Walking with your dog at a heel is more formal than walking your dog on a loose leash. Training a dog to heel involves training it to stay close to your left side while walking, whether on or off leash. It's more advanced than a loose leash walk, but not too hard to teach with persistence.
What You'll Need
You can train a dog to heel with or without a leash. Just make sure that if you're working with it off-leash, that you're in a safe area for your dog, such as a fenced-in yard. You'll also need to have some treats on hand–I use small pieces of the dog's favorite treats. For more stubborn dogs or small dogs that make it difficult to bend down and give treats while in the heel position, use a wooden spoon coated with peanut butter, cream cheese, or wet dog food.
Treat Continuously at First
Start off with your dog sitting on your left side. Hold a handful of treats or the wooden spoon close to your dog's nose, and tell it to heel. Begin to walk. For the first few tries, just take a few steps and give your dog treats continuously.
Be sure to stay in an area with little distraction, for your first attempts, such as your backyard. If you go somewhere there are too many other interesting things going on, the treats may not be enough to hold your dog's attention.
Treat Less Often
Once you're able to walk with your dog at a heel for several yards, it's time to start cutting down on the number of treats you give. Start off with your dog sitting at your left side, and give it the command "Heel." Give it a treat and then take a step before giving it another. Be sure to give it a treat before its interests wander. Again, keep the distance you walk with it at a heel fairly short, and gradually work up to walking a yard or two between treats.
Once you're able to walk several yards with your dog in a heel with only a few treats, it's time to start adding more distance to your walk. You can give your dog treats, but begin to slowly fade them out. If your dog is continually breaking out of a heel at any point, you may be moving ahead too quickly for it. Go back and repeat the distance and number of treats where you were last successful in keeping it at a heel.
Once you're able to walk a fairly long distance with fewer treats with your dog at a heel, it's time to add some distraction. You can work at a park or take walks through your neighborhood. When you first begin this, you may need to go back to treating your dog continuously and only taking short walks until it understands what's expected. Again, slowly work up to longer distances and fewer treats.
Fade Out the Treats
After practicing walking with your dog at a heel for long distances, you should be able to stop using treats altogether. Slowly add more and more distance to the walk with fewer treats given. Your dog should soon be able to heel without getting any treats or only very occasional treats.
It's not uncommon for dogs to break out of the heel, especially early on in learning this command. There are a few things you can do to fix this problem:
- Go back a step or two. One of the main reasons dogs seem to forget their training is because we move to the next step of the process before they're ready. If your dog makes several mistakes in a row, simply go back to giving it more treats and walking a shorter distance. Take your time, then slowly build back up to having it walk at a heel for longer distances.
- Keep a close eye on your dog's body language. You can often learn to anticipate when your dog is about to break away from the heel position. Its muscles bunch or it fixates on something besides the treats. If you think your dog is about to break out of the heel, give the "Heel" command again, then pivot to the left and walk in the opposite direction. Your dog will quickly learn that it's important to pay attention to you.
Edited by Jenna Stregowski, RVT