Competition Heeling Tips

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Competition Heeling Tips

In my experience, “Heeling” is the most difficult exercise in the obedience ring. In fact it is generally stated that it takes up to two years to get a dog to cope with top level heeling. Competition Heelwork is an art that not many handlers can truly master. The “stays” are your bread and butter exercises for which you must get full marks. Heeling is more demanding. It puts a great deal of pressure and precision on a dog. Thus it can have a negative effect on a dog if not treated correctly as a game to enjoy.
This article is aimed at helping those entering competitive obedience with useful tips to provide the “polish” that can prepare you for what you aim to achieve at a trial or show. Remember, competition is only a test of training, so if the training is incomplete you cannot expect to do well.
The ideal we aim for in competition obedience is a balance between drive and precision in each exercise. Drive work usually makes a dog less precise in the execution of a task. That is why we aim for a balance between passing an exercise while doing it with good attitude. Your first aim thus should be to gain the qualification mark needed in the test you have entered. The aim should not be to get first place. That will follow later.


Getting a dog to “enjoy” training for obedience is most important. A dog must learn to play before it learns to work. By constantly playing with your dog you will make him love your touch, understand your tone of voice and become crazy over you. Short sessions of vigorous play lasting no more than three or four minutes are what one needs. Take the dog out of the car, play tug-of-war, wrestle, run him on a long line so that he cannot get away from you. Use toys such as a ball on a string for quick sits before going into heeling and practicing turns and halts. When he is tired put him back in the car or go on a relaxing walk. After a few weeks of doing this the dog’s attitude for play and training, when he is taken onto the training field, will be tremendous.
On arrival at the club do not bring your dog out and stand around talking and allow the dog to get bored. Leave him in the car until it is time to work, then fetch him and move purposefully onto the field. This also applies to your arrival at the obedience show.

Warm up

When the competitor two places ahead of me entered the ring I would take my dog for a series of quick warm-up exercises aimed at reminding my dog to concentrate on me alone and ignore all else. These exercises included quick heeling, straight sits, turns and lots of praise for correctness. It should be quick and demanding and have your dog ready to concentrate on you. Each person will know of a weakness their dog has so you need to design your own warm-up routine. This is also the time to practice something you may have seen in the demonstration by the judge such as starting with Fast pace instead of the more usual normal pace.

Sitting straight

Always guide your dog to sit parallel to the side of the ring with its front paws beside and more or less in the middle of your left shoe and make eye contact with you.
When I tell my dog to “Heel” I get him to work out the correct Heel position. Any skew ness is met by simply repeating, “No, Heel” several times until he shifts closer and gets it right. Only then do I praise and reward. Over time dogs get to know what is expected.
Make sure your dog has not developed a bad habit of sitting lopsided down on a hip. This is a very common problem in bitches and from training on grass. If this happens, training must take place on paving or cement until the bad habit is eliminated. Lift the dog up slightly into a correct sitting posture while saying, “No, sit straight!”
Do not respond to the ring steward’s question until you are certain that your dog is sitting straight in the “Heel” position and is making eye-contact with you. Take your time before saying, “Yes.”

Start heeling

When heeling starts it is very important that your dog moves with you in unison.
With my dog in the Heel position, looking at me, I start leaning forward so far that I have to use my left leg to prevent a fall. When you introduce the “Heel” command at the same time your dog soon begins to watch your body movement and always starts correctly even without a “Heel” command.
Teach your dog that it is not the word, “Heel” that gets him to go forward but your body movement. Train by giving a “Heel” command and then wait a short while before stepping off on the left leg. In the beginning the dog will be inclined to move on the Heel command.
Dogs can easily be trained to follow you when you step off on your left leg and remain sitting when you step off on your right.
Vary training by starting with; “Fast pace” or “Slow pace” instead of always using “Normal pace.”

Closer position

In order to teach your dog to walk closer to you but without touching you, pass the leash across your back and into your right hand so that a forward movement on the leash will guide your dog into the correct position.

Off lead training

Practice “Off lead” by tucking the dog’s leash into the back of your pants or attach it to your waist so that both your hands are free and you can swing your arms normally. This enables you to clap your hands, talk to your dog etc. without him being able to wander off.
Start this training by using a left circle pattern and automatic sits before walking in a straight line.

Automatic sit at the halt

Teaching your dog to sit automatically whenever you come to a halt is essential. After the command by the ring steward to, “Halt,” do not stop suddenly. Take a few steps until you can halt comfortably.
The method I have used successfully is to always halt with a stiff left leg. I would practice the halt without a dog, saying “Halt” to myself, move steps forward until my right leg is put down, and then stiffen my left leg during the half pace as I bring it next to the right. All the dogs I have trained did not take long to pick the stiff leg halt as a signal to halt. This is particularly useful at higher levels when you are not allowed to talk to your dog. The judges have not picked it up as an additional signal to help the dog to halt.
Practice automatic sits separately until perfection but limit it to sessions of three or four.


Once your dog has been taught to look at your face/head while heeling, you can give him a signal of your intention to turn by moving your head left or right moments before the actual turn. Very quickly the dog learns to be ready for the turn to the left when he sees your head turn and thus avoids contact at the turn and loses points.
With this method you do not need to concentrate on footwork while turning.
Coyote used to lag whenever we had to turn to the right. By making an extra-large stride to the right during practice sessions, he soon became used to hurrying every time we turned to the right,
Teaching turns as a separate exercise is essential for competition handlers.

Looking at your dog

As you progress to higher levels in obedience competitions you will be penalized for looking at your dog during the heeling exercise.
What you need to do is to learn to fix your gaze to a spot about three meters on the ground ahead of you. This enables you to still see your dog next to you in your peripheral vision even if he is not in sharp focus.


Do start early in preparing your dog for what is to come in the higher levels. Start teaching advanced positions such as sit, down and stand on the move in the heel exercises that you will encounter at C level. Same for Distance control. Do not wait to teach it only when you reach that level.

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