"It’s all won and lost in the five-foot circle” is something I was told almost forty years ago, and it still rings true today. The subject of Line Compliance is a big one and takes on many forms, some obvious and others more subtle. Let’s dive into this game-changing topic… When you think of Line Compliance, your first vision is probably of a well-behaved dog that heels and sits like a gentleman. That's my first thought as well. However, there is so much more to it than that. Line Compliance encompasses the willingness to move fluidly on the line when asked and sit rock-steady when told. These are sought-after skills that require constant attention. Responding to cues from the handler, precise delivery mechanics, reacting to your subtle movements, and taking instruction when being influenced on the line are also valuable traits. The highly sophisticated communication between top-level handler/dog teams is remarkable! A casual hand, firm hand, no hand, soft send, loud send, closing the door, and opening the door are all part of a complex vocabulary regularly used and clearly understood between dog and handler. Developing this language takes consistent use of these cues over time. It’s this language that propels the most successful handler/dog duos to excel at the highest level. And it all happens within that five-foot circle.
Let’s begin with the more obvious aspects of Line Compliance. It actually starts long before you get to the line. It begins when you open your dog’s crate. Establishing a working frame of mind right off the bat will pay dividends when you get to the line. Being mindful throughout the process of exercising your dog, as well as entering and exiting the holding blind, is where it starts. Don’t let your dog come flying out of their crate; make them sit prior to releasing them to air. That's a great beginning. Develop a routine while in and exiting the holding blind. Don’t allow your dog to rush to the line with you in tow. If you sense your dog wanting to run the show, make them heel with you and return to the holding blind or execute a 360-degree heeling drill when you get to the line.
Completing a 360-degree heeling drill on the line when your dog is anticipating marks is not an easy feat. I suggest you work on perfecting the 360-degree heeling drill before attempting it during a setup. I like to use a pinch collar or Wonder Lead while teaching it in the yard. Pay close attention to your footwork while showing your dog how to rotate both clockwise and counterclockwise.
The footwork goes like this: If your dog is heeling on your left side and you are rotating clockwise, you will move your right foot slightly rearward and to the right. Your left foot will follow the right, and you will give your dog the command “Here.” I want the dog to pivot on the axis of their rear end without moving forward. When rotating counterclockwise, I rotate my left foot first followed by my right while giving the command “Heel.” In both cases, your dog should reposition themselves back into the proper heel position. The proper heel position is their shoulder socket at your knee socket, and their spine is parallel to the direction your feet are pointed. You may be wondering, “Why is he spending so much time worrying about the exact heel position?” The only way you will learn to accurately point your dog and tell where they are looking is to establish a consistent heel position. The ability to do both these things is essential skills to master. It takes hundreds of repetitions to dial in your radar. You can’t do it without a consistent heeling location!
Another great tool is working on the silent command system. I do this while walking my dog at heel. A Wonder Lead works well here. I tell my dog to heel, and I walk and move slowly in multiple directions. I turn right, then left, back up, and stop, expecting my dog to immediately respond by staying in the heel position. When your dog loses awareness of you and doesn’t respond to your movements, give them a sharp jerk with the lead. Don’t say a word after the initial command to heel. Your dog will learn to pay closer attention to where you are and quickly volunteer back to the heel position. This silent communication is invaluable during a set of marks. Remember, you can’t talk to your dog while the marks are being thrown. However, you can subtly move. So, with your silent command response, you can communicate with your dog without talking. It is the difference between seeing or missing a mark and success or failure.
Both previous examples emphasize your dog moving with you. Another example of line compliance is a dog that doesn’t move at all. Rock-solid steadiness is a more classic example of Line Compliance or line manners. The best way to re-establish a Zero Tolerance standard on the line begins with a Steadiness Drill. The Steadiness Drill is a drill that requires a volunteer to throw, a handful of bumpers, birds, and a blank pistol or popper gun. I start out by shooting and throwing a short single. When the dog moves, I correct on “Sit” and deny the retrieve. I lessen the excitement by rethrowing the mark without a shot. In most cases, you will see movement again. I respond with a correction along with the command “Sit”! I do not send the dog. I continue to de-escalate the excitement by throwing a bumper with a less exciting throw until the dog doesn’t move a muscle. When I finally achieve perfect steadiness, I reward the dog and send them for the mark. I continue to throw the same single, gradually escalating the excitement level by adding a bird, then a shot. I only send when I witness perfect steadiness. I want the dog to connect the dots by understanding that zero movement results in getting to retrieve. A few sessions of this along with maintaining a Zero Tolerance moving forward are a great example for improving Line Compliance.
The art of influencing your dog on the line is a whole topic by itself. The high level of communication and information a dog and handler exchange while on the line can be remarkable. Stepping forward or rearward, casual hand, firm hand or no hand are all cues that influence your dog during a retrieve. This complex language between the handler and dog requires a consistent routine that develops over time. It becomes a level of teamwork and Line Compliance that translates to ribbons. I hope you’re starting to realize that the responsibility for achieving these skills in the Five-foot Circle begins with you. It’s this kind of attention to detail, when no one is watching that pays off when everyone is watching!
If you would like to learn more about stepping up your game in the Five-foot Circle, check-out Line Mechanics for Success digital course.
Until Next Time, Pat"