This pic is a good loose leash and perfectly fine for a companion, but it’s way way way too far away for what I need. Once they are old enough to be in a mobility harness, they need to stay close to my hip all the time. So we practice close body movement in this game!
This game starts slow, and the first few times you try, I recommend what’s sometimes called “loading” the clicker: it is simply click/treat in rapid succession at least 10 times. This gets the pup’s total focus. Then you begin your pacing games.
Unlike a “heel” for competitive sports like agility or obedience rally, I don’t want them looking right at me. If they later need to guide me to an exit or around an obstacle, they can’t do that if they’re staring at my face, right? We both walk into the chair…grin.
Some trainers use touch or target sticks, but frankly the less “stuff” I have to juggle the better. I need to be able to click fast and reward fast–extra things in the hands get in the way for me.
I start at a normal pace, then make a slow right or left turn, or perhaps speed up without warning. I change the direction or the pace, but slowly enough the pup will notice.
The moment their trajectory or pace changes, they get a click and several very good treats. Most of the time there’s praise and a pat too. The first few times I will stop to really reward them. Later though I won’t, since the plan is to do this while we walk.
Once the pup is reliably turning, stopping, speeding up, slowing down, even going backwards with me (oh I have to be careful about that…), then I will play the game faster. The turn is sharper, the stop more sudden. Again, the very second they “catch” the change and accomodate, they get a click and rapid rewards of even better stuff.
With practice, those direction and pace changes get very sharp, and I sometimes need my trainer to do the really fast pacing games when my balance isn’t good or as a friend of mine says “it’s fall down go boom” for me! The idea though is planted: the more you move with me the more you are rewarded.
After the pup is pretty good, I remove the rewards for a slower response and up the rewards for a faster response. If they want their treats and love, they gotta be quick and sharp. This not only reinforces that loose leash close body walk, but sets the stage for them to notice early a stumble that will need bracing or counterbalancing later, or a fatigue alert.
Don’t be surprised if you have to go back to slower changes and higher rewards to rebuild their attentiveness. Here was Kenai re-learning it after he developed a problem with tight spaces.
Walking with a mobility dog is less like a walk than like a dance–it’s fluid, since I won’t have the same pace or gait every day, or even every hour. They have to be with me, not just there but with me.
So this little puppy game, like all the puppy games I create and play with a service dog candidate is play with a purpose. Often several purposes, most of which will remain latent until later on, but the habits are being passively taught to them.