turns, one of each, but make the turns a bit suddenly. Now, try the experiment again but make each turn a series of small steps, not one quick motion. The person should have a much easier time staying with you. While you are teaching the dog turns, you need to be aware of keeping your steps small and keeping your feet close together to help the dog succeed. Training should be fun for dog and trainer.

The first turn we will cover is the about turn. The about turn is an 180 degree turn away from the dog (you turn to your right). For most of your heeling to this point, you should have had the food in your left hand positioned on your left hip. However, for the about turn, the dog will have to drop his head slightly to stay in heel position as you turn. To teach the dog this, you will have the food in your right hand. Start with the dog sitting in heel position. Command, "Magic, Heel" and step off on your left foot. Heel a short distance and then command, "About!" and show the dog the bite of food and turn in a U turn. Notice how the dog is really digging to turn with me. The food motivates the dog to want to stay with you. You give the dog the command "About" to help the dog realize that something different is about to happen. Each of the turns has a slight turning of the foot to alert the dog that you are turning. I start the about turn with my left foot. This is the foot closest to the dog and alerts him that I am turning away from him. Take several short steps to complete the turn, remembering to keep your feet close together. As you come out of the turn, give the dog the bite of food. Take about three or four more steps and release and praise. Practice all your turns about 4 times each in a row. Doing the turn once does not get the idea firmly in the dog's mind.

The right turn is much the same as the about turn except that you only turn 90 degrees to the right. Teach only the about turn for 1 week. This gives the dog time to get used to watching your leg as a cue to turn. Toward the end of the week, try doing some about turns without the food, just the command "About". Then, try doing a few turns with no command, no food, but talk to the dog to help keep attention.

After 1 week of practicing about turns (at least 2 sets of 4 turns per day), you are ready to try the right turn. There is no command for the right turn. Have your food ready on your hip and starting from the sit, say "Magic, Heel", step off on your left foot, take 5 steps and make a right turn. Be sure to keep your feet together and take smaller steps into and out of the turn. As soon as the dog completes the turn, give the bite of food and release and praise. Repeat this at least 4 times.

The left turn is a 90 degree turn to the left. I like to cue the dog that I am about to turn left by making a small step with my foot turned slightly to the left on my right foot. If you cue the left turn with your left foot, you are more likely to cause the dog to bump you. As with the right turn, you take smaller steps into and out of the turn and keep your feet close together. With a larger dog, turn left and bring up your right knee as you do the turn. If the dog does not turn with you, he will bump into your knee and he will realize that he was not in the correct position. Praise the dog when he is in the correct position, take a few steps and release and praise. Teach your left turn just like you did the other turns. Start with the dog sitting in heel position, say, "Magic, Heel", step off on your left foot and take about 5 steps and do a left turn. Do this at least in groups of 4.

The last two things to teach your dog is the fast and slow. When you are ready to teach the fast, first make sure you have plenty of room to move in a straight line. Tell the dog to heel and start out. Make sure you have your food ready. There is no command to the dog for the fast but to teach the fast, you initially say "hurry!" or "hustle!". As you start into your fast, say, "hurry!" and show the food strongly. This means show the food in such a way that the dog cannot miss seeing and smelling it. Run for several steps (about 10), then slow down, release the dog and praise.

To teach the slow, start heeling in the same straight line. Slow down but be sure and do not shorten your steps. If you were counting 1,2,3,4 for your steps before, count 1 and, 2 and, 3 and, 4 and for each step and you will be moving at about 1/2 speed. Tell the dog, "Easy" in a soothing voice. Move at a slow pace for about 10 steps, then speed back up to your normal pace. If the dog does not slow down with you, correct back with the lead. This is to remind him that he is to stay in heel position. As you come out of the slow, tell the dog to "hurry", then release and praise.

I enjoy competing in obedience and helping people train their dogs. I find that training my dogs in obedience is well worth the time and effort. When I flew to Las Vegas for our National, I took 2 coonhounds, Lacey who was my current puppy and Shine, my obedience dog. I was in the airport with a crate dolly and two crates. The bottom crate had a dog (Lacey) in it and the top crate was loaded inside and out with luggage and dog food, etc. The fact that Shine was obedience trained enabled me to manage to get him, Lacey and the crates and luggage through the airport without incident. People were very impressed that a dog could actually behave so well in a crowded airport terminal.

My coonhounds are also wonderful babysitters. Lady was my obedience coonhound when Jennifer and Samantha were small. When Jennifer was about 3 years old, we went to a specialty in Florida. I had a dog to show and a baby to take care of. I took a big blanket and put it on the ground. I put Lady on a Down Stay and turned to Jennifer and said, "Jennifer, I need you to make sure that Lady does not follow me into the ring." Jennifer sat next to Lady as proud as can be sure that she was being a big help to mom. Little did she know that she was the one that was being watched over.

I hope this article will be helpful to people who want to compete in obedience. I could write a book given the time, but this should get you a good start.

E-Mail Edith Atchley

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Page updated 01 December 1999