How to Train Your Dog to Heel

Woman playing with her dog outdoor
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Walking with your dog at a "heel" is more formal than walking your dog on a loose leash. Teaching a dog to heel involves training it to stay close by your side while walking and it is a great way to instill self-control in your dog whether it's on or off leash. Any dog—even the most energetic pups—can learn to heel and teaching this command is not too hard as long as you're persistent and consistent.

Prepare for Training

You will need to have plenty of treats on hand. For training (especially when introducing a new or difficult command), choose treats that your dog absolutely can't resist. Small pieces are best because you will be giving your dog lots of treats at first to reward good behavior and you don't want to spoil your dog's diet. For stubborn dogs or small dogs that make it difficult to bend down and offer treats while in the heel position, use a long-handled spoon coated with peanut butter, cream cheese, or wet dog food.

You can train a dog to heel with or without a leash. If you're working with your dog off-leash, make sure that you're in a safe area, such as a fenced-in yard.

For your first attempts, be sure to stay in an area with little distraction, such as your backyard. If you go somewhere that has too many other interesting things going on, treats may not be enough to hold your dog's attention.

Sit, Heel, and Treat Continuously

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, take just a few steps and give your dog treats continuously.

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 it. Again, begin with your dog sitting at your left side, and give the command "heel." Give the dog a treat and then take a step before giving it another. Be sure to give your dog a treat before its interests wander. Keep the distance you walk with your dog at a heel fairly short, and gradually work up to walking a yard or two between treats.

Add Distance

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 phase them out.

If your dog is continually breaking out of a heel at any point, you may be moving ahead too quickly. Go back and repeat the distance and number of treats where you were last successful in keeping your dog at a heel.

Add Distraction

Once you're able to walk a fairly long distance with fewer treats, it's time to add some distraction. You can work on this training at a park or take walks through your neighborhood on a leash. When you first begin this, you may need to go back to treating your dog continuously and keep the walks short 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 (or very occasional) treats.

Problems and Proofing Behavior

It's not uncommon for dogs to break out of the heel when learning this command, especially early on. Your patience and consistency are key to working through some of the challenges you'll face. Keep with it and your dog will eventually learn what you want it to do.

If needed, go back a step or two at any stage in the training. One of the common mistakes owners make is moving onto the next step before the dog is ready, so it seems like it forgot the previous lessons. 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. If you notice your dog's muscles bunch or that it begins to fixate on something besides the treats, 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.