Heeling is an important part of pet dog training. When you ask your dog to ‘heel’ they should be next to your left leg, paying attention to you, and ignoring everything else around them. It is a great exercise to teach your dog as it means that you can walk past distractions calmly. These distractions can be things like spilled rubbish, children, dead animals, other dogs etc.. Heeling is not something you should expect your dog to do for the whole walk, instead teach them loose lead walking.
In order to get a ‘sharp’ heel you need to practice it at home with minimal distractions. Reinforce your dog when they walk beside you. Make a game out of it, have some food in your hand, walk around confidently, and reinforce your dog as soon as they hit the correct spot without you coercing them. You will need to be quick to see and reinforce the correct behaviour.
While working on heeling try not to ask your dog for any other behaviour like ‘sit’. You are practicing ‘heel’, and when learning a behaviour your dog should be reinforced for single behaviours only. It’s also best to start practicing heeling in a straight line only, and it’s probably all you will need for pet dog training.
When you begin training heel, practice it off lead for the first few weeks. When you and your dog are learning a new behaviour the lead can be a real distraction- it’s another thing to have to think about. When people have the lead in their hand they tend to use it as a way to physically control their dog. Your dog should willingly heel beside you, and for this reason you need to put the lead away when you and your dog start to learn.
As you and your dog become more confident you can practice on lead heeling. The lead must have a nice slackness to it though. Heel exactly the same way on lead as you have been doing off lead, and your dogs’ on and off lead heeling will look wonderful.
As your dog becomes better at understanding what ‘heel’ means you can expect them to walk closer to your leg and for longer distance before reinforcing them. For example, if you reinforced your dog initially for three steps beside you, you may like to progress to five or six steps. Mix it up, sometimes reinforce them after three steps, sometimes ten steps. When you do reinforce, it also needs to be for closer and closer heeling. The goal is to have your dog walking as close to your left leg as possible, watching you for as long as you need them to. Take your time to shape this by reinforcing closer progressions to this goal.
You can also ‘raise the bar’ by training your dog in different environments and with different distractions. You know your dog best, push them as far as you think they can go while still being successful. You will need raw meat for this, you are competing for your dogs’ attention, so make it worth their while to listen to you. If your dog loves other dogs, then heeling past other dogs will be the last thing you practice, ony after they have mastered heeling past everything else you can think of that will temp them. After you have heeled past the object, person or animal you should release your dog.
I teach my clients to use a specific hand signal before they begin with the verbal request. I have found that people get a little confused if they have to think about everything (hand signals, reinforcement, walking, talking and their dogs position) all at once. You can use any signal you like, as long as it is not the same signal for another behaviour you have taught your dog. Dogs communicate primarily through their body so they will respond much better to a hand signal rather than you talking to them lots.
After some hand signal practice, you can add a verbal request- ‘heel’. Say ‘heel’ only when your dog is actually doing correct heeling, and you only need to say it once. Each time you reinforce your dog you can move forward again and give your dog another hand signal to heel, then say ‘heel’ once they are correctly heeling. Over time you can ask them to heel, and they will know what the word means. English is a second language for dogs, and they learn by associating words with reinforced behaviour.
Take your time, you and your dog are just learning. Don’t worry about mistakes, they will happen. Mistakes are a valuable part of the learning process for you and your dog. Spend most of your time training heeling, and only some time using it in real life. This will ensure that when you ask your dog to ‘heel’ they will respond nicely because you have practiced and are confident.