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What does it mean to heel a dog?

Dog training: Heeling on-leash

Heeling a dog on-leash offers the most controlled manner of walking with a dog. It is most useful when cruising crowded sidewalks or when other dogs and animals are around. For many dogs, unfortunately, on-leash heeling is the most unpleasant command (having the highest correction/command ratio of any other obedience instruction), so much so, that heeling around the block becomes a drag in both senses of the word. The dog must think there is a jerk at both ends of the leash.

Sadly, some trainers teach on-leash heeling using non-specific (non-instructive) leash-corrections from the outset. Certainly, in some situations, a leash-correction is ideal for enforcing an already learned command, but it has absolutely no place in teaching either the meaning or the relevance of our instructions. Incessant, non-instructive physical corrections destroy the dog’s spirit. Many dogs become dejected the instant they hear the instruction “Heel.” And the owner wonders why? And then, the owner has to go to a motivational training workshop to re-motivate a dog, which was more than adequately motivated before they started training!

To start heeling instruction by enforcing compliance on-leash using physical prompts and punishments takes much longer and tends to produce a Jekyll and Hyde performance. The dog may act like a perfect angel on-leash, but as soon as the leash is removed, the dog is history. The dog quickly learns that its owner can not control it when out of arm’s reach.

For these and other reasons, we teach heeling on-leash as the last of five progressive steps: 1) Following off-leash, 2) Heeling off-leash, 3) Standing on-leash, 4) Walking on-leash and finally 5) Heeling on-leash.

Once your dog has mastered the principles of following and understands the specific “Hustle,” “Steady” and “Heel-Sit” commands and once it has learned not to pull when standing or walking on-leash, then off-leash heeling may be taught with nary a leash correction. Moreover, teaching dogs to heel off-leash from the outset teaches owners to control their dog using brain instead of brawn, since there is no opportunity to push and pull the dog around under the guise of training. Initial off-leash heeling also produces a more reliable dog, at which point it is a simple matter to slip on a leash and fine-tune heeling, once the dog already understands the basic underlying principles off-leash.

How to train your dog to heel on-leash

Start with your pup in a sit-stay by your left side. Hold the leash with the left hand, so that it loosely dangles a couple of inches below the point where it attaches to the pup’s collar and slip your right hand through the end loop, holding any excess leash tidily bunched up in this hand. Keep both hands on the leash at all times. As with off-leash heeling, have a bunch of treats in the left hand (if necessary) to precisely guide the pup, and have one treat in the right hand for the sit signal. Say “Rover, Heel” and/or give a heel-signal (without letting go of the leash) by moving your left hand from left to right in front of the pup’s nose, so that your left arm comes to rest comfortably in front of your waist and off you go. Quickly! The faster you walk, the easier it is. If the puppy lags or becomes distracted, quickly waggle the left hand in front of its nose, and then bring it back to lie in front of your waist.

Each time before stopping, slow down, say “Rover, Sit,” give a sit-signal with your right hand (still attached to the end of the leash) across the front of your body and in front of the pup’s nose and then, come to a halt with the pup sitting in heel position. In time, your puppy will learn to anticipate the sit signal and will sit automatically each time you slow down to stop. If necessary, use food as both a lure and a reward, and phase it out as before.

Your puppy may gradually lose attention during long and/or slow straight-away heels. To keep the pup on its toes, continually and randomly change pace and direction. Successive changes of pace are by far the best. Run up and down through the three-gears of heeling. This is convenient because, for the most part, it is difficult and sometimes dangerous to make a sudden turn when walking along the sidewalk – you’ll probably end up in the street, in a neighbor’s front yard or up a tree someplace. Open spaces are the place to practice multiple right- left- and about-turns. Happy heeling!

REMEMBER, if ever you feel it is necessary to correct your dog either 1) your dog did not understand the meaning of your instructions (possible) and/or 2) your dog did not understand the relevance of your instructions (highly probable). Every correction, reprimand or punishment is a blatant advertisement that your dog is not yet adequately trained. Do yourself and your dog a favor: go back and retrain your dog.

Integrating heeling into walks

On-leash heeling is precise and controlled. However, that is not to say we necessarily want to heel the puppy all the way around the block. “Hey! What about the sniffs and pees?” Let’s consider the dog’s very heart and soul, and think about a little olfactory gratification here and there. The walk, after all, is meant to be enjoyable – one of the biggest treats of the day for owner and dog. We do not need to be on military alert all of the time. Too much regimental heeling and your dog will become bored, frustrated and distracted, and the quality of heeling will eventually deteriorate. To maintain high-level, snappy heeling when required, 20:1 is a good walking-to-heeling ratio.

When walking, the dog is allowed to dally, to dawdle, to sniff and investigate to its heart’s content. The only proviso being that it must not tighten the leash. When heeling, the dog must perform an exact and snazzy choreography dictated by its owner. The dog must walk precisely by its owner’s side, turn when its owner turns and sit when its owner stops. When heeling, the dog should not be allowed to sniff or look around; it must pay attention. Certainly, the dog should not eliminate. (Most elimination is best done in the backyard or at least close to home, with a walk offered as the grand prize for the cutting-edge in canine eliminatory etiquette). Heeling is a formal control command used, for example, when crossing the street. We hardly want a dog to decide to defecate when hurry-heeling across a street just before the lights are about to change.

To obtain absolute attention from the dog, the owner must devote absolute attention to the dog. And this is tiring. Most people cannot heel their dog effectively for more than a couple of minutes at the most. Consequently, integrate several short, active and precise heeling sequences into a long, luxurious and enjoyable walk. Start with a 30-second, extremely active heeling sequence to blow the cobwebs out of the dog’s cerebrum, and then walk for three minutes, heel for five seconds and walk for one minute, heel for 10 seconds and walk for two minutes and so on. A good rule of thumb is to walk along the sidewalk and to heel when crossing streets or passing pedestrians, dogs or other animals.

Excerpted from How to Teach a New Dog Old Tricks, by Ian Dunbar.

Ian Dunbar is a veterinarian and animal behaviorist, founder of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and the author and star of numerous books and videos on dog behavior and training. He lives in Berkeley, California with his wife, trainer Kelly Dunbar, and their three dogs. The Dunbars are contributing editors to DogTime.

How to Train Your Dog to Heel

Amy Bender is a dog training expert and writer with over a decade of experience working professionally with dogs. She owns a dog training business and is a member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.

Updated on 06/30/19

Woman playing with her dog outdoor

Walking with your dog at a «heel» is more formal than walking your dog on a loose leash. Teaching a dog to heel involves training it to stay close by your side while walking and it is a great way to instill self-control in your dog whether it’s on or off leash. Any dog—even the most energetic pups—can learn to heel and teaching this command is not too hard as long as you’re persistent and consistent.

Prepare for Training

You will need to have plenty of treats on hand. For training (especially when introducing a new or difficult command), choose treats that your dog absolutely can’t resist. Small pieces are best because you will be giving your dog lots of treats at first to reward good behavior and you don’t want to spoil your dog’s diet. For stubborn dogs or small dogs that make it difficult to bend down and offer treats while in the heel position, use a long-handled spoon coated with peanut butter, cream cheese, or wet dog food.

You can train a dog to heel with or without a leash. If you’re working with your dog off-leash, make sure that you’re in a safe area, such as a fenced-in yard.

For your first attempts, be sure to stay in an area with little distraction, such as your backyard. If you go somewhere that has too many other interesting things going on, treats may not be enough to hold your dog’s attention.

Sit, Heel, and Treat Continuously

Start off with your dog sitting on your left side. Hold a handful of treats or the wooden spoon close to your dog’s nose, and tell it to «heel.» Begin to walk. For the first few tries, take just a few steps and give your dog treats continuously.

Treat Less Often

Once you’re able to walk with your dog at a heel for several yards, it’s time to start cutting down on the number of treats you give it. Again, begin with your dog sitting at your left side, and give the command «heel.» Give the dog a treat and then take a step before giving it another. Be sure to give your dog a treat before its interests wander. Keep the distance you walk with your dog at a heel fairly short, and gradually work up to walking a yard or two between treats.

Add Distance

Once you’re able to walk several yards with your dog in a heel with only a few treats, it’s time to start adding more distance to your walk. You can give your dog treats, but begin to slowly phase them out.

If your dog is continually breaking out of a heel at any point, you may be moving ahead too quickly. Go back and repeat the distance and number of treats where you were last successful in keeping your dog at a heel.

Add Distraction

Once you’re able to walk a fairly long distance with fewer treats, it’s time to add some distraction. You can work on this training at a park or take walks through your neighborhood on a leash. When you first begin this, you may need to go back to treating your dog continuously and keep the walks short until it understands what’s expected. Again, slowly work up to longer distances and fewer treats.

Fade Out the Treats

After practicing walking with your dog at a heel for long distances, you should be able to stop using treats altogether. Slowly add more and more distance to the walk with fewer treats given. Your dog should soon be able to heel without getting any (or very occasional) treats.

Problems and Proofing Behavior

It’s not uncommon for dogs to break out of the heel when learning this command, especially early on. Your patience and consistency are key to working through some of the challenges you’ll face. Keep with it and your dog will eventually learn what you want it to do.

If needed, go back a step or two at any stage in the training. One of the common mistakes owners make is moving onto the next step before the dog is ready, so it seems like it forgot the previous lessons. If your dog makes several mistakes in a row, simply go back to giving it more treats and walking a shorter distance. Take your time, then slowly build back up to having it walk at a heel for longer distances.

Keep a close eye on your dog’s body language. You can often learn to anticipate when your dog is about to break away from the heel position. If you notice your dog’s muscles bunch or that it begins to fixate on something besides the treats, give the «heel» command again, then pivot to the left and walk in the opposite direction. Your dog will quickly learn that it’s important to pay attention to you.

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