Ask Dr Mary
Everything you wanted to know, but never got around to asking,
about dogs and the OPT Program
Feel free to email any question and I will be happy to answer:
Why do you propose an entirely different training program
when so many people are successful with the current methods?
Because I was one of those who weren’t successful with the current methods.
I researched to determine why and the OPT Program was born.
During my research, I discovered that the early obedience trainers in America, such as Hans Toussiti and Conrad Most, considered
obedience training to be that part of the training process that polished the dog for service work or obedience competition. They called
the early foundation stage of training “puppy education” and stressed the need to teach the puppy from eight weeks up how to walk on
lead, come when called, sit, retrieve, and go out in public for socialization. They encouraged the use of praise and treats and warned
against the use of force.
They wanted owners to wait until the puppy was six months or older to bring it to obedience classes where the real work of getting
ready for the army or police would begin. Unfortunately, many novices in the early stages of obedience training in America missed the
“education” part and went straight to the “polishing” exercises. It is both difficult and often excessively abusive to attempt to put an
untrained dog through the exercises used to polish army and police dogs. This early miscommunication led to many problems in
obedience training that still persist today.
Much of current research is aimed at helping instructors understand the basic concepts of how dogs and people learn. Food and praise
are rapidly becoming today’s major motivators. The explosive rise of participation in agility has catapulted into popularity the process of
training with food. This is not a new process as animals have been trained with food for thousands of years. The use of food in the
training process has, however, not been very widely adopted by many obedience instructors who have adapted their instructions to
those of the Europeans polishing the older dog for work. The Optimum Placement Technique (OPT) offers a complete package to help
you move your dog into the 21st century teaching the use of food to get “first response” and then to learn how to work after the food is
removed. With this method I am way more successful than I was.
Everyone we work with always starts on their left foot for heeling. I understand you teach people to
start on the right foot. Why would you want to change something so traditional?
When an idea has outlived its usefulness, let it go.
So, to answer your question, we need to start at the beginning. Formal heeling for dog obedience started as a function of service dog
training, done primarily by men who had a military background where it is customary to start marching on the left foot. As time passed,
someone asked why. Instructors started looking for a justification of the left-foot start. At first glance it seemed 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. My first question when given this
explanation was if the dog is expected to see a hand signal at forty feet, why couldn’t he see the right leg when it
moves less than one foot away?
Stand with your dog beside you, on your left. Give your “heel” command and start to move out on your left foot in a normal manner. You
will find, with most dogs, other than the exceptionally focused and responsive, that you will be six 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 will lag, forge,
and adjust nearly every time they start up leading to 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 yet moved, 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 the difference in today’s obedience ring where points are critical. If you video tape this or work in front of 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,
you don’t generally do this with the right foot.
We have found, through research, that the 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 performance ring.
Check back often for more Question and Answer sessions,