We are going to tackle the fun topic of putting a ball in your armpit or any method for that matter that teaches a dog to heel without emphasizing the connection to the handler. First off, let me start by saying there are many tools that have helped handlers and at the end of the day, that’s really what’s important. For some handlers, using the ball under the armpit as the primary method can be the best for their skill set. As a trainer helping people, it’s your job to evaluate not what the best method is, but rather the method the handler will most likely be able to do. There are trainers out there who have been using this method for decades and do so with success. This article should not take anything away from them at all. That said, I’d be lying if I told you I thought it was the best way, for the dog OR the handler, with some rare exceptions.
The reason I don’t like it are as follows:
1. It leads to an early, albeit false, sense of where your dog is in their heeling. Handlers enjoy posting social media of a beautiful position, active body language and undivided attention, getting used to something that is often immediately gone once removed for any length of time. This leads to frustration and perceived defeat down the road. A handler who has poor connection with their dog will not achieve reliable heeling once the ball is gone.
2. They skip the part that creates a dog who loves the heeling for what it is…a LONG ass time of being connected to the handler. When you immediately put a toy in there, you can block the relationship part of what's going on. A dog taught to love the heeling for the heeling rarely, if ever, has to be corrected for looking away, and is insanely reliable with regards to attention and focus on trial day. If the dog is actually enjoying that position, conditioned early on to value it, it provides a crazy amount of confidence and joy on the part of the handler. Easily, the most common issue in obedience during the trial is losing focus, and that generally occurs during some portion of heeling.
3. Handlers using the ball under armpit method often skip over one of the most helpful learning experiences in dog training, since teaching consistent, active heeling is without a doubt, one of the hardest things for new and veteran trainers alike. Learning to do that piece-by-piece instead of just throwing a ball under there will help you grow in ways incomparable to using a toy in your armpit. It will teach you about establishing clear boundaries for position, maintaining focus through tough situations and most importantly, how YOU have to be the biggest motivator for the dog. The toy is simply a tool like anything else to assist you in that process.
While I have never used “ball under the armpit” method for my own dogs, I have used it briefly for others, if for nothing else to speed up the process a bit. Once no longer using it (the maximum I’ve used it was for 3 sessions), there’s no faking the dog out, I actually don’t want them thinking the ball is there. At some point, to have the most consistently active heeling, a connection with the dog has to be prioritized. This can be done in basic for quite some time, building the eye contact and focus to the degree where nothing will distract your dog. When I ask a handler to put their dog in basic and see a mouth all the way open, ears flickering and eyes unfocused, I know there is much work to be done here. Until that work is done, taking even one step (without a lure) is not advised, for if they are unfocused in basic, they will be unfocused in movement.
Counterconditioning distractions, building intensity and creating the proper focal point are all things that should be happening at the same time you’re doing your luring. Once the luring is gone, focusing on the handler’s face is a seamless step provided the work in basic has been thoroughly addressed.
While the immediate picture of putting a toy under the arm can be satisfying, the handler can often feel they lack the knowledge to move forward from there. Whatever method you use, the best results come from a dog who has learned that heeling is the way to his handler's heart. Skip this and you will be busting out the tricks to keep focus come trial day.
P.S. If you want a step-by-step mini course on how WE teach heeling, head over to our "Get Training" page for a comprehensive guide to get started!