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Teaching your dog to heel

The heel command is one all dogs need. It allows us to walk free from the worry of wondering whereabouts our reliable friend is or what he is up to. Being rock-solid on ‘heel’ both on and off the lead is crucial. Whether it’s walking on a beach, or between drives on an estate, dogs that heel well show they are both well-mannered and obedient, whilst allowing owners to enjoy being out with them. There will also inevitably be times you lose a lead and need to rely on your dog to remain close. Jo Perrott, founder of The Ladies Working Dog Group explores the do’s and dont’s of teaching your dog to heel.

This beautiful image of Fern the Working Cocker Spaniel caught the eye of Hollie-Ella who just had to include it.

Unfortunately though, it’s one of the commands that takes the longest to teach. When you see the ‘perfect dog’ at heel, remember what you see took a lot of time in training. The world is an exciting place for a young dog and they sometimes forget what you asked and become distracted. My older dogs can be counted on to listen because they have seen more of life, but my younger dogs still have their moments…

To begin, where should your pup walk?

My pups are trained to walk to the left. Most shooting dogs are. This comes from your dog being on the opposite side to your gun. Ideally you want your dog to keep his nose in line with your left knee; not in front of you, where he could trip you up, and not dawdling behind you, out of sight.

Teaching off-lead heel first: I’ve always started teaching heel off-lead first, because I want to focus on my pup and not have the lead in between us. Whether I’ve bred the pup, or it comes to me as a youngster, my first job is to get my pup to WANT to be with me. There are many ways you can do this, through treats, fuss, or a pleasant voice and a smile. Remember, we would all prefer to walk alongside someone who interests us, and its the same for dogs – if you’re on your phone ignoring them, don’t expect them to stay with you!

Begin by encouraging your dog to come to the side you would prefer. If you already have three dogs walking to the left, you might want him on the right. Sometimes they will jostle for space, so sharing them over sides can be sensible. Encourage them to come to the knee you want in the beginning with a titbit of food. Don’t give them the food immediately, instead encourage them to walk a few paces with you whilst you give the command ‘heel’. Don’t do this for hours on end, as your dog will get a full belly and become bored quite quickly. Instead, carry out this training throughout the day in short, sharp sessions. You can also do this at feeding time. Begin by bending over, as this avoids them jumping up at you for the food. As your training progresses, lengthen your steps before giving the reward. You can also start to come up from the dog as they understand more of what you’re asking for.

If the pup is away from you, use the word ‘come’, or your whistle, to ask the dog to come to you, followed by the heel command once they are with you. The heel command is always given to encourage them to come to your knee, and, whilst they are pups, you can reinforce the command verbally as they walk along with you. As you gain distance, add in turns, both left and right, so they get used to changing direction alongside you. I start with lefts first if they are on my left, as my body acts as a natural barrier for them to turn.

As the pup gets older and understands what you mean by ‘heel’, only issue the command once. Don’t get in the habit of saying it over and over, a trained dog should only require telling once, and then staying at heel until you say otherwise. Over time you should be able to walk and turn frequently without your dog leaving your side. As they progress, vary distance lengths and time before rewarding. Learn to read your dog’s behaviour. If you can see they are becoming bored, switch up the training exercise as you don’t want them to get into the habit of wandering away.

On-lead heel: whilst teaching off-lead heel, we also introduce the pup to wearing a collar. Let the pup wear it when he’s with you. You want them not to be concerned with the feeling of something around their neck from a very young age. This is not just for lead purposes but also if the vet ever requires them to wear a protective collar.

Later on, once you have taught heel off-lead correctly, you can then add a lead to the collar. Your pup should be walking to your knee, so should never have a reason to pull against it. If you are training a dog to work on an estate, exchange for a slip lead as its safer for a dog to work cover without a collar.

Teaching heel is an excellent skill both for your dog to have but also for you as an owner; whether you own dogs purely as pets or you work them, heel is important in all walks of life and can come in handy when crossing roads, taking your dog to the vets, county shows, trips to the beach, pub and on your daily dog walks. The list of benefits teaching your dog to heel has is virtually endless, regardless of whether you work your dogs or not.

Taking your pup out: pups have a great way of listening perfectly at home, and then once out, completely forgetting about us. This is because the new environment is far more fun to explore than you. Much like when you take a child into a shop, and they leave you because they have seen something shiny! Neither the child or the pup is naughty, they are just exploring their new world. Start your outdoor adventures on-lead and go back to them being short and sharp sessions. You do not want to encourage your pup to be pulling away from you as you walk them all day around a market. Both you and they will hate the experience, and your pup won’t think you’re fun anymore. If you cannot get their attention to walk to heel, then back home they go for more training before you venture back out. If you continue to take them out and get into a constant tug of war, it is a very hard issue to correct.

Solving heel issues: if I have a dog that pulls or will not walk off-lead I go back to basics as if they were a pup. I make myself more fun to be with than anything else and then go through the steps above. It’s not an easy process. With a pup you are instilling new habits, with a dog that won’t listen, you are breaking bad habits. Each is very different psychologically for a dog.

If you have tried going back to basics and still can’t get the dog to listen, I would seek the advice of a professional trainer or canine behaviourist as they will be able to support both you and the dog as you change the dog’s behaviour pattern.

Finally, ‘heel’ is not the most fun command to teach a pup because they want to explore and adventure, not walk at your side. However, it is worth the effort and once your dog has bossed it, the rest of your life going for a walk will be plain sailing. Keep the long term reward in mind and good luck!

Photography by Duncan Stocks copyright; Stock Fields Photography.

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