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Heel Work - Taking it Back to Basics

Updated: Jun 15, 2021

Teaching your dog to walk nicely

teaching your dog to walk nicely by your side can be one of the hardest things to do. I believe this to be the case because we are asking our dogs to not do anything….. don’t sniff that… or that…. Don’t go there and don’t pull me!

What our dogs are hearing is ‘mrmrmrmrmrhrmrhrmrhrmmmmm…..’ Because what they are thinking is ‘yay! Walk time….. I know what the lead means…. We are going outside!!! I love outside because its not inside…… (I wonder if that other dog has been walking on my path again…) ooooo that smells different,…. something moved! I know it was here! Oooo that big dog has been past again… A RABBIT HAS BEEN HERE….! I need a wee…..

You get the gist of it, for some dogs its very hard for them to focus with all these distractions around and they genuinely don’t hear your voice… as soon as they begin looking for something good from their surroundings we have lost their attention. This is normally where problem start but we will get into some problem solving later on. To start with let’s assume you have brought your puppy home and maybe walked into a pet store and felt completely overwhelmed by all the options with leads, collars & harnesses.

If you want to buy once and know your buying right all you need is a standard lead that can reach down to your puppy with a little slack, up to your hand and across your body to your other hand, this wants to be comfortable to hold and without chains and things dangling from it. Pair this with a standard collar that is loose enough to fit 2 fingers in and your onto a winner. Its also a UK law to have a tag on your dog at all times, this tag needs to have your surname and phone number on it, the rest is up to you, the dogs name on the tag is not advised as this gives anyone the ability to call your dog and win them over even if their intentions are not honorable.

Why I don’t like extendable leads - they always carry tension and this is counter active to us teaching our dogs not to pull and they are heavy clunky things with a wire coming from it attached to your dog, when you bend to praise your dog they can accidentally get a donk on the head deterring them from coming in close to you again. Also other dogs may not see that thin line and get caught up and car drivers may not see the lead so act accordingly causing an accident, as well as the possibility of you dropping the lead and that startling your pup which causes them to flee from the very object that’s chasing them and I’ve herd horror stories of puppies that have lost their lives because of these expendables. They can be OK for a countryside walk but do keep these warnings in mind and be as safe as you can if you do choose to use them.

Harnesses are great for working on your recall when used in conjunction with long line lead training (check out my blog on how to train a perfect recall) or for a safety measure on your stroll with your dog but not for heel work. Harnesses where designed for animals to pull, horses to pull carts reindeer to pull Santa’s sleigh and huskies to pull sleds etc…. They have been designed to allow a four legged animal use their whole body in regular excessive pulling.

Choke chains, check chains, bark collars, and prong collars are not recommended methods, they work by inflicting fear or pain rather then actually teaching your dog how to walk nicely by your side.

Halties are much like a mussel but have a slightly different purpose as well as less sigma about their use, they can be wonderful to help much later down the line and if problems arise that could perhaps relate to nervousness or reactivity but shouldn’t be considered with puppies or if your setting out to begin your heel work training.

So now you have a puppy (or dog) a collar and lead, you need some yummy treats (liver cake recipe here) and first need to spend a little time getting your dog used to having their collar and lead put on. With your treats hold the collar up and try to entice your pup into putting its nose and then head threw on their own. Reward for little movements and wins until you have managed to get the collar on an off without puppy giving it another thought. Practice clipping your lead on and off and just giving praise and reward to your puppy until they don’t even notice what your doing. Use words like ‘Yes’ and ‘Good’ when your pup is doing a good job and your releasing your treat.

Once you have got your dog used to having their collar on and lead clipped on and off you can pop the lead to 1 side, you don’t need it. Now you need to show your dog the position we would like it to go to when we say ’heel’. We always walk our dogs on the left hand side, this makes things easier when crossing others when on walks and keeps signals very clear for your dog to understand. So with a treat in your hand first get your dogs attention by going to them and wafting that treat on their nose so they know you have it, once you have their attention move the treat to your left all the while looking at your dogs body to give them enough space to turn and come to your side. You might find this easier if you imagine a cone by your left side and to take your dog around the cone so they end with their front legs next to yours and their body straight behind you.

Once you have practiced this a few times and your dog is starting to guess what you want them to do you can put the word ’Heel’ to it. For this you will say ‘Heel’ (in a upbeat but firm tone) before you move your arm around. Practice this plenty of times with very clear words and movements and then you can start to walk…. To add on walking do everything as you have been doing before but before you release your treat just take a couple of steps forward bringing your pup with you and repeat, repeat, repeat. Gradually you want to increase the steps you take before you reward but all the while keeping your dogs attention, if you loose their attention you didn’t reward quick enough or your treats just aren’t as enticing or the environment still has to many distractions.

Practice this at home first, get it looking solid and reliable then practice in the garden and then only when you have practiced with some distractions can you practice outside on your walks.

Another activity we like to practice is what i like to call ‘training walks’ these are walks separate from your enjoyable time on your everyday walk. When the adverts come on the TV go get your lead and clip your dog on, practice control over your front door and take them out to just practice establishing heel and walking with the world as a distraction. If they pull in front call them to you and either establish heel and go again or turn to walk the other way. Walk outside your home for about 12 steps either side then go inside again. Each session doesn’t need to be very long at all, little and often and ending on a high is the key.

Your lead is an extension of your voice and not your arm.

I like to distinguish between this formal walk to heel and a more casual walk where dogs are still able to do their business and enjoy the word. For this we still have ground rules, i like to make sure my pup doesn’t cross my path behind or in front, they can sniff on the left of me and that’s final, or you can end in a tangle. The other rule is still no pulling…. Thats from your dog or you, if they pull, call them back to go again, you can try changing directions as well. and finally don’t you pull either, little flicks of the lead or using a treat on their nose to pull their attention away from the dead pigeon in the hedge. When your dog stops to sniff during their casual time, you have 2 choices, either to let them sniff or call them away.

Some things to remember:

  • don’t you pull on the lead either, by doing it this way its the dogs choice to come to heel so they are learning it feels good todo and they are more likely to do it again. If you need to get your dogs attention use little lead flicks but your voice is what will make the true difference.

  • Let your dog be a dog, don’t practice a formal walk to heel all the time, let them sniff and do their thing as well, practicing on your way back from your walk will give you more success

  • use a standard lead and collar but you will see the lead is only there for safety, the rest is all your dogs choice.

  • Don’t say the word heel until its looking like they will start to do it anytime you move your hand around and then say it once before you move your hand ‘Heel’ then lure them into position.

To get this looking great and be able to walk your dog to heel while off lead (not that we ever recommend that when walking around roads) we must first start at home, off lead. If you are really struggling it could be the standard method doesn’t work for you and your dog so you may need to get in touch with a trainer or behaviorist like myself to help problem solve and tailor the advice to your specific scenario.

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