A dog heels

How to train a dog to heel

By BBC Maestro

Imagine: you and your faithful friend just walking along together, side-by-side, keeping pace, occasionally smiling at each other, no pulling or dragging…

You too can achieve this perfect-looking dog walk by teaching your dog to heel. In this article, we look at how to train a dog to heel, both off and on the leash. 

What is walking to heel?

Walking to heel is where a dog has been trained to walk at their human’s side. They’re not in front or behind but right next to you, turning when you do and walking at your pace. A well-trained dog will stay at your heels until they’re told otherwise and won’t scamper off when distracted by exciting scents.

“Heel” is usually pictured as off-leash walking; however, you can still train a leashed dog to walk to heel, which cuts down on any uncomfortable pulling and stopping. However, heel-trained dogs don’t have to always walk right at your side, and it’s good to introduce “sniff time” to your outing.

Why train your dog to heel?

Heel walking is a lovely way to bond with your dog and it works with your pet’s psychology. When your dog is walking at heel, it reinforces your role as pack leader. You are the one setting the direction and pace with your dog following your lead.

Walking to heel is also mentally enriching for your dog. Dogs are bred to work and have a purpose, and when you’re out on a walk, their job is heel. Engaged and stimulated, your dog feels relaxed and happy when they’re focused on their heel task. In fact, most dogs love this “task” so much that you can use heel walking as a calming technique.

At what age should a dog be able to heel?

You can start heel training a puppy, as long as you manage your own expectations! You can’t fully heel train this excitable little bundle, but you can start teaching elements such as rewarding them for making eye contact with you, and you can certainly normalise the “heel” cue.

Can you teach an older dog to walk to heel? Yes, you can. It might take a little longer, but even the most stubborn dog can be taught to heel with the right training.

How to teach heel command


Start by practising this training indoors or in your enclosed garden, where there are fewer distractions.

  1. Pick up a treat and hold it in your left hand. Show it to your dog, then hold your hand against the left side of your body.
  2. Start to walk forwards, encouraging your dog to follow the food.
  3. After a few steps, stop. Praise your dog and reward them with the treat.
  4. Keep working on this exercise, increasing the distance each time.
  5. Introduce the “heel” cue when you set off, along with tapping your left thigh to encourage them to join you.
  6. Start varying the routine: change sides, make turns, stop and start.
  7. When you’re both feeling confident, start introducing some heel walking to your daily outdoor walks. This can be a big test of concentration, so start with very short stretches of heel walking.
     

That’s the basic method to achieve heel walking. However, Steve also emphasises the importance of eye contact during walking, which helps to keep your pet focused. Reinforce eye contact with rewards, because as Steve says, “Too often we only reinforce a dog when they are stationary, so they zone out when we’re on the move.”

A dog and owner

Are dogs supposed to heel on the left side?

Before we start, a note about sides. Does your dog walk on your left or your right? Conventionally and in shows, a dog is trained to heel to your left (presumably so you can told your sword or gun in your dominant hand, as heel walking is an old tradition). However, in his BBC Maestro dog training course, expert Steve Mann encourages us to “work both sides” with any training exercise, including heel.

Always work both sides. So, if you work them on your left side first, do the same amount on the right, too… We don’t want to cause any imbalance in the dog’s structure, so this is an absolutely crucial point.

Get your dog (and you) used to working both sides from the start. It also gives you some flexibility when you’re out on your walkies. However, to make the steps clearer in this article, we’ll go with dog on the left.

How to train a dog to heel on the leash

Heel walking doesn’t have to mean keeping your dog off the leash. Steve runs a lesson on loose-lead walking in his BBC Maestro dog training course, which he also dubs “the smiling lead”, because you want the lead to hang in a big smiley shape.

The dog may be on a lead, but they’re walking at your side and following the heel cues. Keep the dog in that working state of mind by encouraging eye-contact, which you reward with an on-the-move treat. Maintaining focus, with the dog regularly checking in with you through eye contact, prevents that uncomfortable lead pulling.

Dogs don’t pull because they’re being naughty – it’s usually because they’re really keen to get somewhere. Using the heel method slows them down and keeps them in that happy and focused working mode. When you reach your destination, your good pup will be rewarded with plenty of sniff and scamper time.

You’ll learn how to keep your pet by your side in Steve Mann’s dog training course. For this and other essential lessons, like training your dog to sit or total recall, check out his BBC Maestro course.

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