If you step out of the house and take a trip to any park or public space, you’ll almost certainly spot several dog owners being pulled along by their pet whilst out “walking”. Getting their dog to walk to heel is unfortunately one of the areas in which many owners struggle the most, with a large amount conceding defeat and resigning themselves to the ‘fact’ that their dog will always pull when on the leash.
This needn’t be the case!
In this article, we walk through how you can train your dog to heel, no matter what age or how long you’ve been struggling to control him when walking.
What Is The Heel Command?
For those new to dog ownership, the function of the “heel” command is to get your canine companion to walk beside you, rather than in front of you. When your dog heels correctly, the leash remains loose, and he matches your pace, not the other way round.
When your dog readily obeys the “heel” command, not only does it make it much easier on your arms whilst walking with him on-leash, it also helps to ensure that your pup is safe and well-behaved when you take him outdoors. In those situations when a cat or other small animal runs out in front of you, it enables you to retain control when your dog wants to follow his instincts and give chase.
The great news is that teaching your dog how to heel is actually pretty simple! Be ready for short, intense training sessions with a lot of play time in between. It may take a little while to see permanent results, and the process of training your dog to heel may test your patience, but rest assured that it is well worth it in the end.
First, find a large space that isn’t filled with distractions. Let your dog sniff around on a short leash for a few minutes and get used to the environment. Once he has become accustomed to the area he won’t be as likely to be distracted by anything, and is more likely to concentrate on you. As we’ve recommended previously, use a cotton or nylon leash that is around 6 feet in length- and steer clear of retractable leashes.
To begin with, ensure that you and your pup are both facing in the same direction. You may need to gently tug his lead until you are both in position, after which you should command him to “sit“. Have a treat ready in your hand, held high but close to your left waist, clenched in your fist to shield it from any premature grabbing!
Catch your dogs’ attention by calling his name. The moment he looks up to you, take two steps forward. If he moves along, close by your side, and stops when you stop, immediately reward him with the treat and lots of praise. Don’t get frustrated if for the first few times he rushes ahead of you instead of stopping- patience is the key and it is likely to take a few attempts to get this right. You may notice that your dog starts anticipating the treat and begins to stand in front of you. When this happens, ignore him for a little while and take a break from training. After a short time has passed, pick up where you left off and start the process again.
After you’ve repeated these steps several times, you will be ready to start associating the behaviour with the “heel” command.
Introducing The “Heel” Command
With your dog by your side, facing in the same direction, hold a treat in your hand. Give the “heel” command with a firm, yet gentle voice, and start walking forward. If your dog responds by walking alongside you, praise him with a passionate “Good Boy“, and reward him with the treat. Again, repeat this process over and over again, gradually increasing the number of steps you take. Eventually, you won’t have to reward him with a treat every time, instead simply giving him lots of verbal praise to reinforce the behaviour. Once you are confident of your dog’s ability to walk to heel, try it in different locations from your training area- the more environments he practices in, the better he will get!
If he does not heel right away, don’t try to lure or bribe him to do so with the treat. Consistency is vital, and your pup needs to understand that he will get his reward when he displays the expected behavior. Remember to always reward him when the desired action is carried out. If you’re lucky, a few repetitions of this series of actions will be all that’s needed to teach your dog to heel.
What If Your Dog Doesn’t Heel?
With a little patience, the above method will work well for many dogs, and before too long you will have strengthened the bond between you and your pet, whilst training him to walk nicely alongside you. However, some dogs are a little more difficult to train, and may take longer before they ‘get it’. Do not stress or make yourself upset, as this difficulty certainly does not mean you’ve got a ‘bad’ or ‘lazy’ dog. All it means is that you’ll need to work a little harder to train the behaviour. In this case, you may find some additional, corrective techniques useful.
As before, stand beside your dog on a short leash, the two of you facing the same direction. Give the “heel” command and start to walk forward. If he is having difficulty understanding the concept, he may not walk with you. Instead, he may attempt to go off on his own. To correct this behavior, apply a firm but short correction on the leash. Never pull or drag your dog by the collar, and don’t get angry or shout at him when you apply the correction. Let the collar return to a slack condition immediately after correcting.
Repeat the exercise. When your dog does obey you and walk in heel, praise him enthusiastically and reward him with a treat. Your dog will quickly learn that to disobey the “heel” command results in a period of discomfort, but walking alongside you at your pace gets him a tasty treat and a lot of vocal praise! It may take a little while, but if you are consistent in your training and reward him accordingly, your pup will soon be responding eagerly to your “heel” commands, and corrections will no longer be required.