For the average pet dog heeling is not an important exercise to learn. Yet, one often can find a pet dog out on a walk being shouted at to “heel” while the owner repeatedly applies sharp tugs on the leash to get the dog to walk next to him.

Heeling is a position with the dog sitting or walking on the left side of the handler. To “Heel” simply means, to “hold that position.”

It is an attention exercise used in mainly two instances:

1) When in traffic, or crossing an intersection, and you want your dog to pay attention and stay close to you. This is when you will want your dog to, “Heel.”

2) In obedience trails or competitions, when you want to show the judge that you have created absolute attention and obedience in the required exercises to be performed, you “heel” your dog.

Serious dog trainers avoid the over use of the word in an effort to retain the natural liveliness of the dog. “Come with me” is the first command (It is not a request!) that I teach all dogs right from the bonding exercises.

Heel is a position

Dogs do not automatically know what to “Heel” means. It is a specific position that must be taught. I call Polo to me; get her to sit in front of me, on lead, and tell her to “Watch me.” Then, while I tell her sweet nothings to maintain her attention on my face, I swivel to my left to a position very close to her sitting body. Her front paws must be more or less in the middle of my shoes and she must be looking at my face. At that very moment I say, “Heel” and immediately reward her with a few treats, known as a “jackpot.”
This I do every day, as often as possible, for a few weeks. Calling her to sit in front, “watch” while I find the heel position and she gets the reward.  This is followed by, “come with me” and general training and play.

Instead of having to use the training methods used at most clubs of coming to heel – stepping back with one leg and using the lead to guide the dog into the correct position – Polo, now, knowing the heel position, smoothly moves into the correct position on command. I still sometimes have to use the lead to ensure correctness.

Heeling for Competition

The attention phase

It is very important to start with attention exercises where all the dog has to do is to sit and “Watch” while you move about , talking and praising your puppy or dog for being such a “good dog” before rewarding with a treat or toy.

In the attention phase we teach a dog not only what attention is but also that it is mandatory. This means that even without food or a toy the dog must be attentive. In order to achieve this, a distraction free place, familiar to the dog, such as a room indoors would be ideal. If the dog has to be corrected repeatedly because of distractions he will soon associate training with corrections and stress and begin to resent the exercise.

Begin by sitting your dog on leash in the quiet training area. Show him a food reward and talk in an excited tone, “watch
me.” Reward frequently when you get good attention and keep up the conversation to make concentration easy.

After a few training sessions it should be possible to get the dog to maintain eye contact while you begin to move backwards and sideways even briefly looking away and turning around while the dog continues watching your face. While talking and praising the dog you can occasionally tug on the leash to show that it is not a correction.

Soon the reward for good attention is given every ten seconds or more and the food is hidden in your fist and later retrieved from a pocket or pouch. Keep talking to the dog even if he cannot see the food. However, the dog must be confident that he will always be rewarded for paying attention.

Working for a ball

Whenpuppies reach adolescence, food often loses its effectiveness. That is why I use a ball on a string instead of food when training Polo and my other German Shepherds. Having spent much time playing and chasing a ball in the kitchen to make my puppies “Ball mad” I now hold a ball on a string in my hand instead of food. As a reward for good “watch” concentration I throw or bounce the ball as a reward. Soon the dog becomes aroused by the sight of the ball and is inclined to want to “mob” me for the ball.

Training now moves to the driveway or quiet area in the garden. After putting the dog on leash I arouse my dog by hiding the ball behind my back and making the dog miss as I tease him with the ball, much like a matador arouses a bull in tight passes close to the body.

This unruliness is fine because it increases attention and a willingness to “work.” By raising the ball above the dog’s head it is easy to command a quick “sit” and control of the dog before rewarding by throwing the ball as a reward.

“Come with me” vs. “Heel”

In this part of heel training I play with the ball as before to put the dog into “drive.” As soon as he is fixated on the ball held in my hand I spend a short while on the move with, “Come with me” (= follow me) where the dog stays close to me as I move about in a fairly relaxed way.

After a halt and a “sit” I move into the Heel position and now command “Heel” and step off on the left leg as soon as I have the dog’s full attention and reward with the ball after a step or two of perfect concentration from my dog.
Gradually the number of steps between rewards can be increased intermittently.

What is important is that the dog must learn that when the “Heel” command was given perfection is demanded and every lack of concentration or loss of position will be corrected.

“Come with me” is quite different and more casual and small lapses are overlooked.

During the second week training is done as before with larger intervals between rewards. Now the ball can be hidden by showing the back of your hand as you turn the ball away from sight or it can be held in the other hand. Continue talking to the dog!!!!

In week three the same procedure is followed. Ball is briefly in sight, then out of sight and finally in a pocket or the front of a jacket. However, the dog must know that even if it did not see the ball that by some magic one will arrive to reward attention.

Training tips

Teach the dog to wait for your left leg to move forward as the signal to start the heeling routine and not to move forward on the “heel” command. Occasionally, wait a few seconds before moving forward. Later the dog needs to know that when you step off on your right leg he must remain sitting.

When there are other dogs or distractions about the handler must keep the dog too busy to look about and become distracted. Many abrupt turns and brisk heeling can keep the focus on the handler. Inattention is met with, “watch” and a sharp pop on the leash.

The dog must be taught to happily pay attention with or without a ball. Beginner trainers often make the mistake of always having a reward (food or toy) available in training only to be disappointed when in a competition, when food is not allowed, their dogs fail to perform. Just because the dog can heel perfectly for a visual stimulus does not mean it can also do so without it.

Remember, the food or toy is simply a training aid used to reinforce your verbal praise and not toreplace it. So talking to your dog is most important!