For many people, being able to walk their dog without constant pulling and lunging would seem enough. However, while calm, controlled walking is sufficient in some situations, all dogs should know and respect a true “heel” command. Training your dog to reliably obey the heel command ensures that you can keep him safely under control when you are passing other dogs or groups of children in the park, crossing the street or walking near traffic, entering or exiting the veterinarian’s office, and in other situations of potential danger or distraction. The heel command allows you to set a steady brisk pace that will make your walk a healthy exercise outing rather than a “stop and sniff” ramble. Most importantly, training your dog to walk in heel teaches him to focus on you as the decision maker. Building this trust in your leadership with a daily walk in heel has benefits that extend to all aspects of your life with your dog.
What is the real “heel”?
A true “heel” puts your dog is in proper position for moving in concert with you with his attention focused on you.
- Position When you give the heel command, your dog should walk at your left side. His head should be in line with your left leg—he should not walk out in front nor lag behind.
- Attention When in heel, your dog should be attentive to your movements so that he can immediately adjust when you change pace or direction. He may glance around a bit, but ultimately he should be focused on you.
- Movement Walk briskly and with intention. Because your dog is walking at your pace and focusing on you, there should be no pulling, lagging, sniffing, or lunging.
- Stopping When you stop, your dog should stop and automatically sit at your side with his head next to your left leg.
You will need to teach your dog the specifics of the heel so that he knows what you expect from him when you give the command. However, no amount of instruction will ensure your dog’s obedience to any command. First and foremost, your dog must recognize you as his leader.
Page BreakThe Importance of Leadership
Canines are pack animals. Most species of wild canines travel in packs, and the Alpha, or leader, controls the movement of the group. The leader decides where the pack is going, when they are going, where and when they will pause, and how fast they will travel. As a canine, your dog retains some instincts related to pack movement. Primarily, he expects a group (even a group of two) to have a leader. How he responds if you do not assume leadership depends on his temperament. Many dogs will try to become the leader and set the path and the pace by pulling relentlessly. Others will find the lack of leadership intimidating and will be fearful and tentative when out walking. You will find yourself pulling and dragging your dog along. Still other dogs will wander aimlessly, lunging and pulling at each and every scent and sound that catches their interest. Any of these responses puts your dog in the decision making position and will make walking your dog a difficult chore rather than a pleasure. And since your dog needs to walk every day, it is in your own best interest to establish yourself as your dog’s leader and train him to heel. Your outings will be manageable and enjoyable. Even more importantly, any of these behaviors make it impossible to control your dog in situations where control is necessary for his safety and your sanity.
Communicate through your body language and attitude that you know what you are doing and where you are going. Do not amble or stroll; aimless movement communicates indecisiveness and an absence of purpose—in other words, a lack of leadership. A dog will want to take over for a weak leader who can’t make up his mind. If your dog thinks you lack purpose and confidence, he will do everything he can to challenge you when you walk.
When walking in heel, move with intention. Walk at a brisk pace, look ahead, and have a destination in mind—even if that destination is simply the first place you will stop to let your dog sniff. Your dog will sense that you are in charge of where you are going, how fast you will move to get there, and when and where you will pause. Your dog should understand that you have a plan and he should not deviate from that plan. When you project confident leadership, your dog can feel confident following you. Of course, in order to properly “follow the leader,” your dog needs to know what you, as his leader, expect him to do.
Training the Heel Command
Begin with your dog sitting at your left side. Hold the leash in your right hand, with just a little slack. Give the heel command and step forward with your left leg. Your dog should move with you, keeping pace with your left leg.
If your dog does not move, or lags behind, keep moving. Do not stop; do not return to where your dog is sitting; do not baby talk and ask your dog what is the matter. If you make accommodations for your dog’s lack of movement, you communicate the message that the “pack” will move when he is ready. That is not a message leader would give. You can pat your leg, encourage your dog with upbeat, energetic words, you can even hold a treat up by your left side—but keep moving. Communicate to your dog that this pack is moving—now.
Correcting the Heel
Your dog may try to lunge ahead or wander away from your left side. There are two ways to correct your dog when he breaks away from the heel position.
- Execute an immediate “about turn.” Turn away from your dog to the right, 180 degrees, so that you are moving in the exact opposite direction. Your quick change in direction will create sudden tension on the leash and bring your dog’s attention back to you. Again, keep walking! Do not stop. Your dog is learning to keep his focus on you. If you adjust yourself to his behavior, he will not learn to keep his focus on you.
- You can also correct without changing direction. Pop the leash on an upward diagonal toward your right shoulder. Do not yank back on the leash or hold your dog in position by keeping the leash so taut that he cannot move. Your dog will naturally resist a backward pressure by pulling forward—intensifying the problem you are trying to solve. Conversely, the pop and release correction up toward your shoulder will interrupt his pulling by disrupting his balance. The correction will bring his focus back to you, and should set him back into proper heel position.
You should correct your dog when he breaks from the heel without your permission. However, you may choose specific points in your walk to give your dog an approved break to sniff and/or relieve himself.
Taking a Break
You cannot allow your dog to sniff along the entire walk because then he is controlling the pace of the walk. As the leader, you decide when and where you and your dog will stop. I usually choose a spot favored by the other local dogs to give my dogs the most “sniff for the stop.” When you are ready to give your dog a “sniff break,” stop walking and release your dog from his heel command with your usual release word. Let the leash extend to give your dog some freedom of movement. Allow your dog to sniff for a few minutes. When he stops sniffing (or if he continues sniffing for a ridiculously long time) gather your leash; give him the heel command and start walking again. He should return to the proper heel position in line with your left leg and keep pace with you. If he does not, give a pop-and-release correction and keep walking.
Page BreakHappy, Healthy Heeling!
Walking in heel contributes to your dog’s health and well-being in several ways.
- Walking in heel is good exercise and uses up excess energy. Regular walking at a brisk, sustained pace keeps your dog (and you!) physically fit.
- Walking in heel burns mental energy. When you keep your dog moving along, he is taking in many sights and smells in quick succession. Processing a constant stream of sensory input gives him the mental exercise he needs to be calm at home.
- Heeling teaches your dog to pay attention to you. He learns that he cannot stop and react to every sound, sight, or smell that he encounters. When you encounter a big distraction, such as another dog lunging in your direction, he will already be accustomed to being attentive to you.
- Walking together in heel strengthens the bond between you and your dog and gives consistent reinforcement of your leadership. Your dog will become more confident and relaxed because your walks will increase his confidence in you as his leader. This confidence and respect instilled on your walks will improve his overall attitude and obedience.
Heeling is much more than an obedience exercise. It is a reflection of the relationship between you and your dog. In heel, you and your dog walk together without struggle or confusion. You are able to navigate any situation or environment safely. Your dog is happy because he knows he can depend on you to have a plan. You are happy because you don’t have to worry about constantly struggling for control. You walk together not as adversaries, but as companions.