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Pivoting Without a Prop

In many foundation classes, we focus on teaching the dog how to pivot in heel position with the help of a perch. This can be a difficult goal for many teams who are new to the sport as you learn how to reinforce small movements towards you, and how to use your reward to help lure the dog in closer.

When you finally reach that huge milestone you should be proud!

And many people get stuck in not knowing how to remove the prop. The perch itself is often the cue to the dog to suck into heel position.

Shrinking the Target

The first step I take in removing the prop is to shrink it to a flat target, or as flat as you can get with the dog still performing a nice pivot as you move around it. I’ve used folded towels, a piece of cardboard, and textured doormats! Some dogs need a slow progression to a flatter target as they are very prone to sitting too early once the height gets removed.

Here is Freya Kitty's first lesson in going from her tall perch to a flatter surface! You can see how this small surface also makes it more likely she will sit instead of stand and that can make pivoting harder! She does pretty well though and I'm able to use the reward to slightly lure her when she doesn't come in all the way. I try to sandwich these harder reps by bringing her taller perch back to show her it's the same and keep her confidence high.

Exploding the Target

With most dogs, my next step is going to “explode” the size size of the target into something big enough that the dog and I can both stand on. This gives the dog the feel of a target under their feet to help remind them to rotate, but it doesn’t actually structure them in how to move.

My goal is to start changing how I move around that target. With a perch, you’re moving in a small circle around the prop as the dog keeps their front feet in roughly the same location and moves their rear end. Without a prop, the goal is to have the handler stand in one spot (on an imaginary perch!) so that the dog is the one moving around the handler. This requires the dog to backup as the handler rotates!

Because backing up as they rotate their rear end is new, expect to help the dog out!

I rotate a quarter turn, try to mark the dog’s attempt to move their rear end in, and then use the reward to turn the dog’s head slightly out and pull them in the rest of the way. Make sure to keep your hand nice and close to your body

Here with Ginny, I’m using a large mat that we both stand on. I use the reward to help gently back her up into heel position and to help her get out of a sit. While it’s ok that she sits, it makes it much harder to learn how to pivot:

And here I’m using another technique with Ginny. I warm up with her perch and then remove it for a flat but textured mat. I start by taking some big steps around it and then transition to pivoting in place. This ends up with me on the mat more than she is and I’m thrilled that she continued to try to rotate even if one foot was off the mat. I’m still using the reward to help her here, but not as much as earlier:

It’s ok if the dog’s butt is behind you in this early stage, especially if they are making lots of errors of their butt being out! Focus on one error at a time. Often the fastest way to fix a problem is to over-exaggerate what you want the dog to do!

For most dogs, that means purposefully rotating them slightly behind you as you feed. As you continue training, you’ll be constantly evaluating the dog on what the most common error is in that session as well as their tendencies over the last several sessions. Let that guide you for how you want to deliver the reward!

No Target

As the dog advances and is no longer relying on the target you can try removing the target completely. Keep doing quarter turns and helping the dog get into a nice position with their reward.

Here Speck is pivoting without a target but doesn’t always back up far enough. I’m still using the reward to gently push him back and get him out of that sit!


Finally, remember to pay attention to your own footwork. Consider putting a piece of tape on the ground to stand on or even grab a paper plate to stand on!

When you play back your videos, put the mouse on your leg and pause it at the 180 point. If the mouse is no longer in the center of your body that means you have traveled in a small circle. Keep practicing footwork without the dog until it becomes second nature!

Here are just 2 footwork options that can work for a left pivot. You’ll see with the “T” footwork that while my body is moving slightly around, my left leg is planted in the same spot. Hover the mouse on my left leg and see how it remains in place. With the “V” footwork shown at the end, here the pivot point is essentially my toes. If you place the mouse on my toes you’ll see that my feet don’t move from that spot.

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