Is it Important that a Dog Learn to Heel?
by Robin MacFarlane
Not wanting their dog to pull is really all most pet owners care about.
The question of whether or not a dog should learn to Heel is one that I like people to contemplate early on when we start working together training their dog. I believe creating a clear picture in one's mind about what we want to achieve and why we want to achieve it is important to the overall success of the training program.
Often times dog owners express that they really don't care about a Heel command "and all that fancy stuff," they just want the dog to stop pulling on the leash.
Not wanting the dog to pull is really all most pet owners care about. Granted, there are some folks that have a goal of pursuing obedience competition titles, but the majority of dog owners will never set foot in a ring.
So is a Heel command all that important to the average pet?
I believe so and here's why.
Every expectation we have for our dogs has to have clearly defined parameters in order for the dog to understand. If the concepts can't be clearly defined, we're not being very fair to the dog. In fact, we're being vague, and that never leads to much success.
In my opinion, the idea of "just don't pull" isn't terribly clear to the dog. If we have leashes of various lengths that we walk the dog on, it makes it even more confusing. On a 6-foot leash, staying within 5 foot, 11 inches of his handler would mean the dog wasn't pulling. On a 4-foot leash, the dog would have 3 feet, 11 inches before pulling would come into effect. If we're using a retractable leash we create a tremendous amount of learning curve to the "no pulling" rule, particularly because the nature of those tools is to keep a certain amount of tension on the leash at all times.
By contrast, teaching a dog to Heel means that you select an area that the dog has to remain in, in relationship to you. Traditionally, Heel has been taught on the left side but you can select the right if you prefer. Just be consistent in order to make it easier for your dog to learn.
Once you decide on which side you want the dog to walk on, you define a "space" that the dog should keep his head and or shoulders in. As a general rule I teach my handlers that the dog should get no more than his shoulders equal to the positioning of the knee when walking. The reasoning for this is that the dog can still see you in his peripheral vision. If you allow the dog much farther ahead than the shoulder, he will lose sight of you and thus awareness of where he needs to be.
I suggest creating a mental image in your mind of a hoop attached to the outside edge of your knee. It is approximately an 18 inch diameter (you can make it bigger or smaller depending on your dog's size and desire of how close you want him to walk next to you). That is the space you teach your dog to keep his head and shoulders in.
Now your dog is not too far ahead, not too far behind, not crossing over in front of you or dragging to the side. He's "with you" for all practical purposes and certainly not pulling (assuming you're not winding the leash up around your hand!). You reward your dog for staying in that zone and interrupt him if he gets distracted and leaves it. With a bit of repetition your dog comes to understand very clearly the zone to remain in when walking with you.
You've developed some clarity around the word "Heel" (or you can certainly pick a different word like "let's go", if you prefer). A defined area is much easier for the dog to understand rather than the vague notion of not pulling.
The purpose of teaching a dog to heel is that the dog learns to pay some attention to you when walking. They don't have to be looking at you by any means, but they need to be aware of where you are and remain in reasonably close proximity.
It is harder to pay attention to you if you allow your dog to just aimlessly pull forward or lag behind. And lack of attentiveness is what leads the dog to pull toward anything else that has caught their fancy.
Once you get clear about what Heel really is, you can then teach the dog to stop pulling. So create that picture of where your dog needs to be when walking and then start training!
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.