March 15, 2019
Heeling teaches your dog to walk very close to your left side. While this impressive training skill may look like it's only for professional trainers, like most things in dog training, it can be easily broken down into simpler steps.
Training treats should be small enough for your dog to eat in a single mouthful without any chewing. Soft treats such as cut up hot dogs, cheese, ham, cooked liver, or bacon work best for training.
As your dogs teacher, it's important for you to learn how to break down seemingly complicated behaviors into simpler ones. Instead of trying to teach your dog to heel perfectly the first time, we'll be teaching him in small steps, this way we can reward him frequently for his progress and communicate with him at every step of training.
Keep training sessions short, no longer than 10 or 15 minutes in the beginning. If you have time, train more frequently throughout the day, but make sure you break the sessions up so that your dog doesn't get bored. When teaching something new, go slowly and give your dog plenty of opportunities to get it right by rewarding his attempts at doing what you want, even if they're not perfect.
You'll both get better with practice.
The first step to teaching your dog to heel is teaching her the heel position. Getting the perfect heel position takes time (often months), but for most dogs sitting on your left side will suffice.
To get your dog into position, use a tasty treat (also known as a lure) to coax her to your left side.
Lures are used to teach your dog to follow, but your dog wont rely on food forever. You can (and should) phase out using food as your dogs obedience becomes more reliable.
With your dog on a leash and a small treat between your thumb and fingers, encourage your dog to follow your hand by letting her smell or taste the treat while you guide her to your left side.
When your dog is as close to your left thigh as possible, raise your hand slowly to encourage her to sit. Some dogs will bite at your hand or jump up to get the treat, but just be patient and keep trying until she sits.
When she sits, say, "Heel!" and give her a treat. Pay close attention to when you reward her. You'll need to say heel and reward her the moment she sits for her to pair the "Heel" command with sitting at your side.
Reward her for successively better & faster attempts at sitting at your left side. If your dog is struggling, reward her more frequently for smaller attempts at doing what you ask. It's better (and easier) to shape her behavior over time than it is to expect her to be perfect all at once.
Historically, dogs used for hunting and war were taught to walk on the left, to leave the handlers right hand free to draw a weapon. There's even a saying, “Dog on the left, gun on the right!”
Practice luring your dog for 10 minutes a day, aiming for incremental improvement. If your dog can sit by your side for 5 seconds in the beginning, challenge her to hold the position for a minute, three minutes. If she breaks position, lure her back into place and try again - even if it means rewarding her for smaller attempts until it “clicks.”
Speaking of clicks — if you're using a clicker, you should be "clicking" your dog the moment he sits next to you, and giving him a treat as soon as possible. Think of the click as a replacement for saying the word "Heel."
Clickers are small handheld devices that cost only a few dollars. They produce a very consistent clicking sound that your dog is taught to associate with food. Everytime he hears the click, he knows he did something right & a reward is coming, even if it takes a few seconds to get it.
Unlike your voice, which changes constantly, clickers always sound the same. You can easily "click" (or mark) a behavior so that your dog understands exactly when he did the right thing every time, making them a powerful communication tool.
While there are a lot of dog training tools and techniques out there, there are no shortcuts. Taking the time to work through your dogs problem areas is the only way to ensure his obedience is reliable. If he doesn't understand something, work on it until he does. With 20 minutes of daily practice, most dogs can pick up luring and the heel position in less than a week.
When your dog can sit at your left side and make eye contact with you for about a minute, you're ready to move on to step two.
Now that your dog understands that "Heel" means sitting at your left side, it's time to take one step and ask him to "Heel!" again.
Introducing movement changes the meaning of the command from your dogs perspective. By making sure he can take one step and sit while maintaining eye contact, we ensure the meaning of the command is clear.
At this stage in training, "heel" just means "sit," so it's very natural for your dog to take one step and be expected to sit again.
If you want your dog to make eye contact with you when heeling, only reward him for making eye contact when he takes his first step. For most dogs, this takes a lot of practice to get perfect. If your dog is really struggling, it's OK to work on eye contact later. Every dog is different.
When your dog understands that he needs to sit when you take one step, begin to vary the amount of steps you take before rewarding him.
Reward your dog only for his best work. This keeps the rewards random and makes sure your dog doesn't fall into the habit of only listening because you have a treat.
Practice makes perfect. If you want to really challenge your dog, try moving left and right so that he has to stay glued to your left side, even going sideways.
If he breaks eye contact or position, go back to where you started and try again. Remind your dog that he should stay by your left side at all times by guiding him with the leash or luring him with a treat. As he improves, vary how often you reward him by saving your treats for only his best attempts.
When your dog is doing well heeling in all directions, it's time to introduce new locations and distractions to his training to ensure he will listen in any situation. This is called proofing and it is an essential part of dog training.
Proofing starts by introducing small changes to your dogs training, such as a new location, or working around other dogs (at a distance). As with most things in dog training, start small & aim for gradual improvement. All dogs get better with practice.
Practicing in new situations ensures your dog is obedient everywhere, not just at home.
Training in a new location is also part of proofing. If you only train at home, don't expect your dog to listen at the park. You have to practice in both places for your dogs obedience to transfer.
You may be surprised to find that when you change the location of your training, your dog seemingly forgets everything you've taught him! This is because dogs do not generalize very well, and when the environment changes, your dog is no longer sure if the rules are the same.
We proof his behavior to teach him that no matter the location, “Heel!” always means the same thing. Bring some extra tasty treats, like cut up steak, hot dogs, or liver to redirect your dogs attention back to you when he gets distracted.
Increase the proximity of distractions as your dogs obedience improves.
It should come as no surprise that from most dogs' perspective, the park is a lot more interesting than training. It's OK to let your dog walk around first and then start training, as long as you keep your expectations high when you get started.
You can help deal with your dogs lack of focus by keeping your training confined to one small area of the park, and letting your dog use the bathroom before you get started.
Practice the same way you would at home until you get similar results. Then, take your dog to a new location, such as another park, or a pet-friendly store to increase the difficulty. It can be a good idea to involve friends to help distract your dog by throwing toys or walking past him. Depending on your dogs sociability, you can even involve other dogs to make sure that your dog will listen to you even with very interesting distractions nearby.
Dog training should be fun. Remember, you're both learning to communicate with one another. And there's no better way to learn than to practice. The more you train, the faster you & your dog will improve.
By keeping your training sessions short and ending them before your dog wants to, you will keep him looking forward to his next lesson. Dog training is a process; it doesn't happen overnight, and your results depend a great deal on both you and your dog. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't enjoy yourselves.
Dogs that enjoy training improve quickly, and most dog owners would agree that there's nothing better than a dog that actually wants to listen!