When we think about the experience of owning a dog, one of the first things that come to mind is walking together with your pet. This is one of the greatest bonding experiences you can have with your dog. In addition, walks are exercise for your dog and opportunities to introduce your pet to new environments. You should also think of walking your dog as an opportunity to establish your role as pack leader. The best way to determine whether you are your dog’s leader (or your dog is your leader) is to look at where you and Fido walk in relation to each other. I will give you a hint – the leader leads!
Think about the last time you took your dog out on a leashed walk. Did your dog walk at your side with a loose leash? Did you enjoy the walk? Did your dog enjoy the walk? If you answered no to any of these questions, read on to learn how to teach your dog to “Heel” so that both you and your dog can enjoy your walks together.
Nobody enjoys being dragged around, especially when it’s their dog that’s doing the dragging. Despite what you may think, your dog doesn’t really enjoy dragging you around either. Not only is the constant pulling and tugging difficult physically on your dog’s hips, neck, and throat, but it is stressful for your dog to fill the leadership position. It is your job to teach your dog to “Heel” so you can both walk comfortably and happily.
“Heel” is the position in which your dog is facing the same direction you are with the collar lined up with your left leg (“Side” is the same position on your right). Your dog’s front toes ought to be in line with or behind your own toes. Your dog should be parallel with you in a straight line, not sticking their rear end out or crossing in front of your path.
Begin teaching your dog to “Heel” at mealtime. Take your dog and their bowl full of kibble into a controlled environment (with or without a leash) and feed one piece of kibble at a time. The key to feeding the kibble is to take each piece with your left hand and bring it down to your dog exactly in the position where you want Fido to be. It is essential that your dog does not lunge for the kibble or receive it if he is out of position. Each time you give the kibble, smile at your dog and say “Yes! Good Heel.”
The next component in teaching Fido to “Heel” is being a responsible leader. Now that you have stepped into the leadership role (much to your dog’s relief), you need to be a clear and communicative leader. This means telling your dog each time you are going to begin moving from a stopped position, rather than just starting to walk and expecting that your dog catch up. The command we use is “Let’s Go”. Each time you are going to begin walking, just before taking that first step, remember to tell Fido “Let’s Go” and then take off. Eventually, Fido will understand that “Let’s Go” means it is time to start moving and you will both take that first step together. Your dog will appreciate the warning and should be already in a “Heel” position when you take the first step together.
During the teaching process, offer the kibble while you are walking in an area with minimal distractions, as well as when your dog is seated in a proper “Heel” position. In the beginning, offer a piece every 2 steps. Take 2 steps and bring down a piece of kibble while continuing to walk. Take another 2 steps and pause, asking your dog to “Sit”, and giving a piece of kibble while seated in the “Heel” position. Repeat this process until the meal is complete. Eventually, you will be able to increase this to every 5, 10, or even 50 steps.
Another key tool in teaching this command is to never ever let your dog walk even one toenail ahead of you. In the event that Fido gets out in front of you, PLANT YOUR FEET! Ground yourself until you can get your dog back into position (use kibble, treats, or even a favorite toy to lure him back). You are teaching Fido that we only move forward if he is in the proper position. If your dog has been dragging you around for weeks, months, or years, this is going to be quite the shock to him.
It may take some time for Fido to realize that you only move when he is in position, but if you are consistent, your dog will figure it out. If you are in a rush or inconsistent, Fido is going to get frustrated with you for not reinforcing the “Heel” each and every time you walk together and your dog will never develop a solid “Heel” response. This may mean shortening walks or limiting distractions for a while until you can master a good “Heel” for the duration of your outings.
By teaching your dog to “Heel”, you are opening a world of enjoyable walks and outings together. You are also reinforcing your position as the leader. Both you and your dog are going to enjoy the walking experience much more once you have mastered these commands.
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All training tips in this series are from ECAD (Educated Canines Assisting with Disabilities), a non-profit organization dedicated to training service dogs for veterans with disabilities. Learn more about ECAD.