We’ve all seen highly-trained dogs smartly snapping to a heel at their owner’s side as they cross the street. The dynamic duo resembles dancers perfectly in step as the dog keeps their eyes lovingly locked on their master’s face.
Admit it, if you’ve never had the pleasure of that experience with your own Labrador, you may feel slightly jealous witnessing this human-canine choreography.
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Why Is Heeling Important?
Heeling is an essential tool in the training bag for two reasons.
- Safety and Control: It allows you to move your dog into a walk by your side with just one word. Can you see how this would be helpful if you need to go through a crowd or cross the road?
- When taught correctly, it further develops the bond and communication with your dog. To heel, your dog must be focused on you above all other distractions.
Heeling vs. Loose-Leash Walking
Before we go into the mechanics of getting your dog to heel on command, let’s differentiate our terms.
Heeling is a formalized obedience command where the dog walks on your left side with the collar even with your left hip. The dog must also sit whenever you stop moving.
Loose-leash walking is simply a dog that exhibits good leash manners. They don’t pull you down the road like a sled dog team, but instead politely walk by your side without tightening the leash.
Loose-lease walking is utilized when taking your pup out for a stroll. The heel command should be employed when you need your dog to come in close to you and give you their undivided attention.
For the purposes of this article, we will just go into training a general heel where the dog gets into the heel position and follows the handler.This is usually all that is required for daily events where you need your dog to stay tight next to you as you navigate around people, other dogs or obstacles.
If you want to take obedience to another level and compete at the heel, there is more focus on the dog sitting perfectly straight facing you and then on command jumping smartly into a sitting heel position before moving forward with you.
There are further training exercises to sharpen this skill to a competition level, but they are beyond the scope of this article. For most dog owners, the general heel covers all that is necessary for control without the need to get out the ruler.
The Least-Favored Command
The heel isn’t an easy command to teach; and it was often executed with heavy-handed use of leash corrections before the positive training trends.
In the old training days, dogs were sharply corrected every time they weren’t in the heel position and forced to remain at the trainer’s side.
Of course, as with most negative-reinforcement training, the dogs complied with little enthusiasm. Some pups looked downright miserable and developed nervous ticks while on a heel.
Today, thankfully, we have much more enjoyable training methods to create the happiest of heelers using positive reinforcement. When you teach the heel using food or toys, you create a favorable association with being by your side.
Building Blocks to Learn First
Heeling is a bit more of a challenge than other basic obedience commands because it is a multi-step task in a dog’s mind. It builds upon previous training.
Your Lab must learn how to get and stay in the correct position, and then not deviate from it. They must learn to follow your movements and adjust their own direction to match.
Your Lab must know to sit when you stop moving, how to stay until you move forward again and how to watch you to mirror your movements.
In order to communicate the heel, your dog needs an understanding of other basic training in order to build off this platform.
Sit and Stay
When under a heel command, every dog must be able to sit when you stop moving. They must remain sitting, or stay, until you move forward again. You can train your Lab on the basics of sit and stay here.
Watch Me and Focus
The heel command requires that your dog pay attention to you intently so they can follow you.
Teaching them to focus helps with any training activity, not just the heel. Gaining your dog’s attention is always the first step in teaching.
To teach your dog to focus on you through a “watch me” command, read here.
When your dog is under the heel command, they are engaging in an active training session. Every dog needs a release word to let them know they can come out of working mode and relax, kind of like an “at ease” in the military.
Make sure your dog knows a release command in connection with the sit and stay. This training article incorporates a release word, such a “free” or “o.k.” into the sit and stay training.
Most dogs, once taught this concept, can easily connect it with a heel command.
Remember, when the dog is heeling, they are on. They should remain intently focused on you. This means they also need a release word to understand that the current training scenario is finished, and the dog can clock out and go back to being a dog.
Heeling is a big ask for a dog, and they shouldn’t have to heel for long periods of time, especially in the beginning. If you abuse the heel, they will lose enthusiasm for it and grow bored.
Dogs also need time to just be a dog and relax. Giving them a release word allows them to know when they can take a break from the mental focus of a heel and go back to loose-leash walking and sniffing.
Marker training is not required to teach the heel command, but it is helpful to facilitate it.
If your dog associates a clicker or word like “yes!” to the correct activity, they are bound to get the training sequence faster.
To train your Lab on marker training, go here.
All of the above training elements will help facilitate an easier transition to communicating the multifaceted heel command.
Choose a Side
We all know the name of the game in training is consistency. When you train a heel, you need to choose a side for your dog to walk. After all, it’s horrible to have your dog cross in front and trip you up, especially while running. Don’t ask me how I know!
It’s better to train them that when you give a heel command, they will always go to a certain side of your body and stay there. They aren’t allowed to cross behind or in front of you. If you only reward on one side, they will quickly figure out the benefits of staying in the correct position.
If you plan to ever do competition obedience, you will need to train on your left side. However, if you just want to have your dog heel, either side will work. Just pick one and stick with it.
How to Teach a Happy Heel
While the dogs in obedience competitions make it look easy, the heel command requires a lot of practice to get to this level.
Once you realize that in the dog’s mind the heel command is a series of smaller actions strung together, you see the need to break the command down into bite-sized concepts.
1) Following Off Leash Using Food Rewards
In the past, people relied on using the leash to train the heel by correcting the dog every time they got out of position. Don’t get me wrong; you can train a heel this way.
However, relying on positive reinforcement will make the experience much more fun for both you and the dog.
To remove the temptation to use the leash crutch and force the position, we will train the heel without any lead. Once you have a solid heel off leash, adding it back in should be easily accomplished.
Utilizing the Puppy Velcro Period
If you’re lucky enough to start training with a puppy, remember to take full advantage of what I call the pup’s Velcro period. This is when they are weaned until they are around four to five months old. During this time, puppies will naturally follow their owners.
Just make sure when doing any off-leash training that your puppy is in a safe area. A fenced yard or inside your home works perfectly.
During this Velcro time period, say the puppy’s name and say “come along” or a similar phrase. Don’t use the word “heel,” as this isn’t a heel. We are only training the idea that following you means good things happen.
As you give the command, walk away quickly. Don’t wait around for the puppy. Walk off smartly with some authority. Your puppy should naturally follow you. Wait for them to catch up and then give them a treat.
Once they get the hang of this, throw in more challenges such as walking in patterns or stopping and reversing directions. You can even try to lose the puppy by changing up your speed, as they get wise to the exercise.
If they stay with you, keep rewarding them for walking next to you. Keep the enthusiasm up and make it a game. Most dogs love the challenge.
Once they are following you reliably in one location, take them to a few other contained places to further proof them off leash. One great location for training is a dog-friendly hotel where you can work in the room and then move to a hallway.
Hiding To Improve Focus
Do you ever notice how some dogs just always keep one eye on their owners, while others bound off without a second glance?
One way to help your dog improve their focus on you is by hiding from them. Wait for your puppy to become preoccupied in a fenced location and then step behind a bush.
Once the puppy notices that you’re gone, they will get a bit nervous and try to find you. If they can’t find you with their noses, you can also make a few noises to help clue them in.
Once they discover you, throw a big praise party and give them their favorite treat jackpot.
Through repeating this exercise whenever you puppy gets distracted, your dog will learn that if they don’t keep an eye on you at all times, you may sneak off and leave them.
They will become more attuned to your movements and split their focus to always keep one eye on you. Later, they will utilize these skills to always be ready should you need to call them to a heel.
If you no longer can utilize the puppy period, you can still teach your dog to follow just by using either a food lure or toy. When your dog follows after you, stop and give them the treat.
If using a toy, after your dog follows for a bit, stop and throw the toy. Either have a dog that retrieves the toy back to you, or keep a rope tied to the toy so you can get it back easily for another session without chasing them down.
Remember, when they are following after you in a heel, move quickly. Don’t wait for them to decide to follow you. They need to learn that if they hesitate, they will get left behind.
If they go ahead of you, reverse direction so they suddenly find themselves alone. This will teach them that in order to be rewarded, they have to stay with you and not anticipate your movements, as they could change.
If you are consistent, they will learn that if they don’t pay attention, they will lose you and, in turn, the opportunity for treats.
When they get better at this concept, you can even change pace and walk slowly, quickly or even run to get them to learn that no mater the gait, they must stay right by your side in order to get their reward.
2) Heeling Off Leash Using Food Rewards
Once your dog has grasped the concept of following after you and sticking to you like glue wherever you go, you’re ready to ask them to stay in a more regimented position.
This is where marker training comes in handy. For illustration purposes, we will say that you will be training the dog to heel on your left side.
To teach the off-leash heel, keep the food lure in your left hand and cover most of the treat with your fingers in order to keep the dog from taking it. Walk away with a straight left arm dropped down in front of the dog’s face. Let the dog follow behind you with the treat in front of their nose. It’s fine if they nibble at it.
When they get into the heel position for even one step, mark and treat them. As they learn to naturally heel on your left side, you can then ask for a few steps. Gradually build the steps, until your dog is following along for several paces intent on the treat.
In the beginning, use the treat to position the dog where their feet have to be slightly behind yours to get at the treat. As your dog gets better at staying in position, you can bring the treat up higher while still asking your Lab to hold their spot by your side.
Many people eventually teach the heel with the treat close to their face to get the dog to make eye contact.
This is also where the “watch me” command can come in to play, as you can get your pup to focus on your face while walking. You then begin treating when they make eye contact.
As your dog becomes more familiar with the action, you can add in the word “heel” to associate the word with walking by your side.
Adding the Sit
Once your dog has grasped walking in the heel position, you can add the sit. While some people use the “sit” command, I prefer to just lift the hand slightly up and behind the dog’s head to lure them into a sit.
Most dogs will readily adapt to the hand motion moving behind their head, as this is usually how they were taught to sit initially. At this point, mark the behavior and treat as soon as their furry backside and the ground connect.
If you ask for the sit every time you stop walking with the hand motion before you give the treat, your dog will begin to offer up this behavior each time you come to a stop. You can then gradually phase out the hand motion.
Teaching the Starting Heel Position
If you look at any heeling obedience competitions, you will find that the owner will have the dog in a sit facing them, then ask them to jump into the heel position and sit again by their left side before moving forward together.
You can teach your dog to get into position by luring them with a treat.
To do this, start with the dog facing you. Then, with the treat in your left hand, lure them toward and past you until they are slightly behind you, then bring your arm out in an arc away from you so they turn around and walk back parallel to your left side. Finally, lift the treat slightly above their head for a sit.
If you have trouble making the arc big enough for the turn – and we all know a Lab needs a lot of room to turn around – you can also bring your left leg back to allow your arm more length to make a bigger arc.
Once the dog understands that they are to go slightly behind you and then turn around to sit parallel to you, you can start phasing out the hand signal and can add in the heel command.
You dog should learn that when they are behind you, and you say “heel,” they should walk to your left side. If they are facing you and you say “heel,” they are to either circle behind you or walk to your left side and turn in an arc to their right before standing parallel to your left leg.
Again, if you aren’t planning on participating in obedience trials, it’s completely up to you how to get them into the heel position, as long as they get to your side quickly when they hear the command.
3) Walking on Leash
Before asking for a heel on leash, you should first train them to walk easily on a loose leash. The purpose of this article isn’t to explain this in detail.
However, it is an important step for them to grasp before you ask them to heel on leash. If they associate a leash with pulling, it will be pretty tough to get them to heel properly.
4) Heeling On Leash
To resist the temptation to simply force the dog into position with the leash, it’s best to teach them to heel off leash first. Once they are pros without the leash, adding it in should be a fairly easy final step.
Just snap on the leash and put them through more basic heeling paces with a few extra treats.
Adding the leash gives you a safety measure and the freedom to move to non-fenced areas to further proof their skills in new places.
Advanced Challenges While On Heel
Remember to train your dog that when they are in the heel command, they are to focus on you no matter what they encounter.
Once they understand this in a basic training setting, you can get friends to help by standing still and heel your dog while walking around them.
Once your Lab gets this concept down, ask your volunteers to up the anti by doing something more interesting like tossing a ball or holding a cat.
Remember, if your buddy tempts your dog away from you, it means you progressed too quickly. Don’t feel bad. This is the most common training error.
Don’t reward your Lab for their mistake. Just move back farther from the new distraction until they are focused on you again. Then, slowly move closer, rewarding them each time they make the right choice and give you their attention over the distraction.
Troubleshooting the Heel Command
Here are a few of the more common training issues with the basic heel command.
Dog Has No Energy
If your dog doesn’t feel motivated to follow your hand as a lure, you probably don’t have a treat or toy that really excites them.
Experiment with a different treat or a toy option until you find that special item that makes their eyes light up and gets them moving.
Dog Has Too Much Energy
If your dog is so excited by training that they are launching around you like a jumping bean, you may need to get a less-enticing treat. You can even use kibble if necessary.
Your Lab may also have too much energy and need some pre-training exercise first to remove their hyperactive tendencies. Some dogs just need to let off some steam before doing highly-focused training exercises such as heeling.
Fur kids sometimes just need a recess before they can concentrate on the lesson.
Dog Gets Distracted
If your dog gets easily distracted, it again may be that you don’t have something they want enough to work for it.
However, you may also be asking them to heel too long. Remember; don’t progress so quickly that you lose your student. If your dog lacks focus, they may need you to shorten the time you mark and treat.
On the opposite side of the coin, they may also need you to provide more of a challenge. For example, you may need to change your pace so the dog is forced to stay with you on a trot, or slow down so your dog has to match a sleepy turtle’s crawl.
Some dogs need a tough mental task to stay engaged. As their owner, it’s your job to determine if your dog simply doesn’t understand and needs to go back in their training to a point where they can grasp what you want, or if they are acting bored.
Also, don’t forget environmental changes. If your pup is too distracted, you may need to change their location to be less stimulating.
If they break their attention in a new place, go back to where they were staying focused and perfect their training there before moving to a more challenging hang out again.
Always go back to the basic training when moving to a new place. Don’t ask for a complicated heel pattern with multiple sits and turns on your first visit to a new park. Instead, go back to rewarding for just a few steps.
Dog Jumps for the Treat
It’s pretty common that the dog will try to nibble and jump for the treat that is right in front of their face. Just make sure you treat them only when they are in the correct position with all four paws on the ground.
Always mark the behavior you want repeated, and never reward unwanted actions.
Eventually, your pup will learn that jumping won’t give them the treat any faster and they will choose to remain grounded.
While teaching the heel can be challenging, the benefits of bringing your pup to heel with just a word is clearly worth the effort. Not only from a safety and control perspective, but it’s also just impressive to watch a dog focus so intently on their master.
Keep the training fun, and you will soon have a Lab that learns the best place to be is trotting right by your side.
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Before starting her full-time writing business, Sarah worked with a top pet food company as a consultant to veterinarians conducting weekly classes on canine and feline nutrition for the doctors and staff.
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