February 5, 2021
Getting your dog to walk close to your left side is one thing, but keeping your dog attentively looking at you while at your side is another skill entirely. While some dogs excel at heeling, it's worth mentioning that expecting your dog to maintain eye contact with you while heeling is a very advanced task that may require several different approaches until you find a technique that works well for your dog.
Nevertheless, there are many ways you can encourage your dog to look at you while heeling. Assuming your dog understands the fundamentals of “heel position” already, we'll look at a few of the ways you can improve your dogs attentiveness in the rest of the exercise.
Just because your dog always looks at you while heeling in the house doesn't mean he understands it's part of the exercise. Effective training involves breaking down a complex task into a series of smaller exercises, so if your dog doesn't naturally look at you when heeling, or struggles with distractions, it's a good idea to teach eye contact as a separate exercise, and then you can work on putting the two together later.
One common method of teaching eye contact independent of heeling involves “the name game”, where you call your dogs name and reward him for looking at you. In the beginning, short bursts of eye contact are OK. Over time, you can withhold the reward for 5 seconds, 15 seconds, 1 minute, until your dog understands that looking at you is really what earns their reward.
Once you've taught your dog his name separately (as in the “name game”, above) you can start phasing out your dogs name for the “Heel” command. By saying the heel command, followed by your dogs name, you can teach your dog that heeling doesn't just mean sitting at your left side, but sitting at your left side and paying attention to you.
By slowly working on your dogs eye contact at each phase of the heel, you can guarantee your dog really understands what you're asking. When your dog understands that “heel” means to get into position and look at you, you can take your first step, and then get your dog to sit and look at you again.
Practicing the heel step-by-step can get boring for some dogs, so don't be afraid to change pace or direction if you notice your dogs interest is waning. Some dogs are more driven for obedience training than others, so you will have to switch it up if you want to keep your dog interested.
Looking up and walking the same time just isn't easy for some dogs as it is others, but if your dog is motivated by food or toys, there's no reason you can't train your dog to have a very attentive heel with regular practice.
Training around distractions is essential to make sure your dogs training is reliable, but the right distractions can be hard to come by. Generally, it's a good idea to slowly increase the amount of distractions your dog is exposed to during training. For example, if you've done most of your training in the house up until this point, simply taking your dog to a quiet area of the park can be enough to make them completely lose their focus.
Depending on the types of distractions your dog has the most difficulty with, you might try dropping toys or treats on the floor and still expect your dog to maintain eye contact, or practice with other dogs/people/interesting things in the area.
It probably goes without saying, but different dogs will have different preferences and for some, this exercise can be very difficult. Patience and practice is key when teaching new behaviors, and as long as your dog is gradually improving there's no reason to worry about your short-term progress. Dog training is an ongoing process, and especially when teaching advanced behaviors like heeling with eye contact, can take months or years of practice to get perfect.