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  • How to Teach Your Dog to Heel

    by David Comiskey

    Heeling can be one of the most wanted and at the same time elusive skills in many dogs. Just imagine how nice a walk would be if your dog could stay by your side and not be in front of you, behind you, 10ft to the side and in between your legs at the same time! The reason why teaching our dog to heel often fails is that we give him too many choices in the beginning. Keep reading on how to teach your dog to heel by breaking down the exercise in easy parts so your dog can understand perfectly what his job is. He’ll be staying by your side in no time.

    A beagle leashed. Keep reading about how to teach your dog to heel.

    Making it Easier

    If you think about it, staying by your side in a nice heeling position is only one of dozens of options that your dog has when it comes to walking. There are so many positions he could be in around you, in addition to all the distractions around him that he wants to interact with. His mind can be pretty much blown from all the different choices. 

    While it is a good idea to give dogs choices in training (because whenever they make a conscious decision to behave a certain way, they will learn much more effectively than if we simply “make” them do something), too many choices overwhelm them and and slow down their learning. 

    In the case of heeling we will limit the dog’s options by using a very simple trick: Standing next to a wall.

    Wall Walking

    Take your dog and a lot of treats and stand next to a wall, with the dog between you and the wall. Now feed your dog many treats in this position. We want to build up what’s called a “reinforcement history” – this is the memory a dog has of performing behaviors that pay off well. Take a little step forward and feed him more treats. Only walk forward if you are happy with your dog’s position, if he is lagging or rushing ahead, stop and just feed him treats for standing in the right spot.

    The wall serves two main purposes: on the one hand it prevents our dog from walking away to the side and keeps him close by. On the other hand it helps to align him perfectly with our body (in the correct heeling position the dog’s body is parallel to his handler, not at an angle). 

    You should practice this once or twice a day, with a lot of treats, for about 5 minutes. The good news is that already this little time spent training will make a real difference in how your dog thinks about staying by your side – if he gets handfuls of treats every time he stands close to you, he will soon seek out the position. 

    A golden retriever puppy walking along a wall. Using a wall is a great tool to teach your dog to heel.

    Fading the Wall

    Over time, start to move away from the wall. You want to do this very gradually, as the dog heavily relies on the wall at first to help him find the correct position. Do not try to go from walking next to the wall to standing in the middle of your living room – there is no way your dog can understand that he needs to do the same behavior. Instead, first step away 5 inches further from the wall, then 10 inches and so on.

    Going Places

    You can now start to transfer the heeling behavior to different places.

    Dogs are “situational learners”, that means that they strongly associate behaviors with specific situations in which they have been learned. Unless you show your dog in multiple settings that he can heel anywhere, he won’t understand. Aim to practice heeling in at least 5 different places every week.

    These places don’t need to be very far from each other: even two sides of the same big park are “different” to your dog, as there will be new scents, sights, sounds etc. 


    Is your dog having problems with the exercise? Here are the most common issues, and how to solve them:

    My dog takes a treat and then diverts his attention again.

    In this case, the rate of reinforcement is not high enough. Instead of giving him individual treats from your hand, take a wooden or plastic spoon and spread some peanut butter or spray cheese on it. Let your dog lick the spoon while he is in the correct position. The constant reinforcement will make it much more worthwhile for him to stay focused and in the right spot. Once you have built up the behavior of staying in heel position with the extra rewards, you can go back to using treats.

    My dog does great next to the wall and walks away as soon as I don’t have a wall.

    Your dog simply needs more mileage next to the wall. In any kind of training, the dog is always the one who dictates how fast we can progress. Especially if the dog has had a long history of pulling into all directions on leash, it will take him a while to unlearn the bad behavior and learn the new one. Don’t give up – every time your dog assumes the correct position, he is one step closer to heeling like a pro!

    My dog gets too distracted as soon as other dogs are around.

    Whether your dog diverts his attention because he is excited to play or he has some reactivity towards other dogs, it is important to not let him rehearse the behavior of disconnecting from you too much. If your dog is so distracted that he cannot stay in heel position and doesn’t want to take your treats, you need to bring distance between you and the dogs until your dog can focus again. It is a lot better to practice at 100ft distance with perfect attention from your dog than to practice at 30ft distance with your dog constantly crashing into the end of his leash.

    Now it’s time to put the theory into practice – Happy Training!

    Are you looking for a dog walker to help keep the training you and your dog have done consistent? Find and meet a professional Barkly walker in your area.

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