How to Best Work Alongside Your Dog, Part 4: Establishing Leadership with “Heel”

Brought you to by Charley Perkins and Romi  

Using a martingale collar, Charley works on heeling Romi at his left hip. Note that the leash is loose, letting Romi know she’s doing well.
Photo by Liz Edmunds

In the last post, we discussed reading your dog’s behavior to help make life more productive for both of you. I know that Romi and I also seem to be a lot happier, and more productive, when we have gotten some fresh air and exercise outside. The challenge is that outdoor environments can be hard to control, and they are full of distractions. For that reason, when you go outside you want to have complete control over your dog. This can be accomplished by teaching “heel.” Heel is a great skill to practice, not only because will it keep your dog in sync with you mentally and physically, but also because it reinforces you as the leader, which can help with unrelated obedience issues. A dog that can heel is a dog that is under control, and it can accompany you almost anywhere. I like to establish heel on the leash first, as it is an easy transition to then teach your dog to heel off-leash.

I think we can all agree that there is a right and a wrong way for dogs to act while on a leash. The wrong way involves your dog tugging at your shoulder and dragging you around. That’s not for me; I much prefer to have Romi heel by my side on a loose leash, following my lead. You, not your dog, should dictate where you want to go and at what pace.

You can teach heel anywhere, but for simplicity let’s start inside the home, where your dog is contained, and feels safe and confident. You will need a leash and a collar to begin. Some folks like to use a slip lead, which tightens around your dog’s neck only when there is tension on the leash, and loosens immediately when the tension goes away. You might also use a martingale collar connected to a normal leash or lead, which works pretty much the same way. Regardless of which you choose, the tightening action on the neck will get your dog’s attention, acting as a reminder that there is a certain behavior that is desirable. Once you have your dog’s attention, they can begin to learn what the desired behavior looks and feels like. 

Once you have established the heel command, you can work on the skill in many different kinds of environments.

To teach heel, put your dog on the lead, and guide them to the side you want them walking on. (Pick one side and stick with it.) Most people heel their dog on their left, as it’s traditional and safer if you are ever walking on the road. With your dog close against your left knee, start walking in one direction with purpose. Your dog will probably lag behind, pull ahead, or stray to one side. As soon as one of those things happens, give the dog a cue with a quick pop on the lead, and at the same time change direction at least 90 degrees and keep walking. Make sure to reward your dog, either with praise or a treat, as soon as they join you at your left knee again.  

Pro tip: If you want to speed up the learning process for your dog you can use the added aid of a martingale collar.  With the martingale collar, the dog basically teaches itself: All you do is pop the lead, and your dog feels the cue as the collar tightens. As soon as they decide to start coming to heel, the collar automatically loosens. The loosening of the collar is both the reward and the reinforcement. 

When they are enjoying activities outdoors, Charley knows that Romi will be safely at his side.

When your dog joins up at your left knee again, you can praise them and offer a treat to further reinforce that behavior. Practice this by taking little walks around your kitchen or living room, changing direction as often as you like. Remember, always give the cue and an immediate release of tension; your dog should never be on a consistently tight lead.

At first, this will be a new sensation for your dog. Don’t worry; as long as you calmly and consistently cue your dog back into place, and steadily reward and praise the desired behavior, your dog will quickly learn what is being asked. Always counteract a pulling dog by a change in direction, and never let your dog get away with lagging behind. You are the leader, and heel is a great way to reinforce that leadership role.

After you have done a few of these sessions, your dog will understand that they must pay attention because you are constantly changing direction. Now you can label the behavior. When you start moving, say “heel,” and take a few steps. Change direction, say “heel” at the same time that you cue, and walk a few steps. Stop regularly, and give the command “heel” each time you re-start. Remember that when your dog displays the desired behavior, you want to reward them quickly.  When you are done, take the leash or collar off your dog and give them the release or “go play” command so they know the lesson is over.

Charley and Romi practicing in the yard. Important safety tip: never leave a slip lead or collar on your dog after the training session is complete.

Now take the heel outside. Once you get outside, there will be a whole world of more distractions, which is great. Be consistent with your practice; keep changing direction, keep changing pace, and your dog will get the picture. Try fitting through narrow spaces, or walking through some playground equipment. Make it fun, and keep your dog excited!

You will want to refine heel as much as possible to meet your needs. Romi always used to inch out ahead of me when we would go on walks or hunts, and it drove me absolutely bonkers. It really bummed me out because when I would turn left, I’d end up  stepping on her. Whenever this happened, she would get confused and sad because I stepped on her, and I would be disappointed in her because I thought she knew better or could read my mind. I started to pay attention to her body language when she would inch out in front of me, and I learned to recognize that she was just happy and confident, and wanted to get to where she assumed we were going. I wanted to teach her that we would only move forward (what she wanted), when she was behind my hip (what I wanted). To teach her, I’d stop and only go forward when she heeled correctly.  She has learned this and now snaps backward into place if I ever stop short. 

Another great technique to teach heel indoors or in a city is to practice on stairs. The step up in elevation makes it clear that your dog cannot step until you step. See video. Stairs are a great way to get exercise, add challenge to the heeling drill, and keep your dog engaged. You should  aim for perfection: your dog should move at your exact pace, stopping when you do, whether going up or down the stairs. 

Usually, dogs learn to heel pretty quickly, and you will get to the point where you will want to see if they can heel without the leash. This can be an easy transition, but take your time. It is safest to start off-leash heeling inside, where the environment is controlled and there are fewer distractions. As soon as you drop the leash, you are entirely responsible for both your dog and whatever they encounter. You want to be certain that you can call your dog away from danger or from a person or animal that does not want your dog nearby. That is where the “recall” command or “here” comes in. And that, my friends, will be the subject of next week’s post.

I hope that you will have some fun with heel. It is really a simple way for you and your dog to get some physical and psychological exercise. Grab a leash and a collar, get ready to change direction often, and turn your world into an obstacle course. Pretty soon, you will be able to go anywhere with your dog right by your side.

Click here for previous posts in this series:

1. New Series: How to Best Work Alongside Your Dog
2. How to Create Productive Spaces for You and Your Dog, Part 1: Crate Training
3. How to Create Productive Spaces for You and Your Dog, Part 2: Place Training
4. How to Best Work Alongside Your Dog, Part 3: Behavior and Psychology

Products to Help Create Productive Spaces

Dog Beds

Martingale Collar

Slip Lead

Throws and Dog Blankets

Indoor Gates and Fences

Dog Treats

(Romi and I like smaller sized training treats so you can train with more reps without over feeding.)

Moment of Chill videos, for when you need a break from training

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