Teaching your dog to heel seems pretty simple right? In reality, this word means different things to different people. Some people define heeling as not pulling on the leash. Others believe it means the dog being next to you. Other think it is the dog walking next to your left knee. Still other define it as a dog on the left side with their head straight up, their shoulder perfectly in line with your knee and showing excitement and enthusiasm while doing so. What heeling means to different people has a lot to do with their dog’s purpose.
If you and your dog live in the city and your dog’s purpose is to be a pet then heeling for you will likely mean that your dog can politely walk beside you down a busy street with pulling or lunging. If you and your dog live on 100 acres out in the country then heeling for you may mean that you can simply keep your dog off-leash within 10 feet of wherever you happen to be walking at the time. If you intend to do rally obedience with your dog then you will want your dog on your left hand side reasonably paying attention to their position relative to you. If you intend to do IPO with your dog then heeling takes on an even more difficult and complex meaning. Heeling becomes more of a synchronized dance routine than an obedience command. Your dog has to be up, in drive, in perfect position, and enthusiastic in order to compete. You will likely spend years developing this type of heel. It takes patience, and knowledge, and dedication.
For these reasons I always like to know what purpose a dog has before we start training. I don’t even call the first two examples heeling. For me they fall under the category of loose-leash walking and off-leash walking. Heeling to me means a very nice position filled with enthusiasm. This is not conducive to an everyday walk through the park.
Most people with dogs only need the ability to walk with their dogs on a loose-leash. This is a relatively easy task to train, if you start when your dog is a young puppy. If you have a dog that has a lifelong habit of pulling and straining on the leash, you will be in for a bit of long road ahead. In this post we will cover new puppy training and briefly touch on dealing with the extreme pullers.
The first time you put a leash on your puppy you should just let them drag it around. Give them a little time to become used to this weird thing attached to their neck. Once your puppy is comfortable with that, get a big bag of treats ready to go. Pick up the leash and reward your puppy. Then take a few steps with it in your hand. If your puppy follows along give them another treat. If they don’t, use your voice and a little pat on your leg to encourage them to follow along. As soon as your puppy is next to you, reward them. If your puppy is pulling ahead stop your feet and plant yourself. As soon as your puppy turns to look at you reward them. Continue this tactic until your puppy is regularly checking in with your on their walk. Don’t keep the leash so tight they can’t go anywhere. You want your puppy to learn to pay attention to where you are, not how tight their leash is.
Many owners struggle with this and want to keep a death grip on their leash. You want your leash to form a C or J shape while you are walking your puppy. If at any point it gets tight you should stop and plant your feet. As soon as your puppy looks back and puts some slack in the leash reward them. It won’t take long at all until your puppy gets the idea that loose leash equals yummy snacks and tight leash means the walk stops.
Now if you have an older dog that is already used to pulling you can try the above method. With months and months of work you may be able to address the problem that way, but you are more than likely going to need to use some type of additional tool. There are tons of different options on the market from no-pull harnesses, to head halters, to pinch collars, and e-collars.
I am not personally a big fan of the no-pull harnesses. Most dogs learn to just pull a little less hard than they did before and these harnesses alter your dog’s gait which can lead to long-term joint damage, especially in the shoulders. Head halters such as the gentle leader and the Halti can work for some dogs, but many dogs cannot stand the sensation of having something on their nose. Most dogs that are extreme pullers benefit the most from a well-fitted plastic pinch collar. When used properly in combination with your dog’s favorite treats you can often remedy leash-pulling within one week. All of these tools can be used improperly however so please do your research ahead of time, and if possible consult a trainer to make sure you have the proper fit and know how to use the tool properly.
For those few out there who are looking to learn competition style heeling we offer private lessons to teach this. This is a little too complicated of a task to teach without hands-on knowledge and experience.