Teaching Heel, One Step at a Time
by Robin MacFarlane
If you want your dog to learn to Heel you have to understand exactly what that should mean to your dog.
Teaching a dog to heel is one of those tasks that puts many people's patience to the test. It isn't the easiest of the commands to master.
There are a number of reasons it presents a challenge.
It isn't natural or an innate skill for a dog to walk on a leash. Unlike sitting or lying down, dogs have no history of doing such a thing. They don't know better not to forge forward until we take the time to teach them otherwise.
Attaching a leash to a dog's collar set us up for creating tension on the leash. For every action there is an equal and opposite re-action. So when we pull back to stop a dog from pulling forward, it only creates MORE tension.
Most people try teaching the skill without having a thorough understanding of what Heel should actually mean to the dog. If the human doing the teaching doesn't have a clear understanding of the expectation, it is impossible to teach the dog a clear understanding of what to do.
And therein lies one of the biggest challenges of all, most people don't really understand what "Heel" should mean.
Heel should not mean, "just don't pull".
Why not, you ask?
Because that is too vague of a definition for the dog to really understand. If you have a 6 foot leash on the dog and they have 5 feet, 11 inches of territory to explore before they would be violating the "no pull" definition of heel.
If you have a retractable leash on the dog they have even more leeway!
How is the dog to understand this broad of a definition?
It is like telling a teenage that is given permission to attend a party, "Don't get home too late."
It is a vague and certainly left up to one's interpretation of "too late."
Wouldn't it be better to provide information that is crystal clear? Something like: "Be inside this house by 11 PM."
In the case of our dogs and the Heel command, it is much more clear to teach them an exact location, in relationship to your body, in which you expect them to remain, even when moving forward.
For instance, I teach my dogs that if I say Heel, I expect their shoulder to remain in line with my left leg. This is a very clear definition so it helps the dog learn exactly where they need to be.
There are lots of ways to teach our dogs to heel, but I want to share one technique I use frequently. We practiced this at our Dog Camp event, and you'll see that is a challenge for both dogs and owners, but it provides great clarity. The set up is perfect for helping both the human and their pooch understand correct positioning.
It also is a great way to help get the idea of impulse control across to the dog since most love to bolt when in this situation.
Take a look at how much a flight of stairs can assist you in teaching this concept to your dog. One. Step. At. A. Time.
Robin MacFarlane is a professional dog trainer and owner of Thatís My Dog in Dubuque, Iowa. Her best-selling dog training DVDs, JUST RIGHT and JUST RIGHT 2 have helped thousands of dog owners teach their dogs basic obedience and fix problem behaviors through a system of training that you can easily work into your daily routine.