A close training relationship with your dog develops over time. But one of the easiest ways to achieve tight turns for Rally and Obedience, or close attention for Trick Dog skills, is to teach your dog to pivot. This exercise can build your pet’s confidence and improve coordination and their ability to pay attention.
Rear Foot Awareness
Pivoting is a core foundation skill that will help you achieve tight turns necessary for heeling and perch tricks (where a dog puts their paws onto a platform and then circles around it). Pivoting also teaches dogs rear foot awareness. In general, dogs are front wheel-drive, meaning that their rear feet will follow their front, unless they are taught to move their rear feet independently.
Pivoting strengthens a dog’s understanding of their heel position, helping them realize proper placement for their rear legs. This enables them to stay closer to their handler while turning.
You will need:
- A pivot perch. Affordable, easy-to-find options include a large, round rubber feed dish or a single step-stool.
- Treats: Try smelly, soft treats like cheese.
While teaching pivot in heel position, make sure you’re standing so you closely examine how your dog is moving. This allows you to more clearly reward the behavior or position you’re looking for. Consider using a mirror or a cell phone with ability to video record as you train.
Teaching Pivot Skills
Teach or shape your dog’s behavior so they will place their front paws onto your pivot perch of choice. If your dog knows “paws up,” ask that cue. When they put their front feet up onto the perch, praise and reward them with a treat.
If your dog doesn’t already know how to put their paws up on cue, teach this skill by taking a treat and luring your dog in front of the pivot object. Then, position the treat right above your dog’s nose and move it up and forward. As your dog reaches up for the treat, they will put their front paws up onto the object to get the treat. Praise and give your dog the treat. After a few repetitions, you can add a verbal cue of your choice like “paws” or “paws up,” then you’ll be able to phase out the lure.
Once your dog has their paws up, stand next to them so that they are at your left side in heel position. Next, get the treat onto your dog’s nose and allow them to lick or nibble at it. Move very slightly either left or right, keeping your dog’s nose on the treat.
At the same time, keep the treat where where you want your dog’s head to be in heel position. Allow them to lick or nibble at the snack in your hand—as their head moves to follow the treat, their body will follow. When your dog takes a single step, praise and reward. The goal here isn’t to see how far you can get your dog to pivot; instead, you want to reward the smallest movement of their rear feet.
Again, move slightly left or right with your dog’s nose on the treat. When your dog follows in heel position, praise and reward. Though it can be tempting to move quickly and try to get multiple steps, it’s important to go slowly and intentionally with foundation skills. When your dog is comfortably pivoting next to you as you make your way around the pivot bowl or platform, introduce a verbal cue like “pivot” or “step” at each movement.
At your next practice session, get your dog’s front paws back onto the platform. Repeat the above steps while moving in the opposite direction. Work on each direction equally.
Once your dog has grown confident with pivoting, start to phase out your treat lure and use your verbal cue instead. The more you practice, and the more familiar your dog gets, the more pivoting you can ask for before you stop to give a treat.
When teaching pivot, you can have different cues for pivoting left or pivoting right. Options would be “pivot” and “switch” or “left” and “right.” That said, when teaching pivots, we don’t personally find directional cues all that necessary or useful. Dogs pick up on other body cues (the movement of your feet, legs, and shoulders) to show them how they should be pivoting.
As your dog becomes more confident, you can ask them to pivot onto inflated balance discs. You can also do flatwork in which they will pivot with all four feet on the ground. You might use this new skill in Trick Dog routines or in Rally and Obedience practice courses.
Having Fun and Building Fluency
You can build fluency by practicing pivoting partial turns and complete circles or integrating pivots into heeling practice. For toy-motivated dogs, you can shift your rewards and incorporate tug and retrieval games into your practice.