Introduction: Teaching a Dog to Heel, Obedience Style and Casual Style

About: I've been training dogs since I was 8 years old. I love Border Collies, Dachshunds, and bully breeds. I train in agility, obedience, and rally-o

This project was an instructional video upon how to teach your dog to walk on a leash, both in a casual walk and in a professional obedience heel. I have a strong interest in this project because I myself train dogs and I know a lot about teaching dog owners how to teach proper behavior to their dogs and better the lives of their dogs, as well as their future dogs.

I encourage everyone to watch the video I have posted here, it will help with learning the correction positioning and too usage.

Step 1: What Are We Teaching and Why?

When we begin teaching our dogs anything we must first have a clear idea why we are teaching what we’re teaching. Be it a heel command, a trick, or how to attack someone, we must know why we want to teach what we’re about to teach.

There are many benefits to teaching a dog to heel. Such as safety, health, and overall happiness. Time and again I hear horrid tales of people breaking ankles, dislocating arms, and having arthritis in their hands and arms due to an unruly pooch tugging and lunging at the end of its leash. A dog who doesn’t know how too properly heel poses a huge safety concern to the handler and others who may pass by the pup while on a walk. How many time have you seen or had a dog pull so hard they begin to hack and cough? Many people have had this experience. There is a significant health risk to the dog’s windpipe and neck from hard pulling on a collar, knowing to not pull and to be calm and collected is much healthier for a dog too.

Step 2: Tools

I use a special tool while I work my dogs in obedience. It’s called a prong collar.

The prong collar works by evenly distributing pressure around the dog’s neck via prongs that protrude from the collar. Prong collars, despite their appearance are not medieval doggy torcher devices, though some trainers may have you believe that. Prong collars are safe and very effective when used properly. Remember, any tool, even a leash or flat collar can be harmful when used improperly.

When using the prong collar a good fit is important. Never slip the collar over the dog’s head. The prong links that make up the collar are made to unravel to be easily placed around the neck. By squeezing the separated end of the top of a link you can latch it into the end of another, or pull it off of the end of another to unlatch it. Prongs come in make sizes; the smaller the prong, the harsher the correction. I prefer a very small prong because I don’t usually give hard corrections, I prefer to simply use pressure holding on my dogs, so the smaller prongs work better for that. You’ll want to ensure that the prongs snug to the top of the neck, just behind the ears. Never allow your prong to be loose, this can pose dangers as well as inhibit effectiveness and training.

Treats are a very important tool, they are a great communicator between dog and hander and they help keep dogs interested in the lesson. Now of course you don’t want to use a bland uninteresting treat, nor do you want something too big. A good sized treat is usually something meaty, soft, and no bigger than a dime. That way the treat is interesting, yummy, and quick to consume. Avoid low quality treats as much as possible. There are many good freeze dried meats that make good treats, as well as dehydrated liver, those are easy to break apart and when done ahead of time they make quick training treats.

Another important tool we use is a leash. Almost everyone has one, but very few are conducive to training. Any type of retractable leash is shunned by almost all trainers. Retractable leashes offer little to no control over your dog and can be dangerous if wrapped around an appendage or grabbed can cause serious rope burn to both humans and dogs. A regular flat leash is the best leash to use. However I rarely need the average 6 feet that dog leashes often come in. I prefer a 3 foot or 4 foot leash, that way I’m not overwhelmed with all the extra leash I have.

The environment in which we train our dogs is important too. A hectic crazy environment is never good for a novice dog. It can fuel chaos and unruly behavior. The best environment I can recommend is their home environment. No new smells, no new dogs, and things they are very familiar with. However problems can arise if the dog is solely training within one environment and is never introduced to distractions and new environments. Over time the dog will only behaved the way he’s supposed to in the environment he was trained it. So a calm environment is great for the foundation of a behavior, but be quick to add distractions and different places.

Step 3: The Casual Heel

Finally we can begin discussing how to train a casual heel. Teaching a casual heel is all about patience, timing, and praise. Before we even begin walking we want to start shaping our dog’s attention and focus. The best way to do so is by teaching the dog its name. I know this sounds goofy at first but believe it or not many dogs do not know their name, despite what many owners think.

To teach our dog’s name have a treat in your hand and safe the dog’s name, when the dog looks at you, praise him and give him the treat. Repeat this about 20 times randomly throughout the day (when I have a new puppy I leave myself a bowl of treats throughout the house to remind myself to practice) and within a week your dog will know its name and recall to it.

As we train our dogs it’s important for the dog it know its name so we have a way of getting their attention. So as we start to teach the heel, prong collar on, leash short but not tight, when on a prong or any correction collar we do not want to have it on tight or it will cause harm and lose all effectiveness. While we walk we will want to allow the dog a certain area to be around us. I give my dogs about a foot of walking space between me and them. I walk at a slow pace and allow the dog to self-correct on the prong collar as it figures out and tests its allotted space. Many dogs who have never had such restrictions may pull hard, even against the prong. To correct that behavior I will stop, allow the dog a moment to settle, and if it doesn’t I will give a correction and walk backwards, if the correction works I will praise the dog, if it doesn’t I will use a harder correction until the dog breaks it’s pulling behavior and settles into his allotted walking space, once there I will reward and treat him.

Repeating those steps will help shape the dog’s behavior. After several days of doing this in his controlled environment and having positive results of the dog accepting his walking area and a decrease in pulling, try adding more distractions. Allow a familiar person to be in the room, or walk past the dog. This may prove to be a significant challenge. Attempt to correct any unwanted behavior and praise the dog when he stays focused and continues walking without too much excitement or interest in the person.

Step 4: Distractions and "Leave It"

Slowly add more distractions and begin to wean the dog off the need for a prong collar. Begin so only after accomplishing at least 3 major distractions, 2 of which must take place in an environment outside of the one the fundamental training took place in. Begin to wean off the prong collar by occasionally using the dog’s flat collar and switching back and forth between the two. Begin mainly using the prong and only slightly using the flat, and progressing to using both 50/50 interchangeably, and then onto mainly using the flat collar. If the dog has significant challenges in this change and the unwanted behavior begins to creep back immediately take a step back to when the unwanted behavior did not occur and reward heavily for the wanted behavior when displayed.

A good command to teach any dog but especially a distractible dog is the command of “leave it”. The “leave it” command is helpful in diverting your dog’s attention back to you. The way I teach “leave it” is to start by holding a treat in my open palm, just out of the dog’s ability to get it, but close enough for him to smell it. As he begins to persist in retrieving the treat I close my palm and lower it slight allowing the dog to lick and sniff my hand. After about 30 seconds most dogs will stop persisting and confusingly wait for a moment, this is when I open my hand and allow the dog to take the treat.

The dog slowly learns that by not persisting, but by waiting he can get what he wants. This teaches patience. Soon after a couple of repetitions or until the dog waits almost immediately for me to open my palm, I offer an open palm, out of the dog’s reach and give the same command as I had for the closed palm. It may take some time but once the dog settles he will receive the treat. As the dog’s patience grows I begin rewarding him with treats than the one I offer in my hand. This teaches that while there is something good tempting the dog, I, the handler, can offer something good too. We then begin shaping the behavior for the dog to leave a treat on the ground, and soon enough walk past it, receiving treats only from the handler as the dog ignores the distraction.

The paragraphs above give instruction upon how I have and would train my own dogs to walk calmly beside me. Not every tactic I use will work on every dog. It’s always a good idea to work with an experienced trainer and get personalized assistance for your own dog.

Step 5: The Professional Style Obedience Heel

The professional heel, obedience heel, competition heel, whatever you’d like to call it, is a stark comparison to a casual, walking heel. A competition heel is meant to display the utmost obedient dog possible, glued to your left leg, twisting and turning at every tilt of your shoulders, eyes locked on your face, and a poetic walk as fluid as a stream. When done correctly this exercise is a masterpiece, however it is tough to tackle and it takes a lifetime to perfect.

One cannot dream of accomplishing this command without first having a good foundation and start in obedience. The dog should be well trained in a casual heel, as well as very efficient with the “sit” command. I highly recommend finding a private, and very experienced handler for this command. I personally have my own mentor and I’m still learning and working on this with my own dog. The information I will give here is a basically outline of what to look for and how to teach it, but it will not be a helpful as having someone physically help and guide you.

Step 6: Positioning Is Key

The first important part of a heel is the dog’s position in accordance with you. You will want your dog on your left leg, their shoulder parallel with your leg. Many dogs don’t have very good body awareness of their rear-ends, this makes this task slightly challenging. For this command the dog will have to become very good at placing it’s feet and keep track of its body in accordance to yours. When we begin teaching the dog to stand next to us I usually start out by luring the dog with a treat between me and a wall with just enough room for the dog’s body. Once the dog is in the position I reward him. Slowly I begin giving that placement of the dog the command of “heel”. Heeling isn’t just an action but it’s rather a place the dog must be, whether the handler is walking or is still.

As the dog becomes more comfortable with being against the wall I start to ask the dog to walk forward with me while he’s against the wall. It’s not uncommon for dogs to get confused by this, just simply continue to praise him while he is in the correction position. Most the obedience heel can be simply summed up by praising while in the correct position. The dog’s position next to you is the main point of the command, everything else is taught to assist the dog and handler of staying in that position as much as possible.

Step 7: Watching the Handler

To help assist the dog in staying in his correction position we teach the dog is watch our faces, and upper body. The reason we do this is because as humans we lead with our shoulders, similar to how horses and dogs lead with their heads. Because we want the dog to be reading our body language we must teach him to hold his eye contact with our face/upper body. The easiest way I have found to teach this is by taking the treat and placing it between my teeth (not putting it in my mouth, just held between my teeth) once the dog looks up and makes eye contact I drop the treat from my mouth and allow the dog to catch it. For some dogs the art of catching takes a while, so be patient as they get their timing just right.

As the dog learns his position with your body, and learns to watch your movement you will soon find yourself with a dog who walks beautifully next to you. It’s good to note that while a dog may heel beautifully on leash, it is important to slowly transition them off leash. In an obedience competition, the dog will be expected to be off leash at some point, so it’s always good to be prepared.

Step 8: Ending Notes

Dog training is a constant endeavor between a handler and dog. There is no solid endpoint but step by step we slowly strive towards a dog we are more impressed with and one that both works and plays with us. Our dogs are similar to our children in that if given the chance succeed and given the right guidance they will do what they can to excel. Working and training your dog builds your relationship and is a key factor is having a healthy happy dog. I encourage any dog owner, problems or not, to train their dog. A trained dog is a superb companion and a champion of friends.