Heel Tips: Teaching A Dog To Heel In Simple Stages

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The only long-term and reliable method of stopping a dog from pulling on the leash is teaching a dog to heel. There are ways of managing a strong pulling dog and we look at these in ‘How To Stop Your Dog Pulling On The Leash‘.

This article focuses on heel walking – the permanent pulling solution to your pulling problems. And we’ll be giving you some great heel tips and detailed instructions on how to teach a dog to heel.

What does heel mean?

A dog that is ‘at heel’ is walking along next to his handler, usually on the left hand side (either side is fine and you can teach a dog to heel on both sides if you wish).

A dog at heel usually has his head and neck aligned with the leg of the person he is working with, and in obedience competitions and heel work to music, you’ll see the dog looking up at the handler too.

Heel positions vary depending on the role of the dog. A service dog or working gun dog for example, needs to be looking ahead, not up at his owner. So you won’t find the obedience style position in these dogs.

Most heel positions have the dog very close to the handler’s leg. Even brushing against it. In a working gun dog you’ll see a bit more space between them. You don’t want to risk being ‘jostled’ by a dog when you are carrying a gun. Nor do you want a soaking wet retriever pressed against your leg.

These minor differences aside, heel means “Walking alongside the handler and close to their leg. Not lagging behind nor pulling in front.

What is great about heel walking?

The great thing about teaching a dog to heel is that the dog is under very close control in this position. You can communicate with the dog quietly and easily, and reward him quickly and easily.

Most importantly with a big dog, a dog that is heel walking is not pulling on the lead. No more having your arms stretched out of their sockets by a large and boisterous dog.

During heel walking the leash is never tight, or, the dog doesn’t wear a leash at all.

Off leash heel walking can be very useful in situations where you need your hands free or when you have more than one dog at heel.

Teaching a dog to heel: training sessions

Teaching a dog to heel is a process that requires regular training sessions. Five to ten minutes, two or three times a day is ideal to begin with.

Try to link the sessions with something else you do each day to make sure you don’t forget.

Regular sessions will bring rapid results. Training at weekends or every three or four days, not so much. Especially in the beginning

Training a dog to heel: the stages

The process of training a dog to heel goes through four key stages

  1. Establish heel position
  2. Walk at heel
  3. Add distractions

There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ heel position. I suggest you use the dog’s shoulder or collar as a guideline and aim to have that level with your knee.

His head will be just a little bit in front. This is a comfortable position for both of you.

Traditionally Labradors and other gun dogs were required to heel on the left hand side, this is simply to leave the hander’s right  hand and arm free for his gun. Left handed hunters heel their dogs on the right.

It doesn’t matter which side you choose unless you intend to shoot over your dog. Just pick a side and be consistent about it.

The heel command – choosing and using

Traditionally dog trainers gave a command right at the start of the training process. They then set off on a walk and punished or corrected the dog each time he moved out of the desired position.

At first the dog didn’t understand the command, but he eventually got the hang of it after a few corrections.

We don’t teach like this any more. In modern training the dog is shown how to carry out the desired actions before the command (now called a cue) is added. The new command then takes on the correct meaning right from the start. This helps to avoid unnecessary corrections

Stage 1:Establish the heel position

What we are going to do is get the dog into the heel position, let him know that this is the position we are looking for and reward him for being there.

We’ll start in a quiet room or yard with no distractions, no other dogs, no kids, no toys, just you and the dog. We won’t be telling the dog to ‘heel’  (he doesn’t know what that means yet). You don’t need a leash.

QUICK HEEL TIPS: If you position yourself so that your left hand side is next to a wall with just enough space between you and the wall to accommodate the dog, it will help to keep him close to you and in the right position

Have treat pot in a pocket or in a pouch clipped onto your belt. Hold a treat in each hand. With the dog in front of you (waiting for his treat) put the right hand treat in front of his nose (don’t let him have it) and lure him around behind you until he can see the treat in your left hand.

Tell the dog ‘yes’ as he moves into the heel position on your left and give him the treat from your left hand.

Do this only two or three times then repeat without a treat in your right hand. Show him the palm of your hand so he can see it is empty, then carry out the exact same movement you did when your hand had a lure in it. This hand – the one that held the lure, is now going to be a hand signal or heel cue.

If the dog refuses to follow the empty hand repeat one time with a food lure then try again without.

Over the next few repetitions, once your dog willingly follows your ‘fake’ lure, you can change your lure hand shape so that instead of holding a pretend lure, it becomes a simple pointing motion with one finger.

You point behind you and the dog goes around behind you and moves into the heel position.

QUICK HEEL TIPS: Lose the lure as quickly as you can to avoid getting stuck with it. Most dogs will follow the empty lure hand after only two or three times luring. Keep using the treats though! From the other hand

Once the dog recognises that when you point your finger behind you he should go into the heel position, you can add the verbal heel cue. Just say heel, then point. After two or three times, just say heel and don’t point unless he seems confused. He will soon be whisking around behind you on the cue ‘heel’

If you enjoy shaping, you can also establish the heel position with the clicker heel technique. With my version of clicker heel, you skip the stationery stage and start moving right away. You can find instructions in this article

If you are luring, once the dog will follow your hand signal into the heel position, you are ready to start moving. Let’s move on to part 2

Stage 2: Walking at heel

This is about teaching the dog to hold his new heel position, even when you are moving forwards.

It is important not to move too far to begin with. We’ll start with just one step.

Give your heel cue and instead of treating the dog with your left hand immediately, take a step forward and treat him as he moves to keep up with you. Once he moves with you, without any delay, progress to two steps

QUICK HEEL TIPS: Getting these first steps right is the key to successful heelwork.   Once you have your first two steps you can build on them, but for now, these two steps need your full attention!

Repeat, adding distance very gradually, just a couple of extra steps to begin with, then three or four. Treat the dog when you have complete the steps in and in the correct position. Take several sessions to get to ten steps and don’t try to add changes in direction at this point.

At this point you can add a collar and leash if you wish. It’s one more thing to think about but you’ll need it when you go out and about in public so you have to add it at some point.

Just walk a few paces with the dog at heel. Pop his collar and leash on, and walk a few more. No fuss, no change in how you behave other than that.

QUICK HEEL TIPS: If it doesn’t bother him, let the leash trail to begin with so you don’t have to worry about what your hands are doing.

Changes in direction

Once your dog can walk to heel in a straight line for ten paces, you can start to introduce some changes in direction. Take two steps then stop. Then rotate a quarter turn to your left or right.

Treat the dog for any attempt to rotate with you, (he’ll get better at this) then set off in the new direction. Once you can do this, you can make little squares with two or three steps each side.

What to do when you stop walking

Walking to heel isn’t just about movement of course, it’s about leash manners and about your dog being focused on you rather than doing his own thing.

Your dog shouldn’t leave the heel position just because you change direction or stop and talk to someone.

Holding the heel position when you are stationery is an important skill and one you need to practice. Many people teach their dog to sit each time they stop moving forwards, and this is fine.

If you practice walking ten paces and stopping, ask your dog for a sit, and then treat him in the sit position, you’ll soon be able to drop the sit cue and your dog will sit automatically each time you stop.

This is all very well in your kitchen or yard of course, but what about when you go into the real world? How do you make sure your dog will keep walking to heel, even when there are distractions about? Let’s find out in Stage 3

Stage 3: Adding distractions

Walking to heel in your yard or in a quiet field is a very different matter from walking to heel past the school gates, or where other dogs are playing

Your dog is not naughty if he can’t do this yet. He is normal.

The heel cue doesn’t mean ‘walk to heel anywhere’. At this point it means ‘walk to heel in the yard’. You have to teach him that it also means ‘walk to heel past those people playing frisbee’ and that takes time.

So be patient with him and with yourself.

How to add distractions successfully

There are lots of ways in which dogs learning to walk to heel can easily get distracted.

Changes in the surrounding environment need to be tacked first. Moving from hall to kitchen or vice versa, and from indoors to outdoors.

Be aware of how exciting doorways and gateways can be. Dogs need practice to be able walk to heel through a doorway, especially if they associate what’s on the other side with pleasure.

You are thinking “I’ll just open this door”. But your dog is thinking “OMG, OMG, we are going for a WALK!!!” And before you know it, you are being dragged down the path again.

Use high value rewards (roast chicken is good) and treat the dog generously every step or two to keep attention focused on you the first few times you heel him through your garden gate into the roadway outside.

In successful dog training we add distractions by diluting them or making them less strong to begin with. One way to do that is to put some distance between your dog and the distraction. Another is to try to control the intensity of the distraction.

For example, your dog may not be able to walk to heel while your kids kick a football about just yet, he might be able to walk to heel past a single child holding a football. If he can, treat him and practice this.

Then get the child to put the ball on the ground, then to roll the ball gently around with his foot, and so on.

QUICK HEEL TIPS: If you are not sure whether your dog will succeed, try to make the task a little easier. Training will go faster in the long run

Gradually increase the power and excitement level of distractions, rewarding your dog for success, and reducing the intensity if it is too much for him.

This is what ALL successful dog trainers do. They gradually increase the challenge to that the dog succeeds most or all of the time. Building success upon success.

When it comes to dogs that love other dogs, you will benefit from the help of a friend with a relatively calm dog. Teach your dog to walk to heel past her dog while it is sitting at her side. Then while she walks her dog up and down some distance away. Build up gradually to walking at heel right past the other dog

Remember that a new location is a distraction too, and if we are to add distractions such as people and dogs one at a time, the best chance of success is through introducing them at home in the familiar location where you have been training so far.

That way you won’t further complicate matters by introducing new locations alongside these other factors of difficulty

If you don’t have a friend to do this with you’ll need to find a good modern dog training class where you can work with other dogs under controlled conditions

Succeeding with distractions

Proofing your heelwork or teaching a dog to heel past distractions is achievable for everyone. And you’ll find it easier if your dog is clear as to what is expected of him and if you prevent him rehearsing mistakes.

It’s a great idea, once you have started this training, to avoid walking your dog on a leash in situations where you cannot control how far you walk or what kinds of distractions are likely to come along.

You don’t want to give him opportunity to release his old bad habits.

Pulling is a habit, and walking to heel its polar opposite. It can be pretty confusing for a dog is you allow him to do the pulling thing on some occasions and the expect the heel thing on others.

If you are trapped in a situation where you have to walk your dog through distractions before he is able to do so ‘at heel’ then use a harness that is specifically kept for those occasions. A ‘tracking’ harness for example.

Avoid using the collar and leash he wears in during heel work training, in situations where you know you won’t be able to train successfully

Teaching a dog to heel can be quite a challenge - The Labrador Site helps you succeedSummary

Training a dog to walk to heel is one of the most important tasks for any large dog owner. But it is not as hard as you think once you get started and have a plan to follow.

Remember that your dog will learn faster if he is clear what is expected of him and you use plenty of high value rewards to begin with.

Master each stage in training before moving on to the next and give yourself and your dog some great rewards for making progress!

Want To Know More About Caring For Your Labrador?

Then check out The Labrador Handbook.

The Labrador Handbook

A complete guide to caring for a healthy and happy dog.

You can order yours from Amazon here. 

 
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Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of several books on dogs. She is the founder of the Labrador Site and a regular contributor. She is passionate about helping people enjoy their Labradors and lives in Hampshire with her husband and four dogs.

26 COMMENTS

  1. It’s interesting how you point out that heel positions vary depending on the role of the dog. My husband and I just got a new dog, and we’re not sure how to train him effectively. I think it would be really helpful if we took him to be professionally trained, since we don’t know all the different types of heel positions.

  2. Is there anyway that I can print the tips to helping my dog to walk to heel; without printing all the adverts too please?

  3. Hi Pippa. Thanks for these articles, I will do my best to introduce your methods to my 5 month old pup Harvey. I confess that he’s not a Lab but a Whippet X (I think it was a kangaroo he was crossed with – very bouncy) but I do see the logic in your methods. Harvey is very clever but pulls like the devil and is surprisingly strong, he also takes a flying leap at people and other dogs and though it is out of friendliness and excitement it is obviously very dangerous. Harvey is on his 2nd harness as the 1st one he learned how to back out of but it hasn’t stopped him from pulling, it’s like flying a kite most of the time – what type of harness would you suggest is the best for him? his current one had the back fastening. Thanks again.

  4. Hi, my parents and i have a 2 year old GSD that was mostly with them because i was in uni almost all day. When he was a puppy i was teaching him his first commands, my parents would take him on walks and feed him as well. We all did something with him so he bonded with everyone. For a while he wanted to be around me most of the time, then my mom and then my father. Now that i finished uni i want to spend more time with him and train with him every day again, my parents are going on a trip and i will stay with him for a few months alone.he is bonding with me good, he is not really my shadow like he used to be, and i understand it, but he is around me when called and he is great on our walks. Heel is something i did with him when he was 4 months old, he knows it still of course but i have a feeling that it is not as fun for him. He licks his lips when i give him the command, and when he walks next to me he sometimes forgets himself and just walks past me, then i call him to heel and he licks his lips again. I do it all in a very calm way, but i he is so used to run around with my parents, and i feel like i’m a bad cop. what should i do get him comfortable when he has to work? He is a bit independent for a GSD, so do you think i can get him back in my pack without being the party poo*er?

  5. I first teach the dog to move backwards into heel position from a sit;

    Sit dog at heel, say “sit” and slowly step backwards about a foot.
    Say “heel” and guide the dog backwards into heel position using a heeling stick on the outside of the flank to prevent the turning. (dog must be used to being guided with a heeling stick).

    After they can do this, I’ll make my step backwards further … up to a couple feet. This procedure gets them backing up into position. Then you can start backing up on the move (from a forward heeling). Move slowly and smoothly and they’ll pick it up pretty quickly. I hear that dog training tips from justin boldoni on facebook work greats and I feel want to try it out.

  6. Thanks for the great article. I have two dogs. How do you suggest I train them to be walked at the same time and sometimes separately? One dog is much more in tune with my wishes, and easier to train to heel. My other boy is sweet, but full of energy and easily distracted.

    Danielle

  7. Hi, I have a 3 yeard old chocolate lab and she is just terrible on the lead, she pulls to the left and right and jumps up on her two hind legs when another dog is coming towards us and her front paws she puts together like she is praying and carries on to the other dog and master which is embarrassing so I am needing some explanation on why she behaves this way and advice as to whether it is too late to teach her the steps on how to teach her how to behave tips from your website? Thanks Elise.

  8. Hi pippa, these articles are really helpful. I’d like to read parts 3 and 4 of how to stop your lab pulling on the lead but can’t find the link to the articles. Are they still on your site? Could you direct me please? Thanks. Sarah

  9. Hi Pippa
    Just a quick question. I’ve read part one of walking your puppy at heel & was wondering if he should have a lead on when doing this?
    Thanks Pete

  10. Hi,
    We have a 14 week old black Labrador puppy. We just took her on the beach and let her off the lead.(this is only her 3rd walkie) I was delighted and amazed that she stayed close to us and did not immediately run off into the distance never to be seen again! I have read the puppy book twice and am constantly referring back to the brilliant advice. However I am unsure as to how soon I dare take her on the whole walk without a lead? What signs will give me the confidence to do this with her? The beach is one thing but busy main roads and promenades are another! Advice appreciated. Thank you

  11. I have an-almost-three year-old-dog. He is a chocolate lab and the size of an average medium sized dog. When i reward him for heeling, he acts silly and pulls on the lead, goes into the ditch next to the side walk and jumps around. Its difficult and i’ve tried to reward good behaviour and scolding bad behaviour. I live near a forest and he acts weird around it. What can i do about these problems?

  12. Hi, we have a 5 month old female pup who pulls like crazy. I have tried the stopping and changing direction methods using positive reinforcement and am now going to commit to this method but am I correct in understanding that she only goes on the lead to do the steps and her exercise is to be free play in our garden (there are no fenced play areas near us). Just concerned about socialization if she takes weeks to learn.
    Many thanks.

  13. Just wondering how to continue regular, necessary walks with my five month old puppy without reversing these trainings? I am fully committed to trying the steps laid out here but avoiding walking my pup until he has completed the first steps (which could take quite some time) seems like it would be a detriment to him and I both. Suggestions?

    • Try driving your dog to a fenced in play area in the meantime. That way he/she gets exercise, but you are not reversing your training.

  14. Thank’s alot for your answer:)
    I think I will teach my dog a ‘leave that’ command. It’s nice to have a ‘no’ command that works, but after focusing even more on success in the last training sessions I have noticed that my dog enjoys the training even more. It looks like he is getting more confident now that he is doing things right every time. One last question I hope you can answer. I got the four training guides from the gundog club(puppy guide, grade 1, 2 and 3) and am using them together with some training dvds. These guides helps me alot in the training of my spaniel, so I wonder if you are planing on making training guides for further training? If not, can you recommend any books that deals with further gundog training(spaniel)? Best regards Anders

  15. Hi Pippa!

    I got a question about the “no-reward” marker I hope you can answer. Do you teach your dogs that “no” means
    that they won’t get a reward? The reason why I’m asking is because I never have taught my dog
    the meaning of the word “no”. I try not to use it to often, but when I do, he knows that something is wrong.
    It’s all about the voice and attitude.
    When I use the no-command, I make sure he stops what he is doing. In that way
    he will learn that he can’t get away with what he is doing. Here in Norway, the most common way for gundog people to teach the dog “no” is to physically correct the
    dog when it does something wrong.
    I don’t mind correcting the dog verbally if needed, but I don’t feel comfortable with correcting a dog physically in the way
    so many traditional trainers do when there are better methods.

    I know many people teach their dog the meaning of “no” by throwing treats on the floor, and when the dog tries to get it, they give their “no” and removes the treat.
    When the dog obeys it receives a reward.
    This can be taught in many ways. What is important is to be consistent and always remove whatever the dog wants. In some cases you will have to remove the dog.
    For example if he wants to chew on the the kitchen table:)
    By learning the meaning of “no” this way, I guess the dog will stop what he is doing because he know that you can remove the stuff he want’s.
    For example when you train steadiness with a dummy and the dog wants to run after it. He also knows that he won’t get a reward, so when walking at heel, he will know that he is
    doing something wrong when you tell him no, and therefore he will get back in the right position if you tell him “no”
    as fast as he tries to walk in front of you. Am I right? Just trying to understand how things work:)

    In my case the dog will know that something is wrong when I tell him “no”, but he got no idea that it means he won’t get a reward.

    • Hi Anders, determining the difference between NO as a ‘no-reward’ marker and NO as an aversive is not straight-forward. It could be argued that a ‘no reward marker’ is always aversive. I use NO a lot less than I used to and in your examples (wanting to chase a dummy that he is not permitted to have, or chewing on a table leg) I might use a ‘leave that’ command. More often than not I try to manipulate training sessions so that I build up the number of times the dog gets it right in quick succession. Like you, most people nowadays don’t want to use physical punishment, so I think positive reinforcement is the way to go for the future. Pippa

  16. Hi, we have two 7 month old black labs and they are litter mates… and brothers….I know.. we have been told it is not the best choice to make! However, we’ve had large ‘pairs’ of dogs before and they are both very biddable, very sociable and seek our company and their recall is good both when walked separately as we do every day and also when walked together (only two or three short extra walks each week) But we are still struggling with getting one of them to heel consistently and not pull as soon as we leave the initial ‘sit’ to go walking! Buster is quite boisterous and still he is the most ‘connected’ of the two – but boy does he like to pull! Bentley is a model citizen at all times and heels with a mention of the word which makes it more frustrating that Buster doesn’t seem to have ‘got it’ as we used the same methods on them both! After about a 15 minute walk he does seem more relaxed and will settle eventually but it’s still intermittent. Any ideas on how we can make it a more pleasant experience for us all? I think I’ve worn out the word ‘heel’ so perhaps another might be better now?! Hope you can help – I’ve got one arm longer than the other at the moment!!

    • Hi Jo,

      Love your dogs’ names! Part Two is now out, I hope that helps. Don’t worry about the word ‘heel’ the first thing to do is get the behaviour established, you can give it a ‘name’ later. You have to do whatever it takes (and with Buster it may take some very tasty moist juicy meat) to get those first two steps. Then you can build on them. We look at that in Part Three.
      You may need to use a halti or something similar in between training sessions to make sure he does not regress.

      Pippa

  17. Hi
    My 10 mth old lab is fine in the garden doing this, but as soon as i put his lead on to take him for a walk, he just has to be that little bit in front of me. I dont leavre for the walk until he has settled down, but he seems to know when we get on the street, he can start pulling a little in front. Any tips for this please?
    kind regards
    julie

    • Hi Julie, parts two, three and four of the series will cover holding the heel position whilst you move forwards, building up distances, heelwork in new places, and adding other distractions. We’ll get them out as soon as we can.
      Pippa

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