Heel work



Poor heelwork is one of the most common problems faced by dog owners.  Dogs pull because they have learnt that this gets them from A to B.  Also, owners have usually used a negative technique of jerking the lead when he pulls saying heel in a gruff voice to no good effect.  Consequently, the dog never experiences positive reward or praise for being in the correct place which is with his shoulders never further forward than your knee.  The leader of the dog pack is the one who decides whether the pack is moving forward (going to hunt) or remaining still.  You have to make sure your dog regards you as the leader and takes his lead from you not the other way around.  Always ask yourself the question.  Which one of us decided on that course of action?




Halties and Head Collars


For large strong dogs or infirm owners, halties or head collars give the best control.  Particularly when initially used in conjunction with a second lead attached to the dog's ordinary collar for additional security in the early stages.   The advantages are that by controlling the head the dog finds it impossible to pull as it is extremely difficult to walk with your head turner sideways.  Over time if the dog is frequently praised or rewarded for walking in the correct position the head collar or haltie can often be dispensed with.  However, some owners give up using it too quickly before the good habits are fully established.  The disadvantages of halties and head collars are that owners often need initial instruction from a trainer or behaviourist in both fitting them correctly and in training the dog to accept them.  Getting the correct size for your dog is also essential.  However, once these small difficulties are over come they are generally very successful.


Using an ordinary Lead.


The Walk, Stop and Sit Method


Before you even start to walk off with the dog you need to practice the instructions in one to two below.


1. You must learn to control the lead correctly.  The Dog should walk on one side of you only.  Normally this is the left.  (for dogs walking on the right hand side reverse the following instructions).  Put the wrist of your right hand through the handle of the lead and hold the lead immediately below the handle with the same hand.  With your left hand hold the lead about at a position which would be about one third to half way down the top half of your leg if the lead were hanging straight down.  i.e. 10 inches or so above your knee.


2. Before you move forward it is essential you know how to control the lead in order to ensure the dog SITS on command.  You can use a tit bit to do this initially.  However, when the dog is excited this may not be a sufficient inducement.  Therefore you have to be ready to gently but firmly enforce your command when needs be.  You do this in the following way (which needs practice several times so you can go into the routine quickly when needed before the dog can take advantage of any situation and catch you unawares).  Tell the dog to SIT and at the same time and without letting the lead slip through your right wrist pick up the lead just below the position of your left hand.   This does three things.  Firstly, it shortens the lead length so that you can pull upwards on the lead so the dogs head comes up and it is easier to sit his bottom down.  It also frees your left hand so that you can then press down on his bottom to ensure he sits should your tit bit or praise be insufficient inducement.  It is important that when you give the SIT command you are able to ensure the dog does it within 0.5 of a second of your verbal command.  Therefore go into the routine and say the sit once you know you are prepared and able to enforce it at the same time at you give the sit command.  What happens over time, is that the dog starts to read your body language and if he sees you moving your right hand over to shorten the lead he will sit straight away.


3. Once you have mastered the "managed sit routine" you are ready to walk forward.  Be prepared to only walk one or two paces because your dog will probably pull straight away.  Immediately, stop and put him into the sit position and praise/reward him within half a second of him sitting.  If he is a very excitable dog do not praise so much he gets over excited but ensure you make him aware that you are pleased with him.  You may have managed the sit with a tit bit but if not you must go immediately into the sit routine outlined at 2. Above.


4. Repeat step 3.  But try to stop before your dog pulls more than an inch or two ahead of you.  In other words predict that he will pull and stop and sit him before he has opportunity to pull.  You will need many repeats of this process (at least 20).  After a while you will see that he is able to walk just one or two paces without pulling as he is anticipating you will make him sit.  Take this opportunity to say a gentle "good boy" whilst he is in the correct heel position for those couple of correct paces then sit him immediately and praise again.  You will need to be very quick with your good boy to catch him in the act of heeling in the correct place.  Remember the correct position and the "good boy" have to be within 0.5 of a second of each other.


5. Keep repeating step 4 and eventually you will find you can walk for more paces before he pulls.  Remember you must make the decision to stop so that you can be in the position to reward him rather than jerk him.  If you have to jerk him or the lead is tight, you have walked too many paces before making him sit.  Fewer paces are better than more.  The ultimate reward for the dog is that he starts to walk on a slack (comfortable) lead.



It is always easier to keep the dog to heel when there is a hedge wall or other barrier on the side of the dog furthest from you.  Walk close to this “barrier” so the dog is sandwiched between you and it. This will help restrict the dog’s side ways movement away from you and to some extent the pulling forward.  Use these "natural barriers" whenever possible.



6. Once the dog starts to get the message where-ever possible carry out lots of sharp right hand and left hand turns and about turns where you turn round and go back the way you came.  This starts to get the dog to pay attention to you and therefore helps with heel work generally.




When you are in a hurry

It is obvious that if you are trying to carry out these exercised when you are in a hurry (when you need to get in a walk prior to rushing off to work, for example) you will not have the time or patience to carry out the procedure properly.  Therefore the dog will "win" again by dragging you to the walk area and so maintaining his opinion of himself as the leader not you.  Therefore, make sure you plan some time in the day where you can add another 20 minutes onto the walk so the outbound trip can be punctuated with lots of sits rather than a sustained walk forward.  


If some days you are in an unavoidable rush, compromise by making the dog do the procedure for 3 or 4 minutes then put him on a longer lead or flexi and manage the walk by saying OK or some other command which means OK you can pull ahead of me.  Then when you are ready, or able, get him to walk as in steps 1 to 4 above.  What this does is start to teach the dog the difference between you allowing him to pull ahead or you deciding he should walk more correctly at heel and sit when told.




1.  Once your dog is performing well on lead.  You can start surreptitiously dropping the lead whilst you are walking so that although the lead is still on the dog you are not holding it.  Let him do one or two paces and then you quickly gibe him the sit command and praise/reward.  Aim to give the sit command (and enforcement if necessary) before he goes wrong and praise e.g. catch him doing the right thing, rather than walk on too far (and letting him go wrong) before putting him in the sit.  Again this might only be a pace or two to start with.  Keep repeating until you can eventually walk quite a few paces.  Clicking fingers or tapping the leg can help keep him interested and encourage him to stay by your side.  



When you drop the handle of the lead if he is a medium sized dog let if fall over his back rather than trail on the ground, if you can, as this helps to prevent him thinking of picking it up in his mouth and rushing off.   If you have a dog that tries to pick it up as soon as you drop it put 2 or 3 leads together so they make a longer trail this generally stops the problem getting out of hand as you still have something to get hold off if it is picked up.


2. Finally, after he his reliable at step one.  Repeat in a semi-confined area like an alleyway or narrow path for a few paces off the lead.  Remember to put in plenty of sits and praise rather than go walking on too far.


3. Gradually introduce walking at heel off lead in more open areas.  Ensure you use a graduated progression from semi-closed to open areas over time.




Some owners find harnesses useful with some dogs.  They do not necessarily make it easier to control the dog (sometimes the reverse) but they spread the pulling strain over the dog’s chest and body rather than the neck and therefore the delicate vocal cords and breathing anatomy (larynx and pharynx)  in this area.  Therefore, providing the harness is well fitted (get advice on this) and does not rub than they are definitely preferable to a check chain, collar or other neck restraint method.  However, still try the techniques above using the harness and a lead to start to teach your dog good heel work rather than just dissipate the pressure.