While you can initially train your dog to heel during your first training session, the behavior won't become permanent for a while and will require reinforcement training. Getting the process correct from the beginning will shorten the time it takes you to train your dog to heel on your command and make your time together less frustrating and more enjoyable.
What exactly does “heel” mean?
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The general definition of "heel" means that your dog will stand or walk even with you, close to your leg, explains dog trainer Kendell Abbot at pet training website SitStay. The dog walks when you walk and stops when you stop, regardless of whatever interesting thing the pet wants to explore.
This prevents dogs from lagging behind you where you can't see them, and keeps them from advancing too far out in front of you. If you've ever seen pet parents struggling to keep up with dogs that are pulling the human, you've seen a dog that hasn't learned to heel. Many advocates suggest you put the pet on your left side when walking as the preferred dog heel position.
If you are left-handed or want your dog inside you when walking on sidewalks (where you might encounter interesting baby strollers or other pets), place your dog on your right. When the time comes for you to get your pet out of the way of errant skateboarders or bike riders, your dog will have had practice and experience coming to heel on your right side.
Importance of heel training
If you don't train your dog to heel, you may allow her to perceive that she's more in charge than she should be, or that you are less capable of being in control than you should be. It can also create hazardous situations for you, the pet and other humans and animals, especially when you are in tight situations.
Dogs that don't heel might jump on passing humans, even in a friendly manner, or clash with other dogs you are passing. Your leash can get tangled if your pet becomes distracted and feels free to run wherever she likes.
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Start heel training with your dog on her leash. Avoid a retractable leash, which you might not be able to quickly control and which might even be illegal in some jurisdictions because of the lack of control it provides pet parents. Don't use a choke leash unless you've talked to your vet or pet trainer and learned how to use one. Use a leash and tension on the leash that allows you to gently tug your dog closer to you when you want.
Bring treats to reward the dog each time she successfully heels. You might also use a clicker to provide more positive reinforcement each time, and which will eventually replace treats as confirmation that the pet performed correctly. Practice in an area that's free from distractions such as other pets, people, cars, or a TV set.
Starting the training
Begin by walking with your pet to see where she's naturally inclined to go. Observe whether she's lagging behind or trying to run in front. Without saying anything, gently but firmly pull the dog closer to you each time she isn't on your side. Do this until you feel the pet is starting to get the message you want it even with you.
Once you reach this point, relax the tension on the leash, and as the dog starts to move backward or forward, gently pull it back to you using the command "heel." After a few times, the dog should start to associate the heel command with the desired behavior.
Each time the dog properly heels after hearing the word, reward her by petting, saying, "Good dog," and giving a treat. Click your clicker to associate heeling with clicking. Clickers also help you save your voice as your dog begins to recognize two clicks for "heel" or one click for "sit."
Begin walking again and hold the clicker and treats where you want the dog to be. If the dog is behind you, she will have to move up to get the treat. If the dog is in front of you, she will need to move back.
Use a calm voice that shows you are in control. Yelling at a dog shows anger and lack of control. Your dog will behave better if she feels she is getting a reward or love, rather than performing an action out of fear.
Don't be afraid to stop walking and have your dog sit if she is not performing correctly. Point to where you want her to sit and/or hold the treat there.
Finally, once your dog has the hang of heeling, vary your course, go to different yards, a dog park or streets, and zig-zag to make the dog put some effort into coming to heel, recommends the American Kennel Club.
If you're in a controlled area, like your yard, let the dog off the leash after your practice and play with her, such as throwing a tennis ball and having her bring it back. After a while of this, leash your dog again and start practicing heeling once more.
Each session your dog practices a new behavior after taking a break of hours or days, the behavior will be reinforced. If you continue the training each day, the dog will remember it better. If you practice it once a week, it will take longer for the behavior to stick.