As many dog trainers are, I am often subjected to a variety of situations involving hapless dog owners. A frequent one occurs while out walking. Frustrated owners seethe the word “Heel!” repeatedly, while hurrying by whatever is causing their dog to lunge and strain against the leash. Unless your dog is old or naturally uninterested in others, the vast majority of dog owners struggle with this issue.
What is heeling? Heeling is not the lack of pulling but rather the act of following. Believe it or not, teaching your dog to stay in a precise position at your leg is easier than teaching them to “not pull”. Imagine trying to get your three year old child to stay exactly within a four foot radius while walking to the park. Nearly impossible, right? But instructing them to hold your hand is doable. This is because it is tangible and easy to comprehend.
In the same way, while teaching a dog to heel you must have very clear criteria for what that is. Here at the Ranch, it means “stay at my leg no matter what I do.” The dog must keep her shoulders either even or behind your leg. Any discrepancy, even and inch, must be corrected. This is not because we are mean but because a line must be drawn somewhere and must be very clear in order for your dog to understand. A dog can see your leg when she is in this position and, because of that, she is able to follow you. Once she goes ahead of that marker (your leg) she can no longer see you and it is impossible for her to follow.
This can be done in a basic, two step process: luring the dog in the correct position by your side then introducing accountability.
Step one: With high value food (sting cheese, meat or protein based dog treats), continuously reward you dog in line with your hip, saying your command as you move. Your leash will be in your right hand, your food in your left. Her nose should be right at the side of your leg. This should be done while moving forward, turning, stopping and the like. Do lots of stopping, giving a light pop upward with your leash at the same time you lure up with the food and bringing her to a sit. You are getting her comfortable in that position and accustom to sitting when she feels a pop upwards. Because most owners deliver treats with their dog directly in front, it is normal for a dog to attempt to continuously move to the front. Be patient and use a barrier like a
wall to help keep your dog parallel with your body. A hallway can be a great place to practice.
Step Two: After at least a couple weeks doing step one, your dog should be ready for step two. You will start in a hallway or other area the dog has been practicing with ease. Your food now moves to the right hand with your leash in the left. Ensuring there is always slack in the line, move forward saying your command. Within the first five steps, stop and pop up, immediately treating for a sit. Go back and forth doing this simple exercise. The dog should be expecting to stop as soon as you do. Begin right turns as well doing the same thing, right turn, pop, treat while moving. Once the dog is comfortable and doing well, again give yourself two weeks, begin working outside in a more distracting environment. Instead of drills, you can now begin just going for walks, going back to your drills whenever you need to brush up. While walking at a “With Me” (the command we use here at the ranch) keep consistent with your criteria. If after you have already instructed her to heel and her shoulders exceed your leg even slightly, STOP and POP. The stop portion is frequently forgotten by many yet is crucial for this method to work. Popping repeatedly while continuing forward WILL NOT WORK. Good luck