Heelwork to Music with a border collie puppy, starting our journey

Heelwork to Music with a border collie puppy, starting our journey


We adore dog training. Simply put, it is a great source of enrichment for a happy and healthy dog. It also helps to build the bond between you both. Doing regular training sessions can build up an incredible and intense relationship between you and your best friend. Your dog learns they can rely on you and look to you for leadership and guidance. And, in return, you can learn just how much you can trust your best friend and the incredible things they are capable of.

We are currently training our border collie puppy, Penelope (Poppy / Pops), in the sport of Heelwork to Music. For years, I have adored watching the routines at Crufts. I love the bonds you can see between dogs and their owners, and it is a great sport requiring determination, focus and above all else, creativity and joy. Of course, this is right up our street! We are working towards being able to hopefully one day compete in freestyle, and to do this, we train every day. This can be exceptionally hard whilst managing our own business and a toddler, but it is achievable provided you have realistic goals.

Our training sessions are short, sweet and consistent. It may not look like much to many because we do have to manage this inside of an extremely busy lifestyle. But, it works for us and our puppy adores her training. She is just finishing her first season and during her season stopped eating. Whilst it is getting a bit better already, the only way I could get her to eat any food during her season was by doing a training session and hand-feeding her. This shows just how much enjoyment she can get from the sport. Especially, if when she is feeling her worst, it is still the thing that cheers her up the most.

When embarking on our training journey with Poppy, we found it extremely daunting and difficult to know where to begin. There is a huge amount of information available in regards to dog training. Unfortunately, not all of it is safe so I usually take any information I find with a pinch of salt and do further research. For information that is out there and is safe, sometimes it can be extremely over-simplified. 

I would be lying if I said I had not seen an “easy” tutorial on how to train my dog a trick and then not gotten extremely upset when my dog hasn’t picked it up as easily as the tutorial showed. Whilst the training how-to videos and guides online are designed to give information and support for helping others to train, I find them extremely unrealistic on how quickly the dogs pick it up. The truth is these videos and the information within them are highly edited. They remind me of the controversy years ago when mobile phone adverts didn’t disclose that their phones were not actually as quick to use as they were advertising.

As you all know, my biggest goal is to be safe. And my next biggest goal is to be inclusive. To do this, we have to remain realistic. And on that note, we will be sharing regular updates on our training journey to give a realistic unfiltered view on how much work and time it can take to train all these tricks. I hope people will find enjoyment from these updates whether it is living vicariously through us, hopefully cheering Poppy on from behind the scenes if we ever make it to compete, or even trying to learn some of the tricks yourself! With realistic expectations, patience and a lot of fun, any dog can learn new tricks - regardless of age!


Our training journey will be primarily focused around heelwork to music. This is because it is the sport we are training for the most. And, would you believe, it starts without any music! It will be a while before you see us creating our routines – although we have started noting some ideas already, including a song we would love to work to.

Of course, Poppy is now almost a year old. We haven’t been omitting any training for the first year of her life and she has been trained almost daily since we brought her home. Our toddler, Ana adores watching her sisters training sessions. We have separated the kitchen into two areas, with a wooden baby gate expanding across a living area in our kitchen which has been altered to be baby-safe. This means I can practice training with Pops in the kitchen and Ana can watch, whilst also keeping them separate and keeping them both safe. Without the gate, I genuinely believe Pops would just be a moving target for Ana to crawl towards. This would, of course, make the training session extremely difficult to conduct whilst also putting them both in danger.


Thursday 16th May 2024 

Today is, as every day is, another busy day. Today, I have a pack profile to finish formatting for our Meet the Pack section. I’m also doing washing, cleaning, preparing everything and packing for our mini-holiday this weekend to go to the Cotswolds for our daughters first birthday party. Managing all of this whilst also managing the business with our new shampoo bar preorders going out tomorrow and packing orders is hard. But it’s not impossible and we work through it as normal! Because of how many things are on our to-do list today, our training sessions have been split up throughout the day.


Session One, 10-15 minutes.


At the beginning of every single session, we focus on heelwork. Walking to heel is the part that Poppy struggles the most with when out and about but she is usually incredible when at home. With our heelwork, recently she has gotten great focus and has begun looking at me whilst she walks and we train. Of course, I reward for this as it is a behaviour I would like her to do. This week, and particularly today, we have been practicing walking to heel with turns in either direction. Her positioning has gotten a lot better when she walks to heel. I have been advised her shoulder should be in line with my leg by a professional trainer. She now finds this much easier and the majority of the time whilst training will stay in the correct position. I find I am having to adjust her positioning a lot less during these sessions. Her turns are improving. When we first started practicing this, she used to get distracted during a turn and run off. It slowly transitioned to her taking turns too wide. Now her focus has improved, she has begun to maintain the same positioning when turning.

Whilst her overall heelwork has improved, stopping and sitting at heel has declined slightly. She will still sit when I stop and look at me, but she has started to break her positioning and will move forwards to do so which means she is sat slightly in front of me. At the moment I am just adjusting her positioning and rewarding to keep her confidence high. When she does get it correct, she gets multiple rewards at once so she knows the difference in value between the behaviours.



Weaves is the newest skill I am working on teaching Poppy. And today was around her 3rd session practicing them. By weaves, I am not talking about the poles in agility. Weaves in this context are weaving in and out of my legs whilst walking. She has gotten quite good at recognising what I am asking her to do and confidence hasn’t yet been a problem when asking her to go under my leg. As Pops is quite a small-frame border collie, she is the perfect partner to practice this with considering I am so short! We make a great pair for this trick.

I am going to work on transitioning her to do this trick with less hand motions and to do this I have started to introduce a word to associate the trick with. In the moment, I couldn’t think of what to call the trick so I split it into two commands – one for the left leg and one for the right. When I ask her to go under my left leg I say “Un” and when I ask her to go under my right leg I say “Oone”. Don’t ask me why I came up with these! They are placeholders for our teaching journey, and I wanted something I would remember easily. Under for us is a different command, and for this, I needed something that referred specifically to the exact task I was asking her to do. Our next goals for this are: command name recognition, reducing hand motions and increasing the speed we perform the trick.


Figure 8

Figure 8 is where Poppy will loop around my right leg from front to back, then run through the centre of my legs and loop the other leg. She will be making a figure of 8 around my legs. We have been working on figure 8 for around a month or two now and todays session wasn’t our best together. I was using Poppy’s breakfast to teach this and I think she was just getting far too overexcited. She would run through my legs the wrong direction and just stand in the centre facing behind me… which is a trick we have never done! I am tempted to try and teach her this as a trick if she is offering the behaviour to me, as I can imagine how great it would be to teach her to do this and walk backwards as I walk forwards so we are moving together. But, we will see if she offers the behaviour again. We did get there in the end but she struggled to link the loops today.

Previously she has been able to link loops together up to around 8 times in a row before rewarding. In this session, she would get frustrated after a single figure of 8 and the most she would do is link two loops together. We tried it a few times, before I went back to asking her to do it individually and rewarding her to keep her confidence high and then moved onto middle which she finds much easier.



After our figure of 8 dilemma, we decided to go back to a basic we know well to keep Poppys confidence high before moving onto our final trick for the session, but with a twist. We taught middle to Poppy a few months ago and it was one of the easiest tricks to teach her. For those who may not know, middle is where she runs behind me and through my legs and will stay positioned between my legs, facing forwards. We used to do this with her in any position to begin. But, as she is so confident with it we have been working on her positioning recently with this trick. Now, I will get Poppy in a heel position. Then lure her to spin and end in the middle position instead. She does do this very well, but the majority of the time she will still need a lure and does not yet do this on a verbal command.



Finally, in this mornings training session, we practiced shy! Shy is where your dog will take their paw and cover their nose – they can do it with one paw or both paws. Poppy does it with one paw and very rarely offers the second paw so far. I absolutely adore this trick, it is my favourite trick I have taught her. She has started offering me the behaviour outdoors which is great, even if she is still a little hesitant and easily distracted. Indoors, she is an expert. To boost this trick even further, we have began working on increasing duration. When I first began trying to increase duration around a month ago, she was easily frustrated and confused and would stop offering me the trick. Because of this, we are taking it very slowly and have worked on being extremely consistent with our rewards for this trick so it becomes second nature to her.

This morning was the first time she has accepted offering it for a longer duration without becoming frustrated. Of course, we gave multiple rewards each time she did and she can now hold the position for around 1, maybe 2 seconds max. But, on the times she was very quick and didn’t get rewarded, she didn’t get discouraged and would offer it again and hold it for longer.

Increasing duration can be extremely difficult when trick teaching – it is not usually as easy as it can be made out to be on social media. If you are struggling to increase duration, my biggest piece of advice is to just work on the basics. Make sure your dog knows the trick in and out, and they have the confidence to perform it multiple times without a reward. If they are still in the stage where they need a reward every time they offer the trick to help them know they have done the correct action, you are moving too quickly.

Most tricks you cannot teach your dog to know in and out in 2 minutes. Dogs will need repetition, encouragement and consistency over time to really build their confidence and for it to become second nature to them. It is extremely easy to feel discouraged but I know Pops and me will have it nailed soon!


Session Two, 5 minutes

Training impulse control using a ball.

Poppy wanted to play with her indoor football – a soft toy ball we purchased from IKEA. This ball helps us to play indoors without damaging the house! She brought the ball up to me and then backed away with a bow waiting for me to kick it for her. We have started to build impulse control by asking her for certain actions – “sit”, “floor”, “stay” – around the ball. We started this around a month or two ago as she wasn’t ready before this and would become stressed easily. Now, with little repetition she will sit for us whilst the ball is there and she will lie down.

Today, I began working on “stay”. I would have Poppy around two metres from the ball and ask her to go into a sit position. Then, whilst facing her, I would ask her to stay and take a step backwards towards the ball. If she moved, I would go back to her and reiterate the sit and stay commands and try again. It took around 5 minutes of doing this for me to be able to walk backwards to the ball. After which, I finally gave her the release command “Okay”, and kicked the ball for her to play with. The introduction of the release command prior to kicking the ball was important in this instance, as the ball is her reward and I am teaching her to break her stay when I give her the command, rather than when she chooses to for the ball. We only did this the once today as she found it difficult and it took us 5 minutes to achieve once, we then just had a great game playing with the ball as her reward and Callie joined us for a fun game together.


 Session Three, 25 minutes:

Whilst our toddler was eating her afternoon snack, I decided to sneak in another training session. We started this session with some heelwork, which Poppy was getting very distracted during. Her positioning, turns and attention were the complete opposite to how they had been in the morning. Which is okay! Our dogs are not robots. She is just under a year old and still extremely young. Plus, even if she was older she is allowed to have some bad sessions or to not be in the mood sometimes.

I did wonder if she was picking up on my mood a little as I was a bit stressed preparing for our holiday. So, she could have been responding to that too and not finding the session quite as fun as normal.


Of course, I didn’t push her to continue the heelwork if she wasn’t enjoying it, as it is supposed to be fun for us both. We switched things up and started doing some figure of 8’s which is a lot more fast paced. She really enjoyed this and was better at linking her loops this time. She was happily linking around 4 loops at a time, so we moved on whilst we were still on a really positive note. We started doing “middle” practice again – this time a little different! I have been trying to add more distance into our middle’s recently. So I would ask her to sit and stay and then walk a few metres away facing away from her. I then give her the middle command and she will run up between my legs and sit between them looking up at me. I must admit I absolutely adore this trick! And she does too!

After doing a fair few repetitions of “middle”, we had a quick whiz through some of the fun tricks we love to refresh such as “sit pretty”, “up up”, “paws up” and “off”. I don’t do these for very long and I don’t do them every day as you need to be careful when practicing these not to injure their joints as puppies. After which, the rest of our session was spent practicing something new again. We have multiple new tricks on the go at the moment, and switching up what we are training helps to keep her happy and engaged.

When Callie was younger, we managed to teach her the basics of “head down” within about 1-2 hours, just laid in bed having fun as she did the behaviour naturally. Poppy, however, is a rocket. She’s bouncy and she doesn’t lay her head down unless she’s sulking or sleeping so we have struggled to teach her head down. I have been using a different command for Pops than I do for Cal. I’ve been teaching her with “chin”. This is because I’m planning to use “chin” to incorporate into learning other new tricks in the future.


However, Poppy won’t put her head down. I’ve tried my hand, boxes, pillows and nothing has worked. Until today, magically, she has decided to put her head down on two cushions stacked on top of each-other rather than jumping on them like she normally would. She still won’t entertain putting her head on my hand and would rather either jump on it or give me her paw instead when I don’t release the treat. But, by luring her head down and moving my hand towards me whilst keeping it at the same level as the cushions, she will keep her head in the position.

I have started to incorporate the word “chin” already whilst she did this today. As I usually incorporate words very quickly and we have the most success when doing so. I slowly removed the first cushion during this session and then removed both cushions. By the end of todays training session, Poppy was doing “chin” intermittently when asked on the floor with no cushions at all. Plus, she would hold it for a few seconds which is incredible! Our next stage is to go back to the basics in our next training session so we start on a positive. And then we should be able to move through all the stages much quicker next time and build some great recognition!


And, that concluded our training with Poppy for the day. Of course, we still did do little bits of everyday training we have built in, such as recall around the house and garden. Alongside settle training – the job is never done! But this was our last semi-structured training session for the day.

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