Dog Ownership 101 – The Heel Command

There is a wonderful dog at the ballroom dance studio I attend.  Actually there are three little ones there, but today I’m thinking of Macio. As he is part of the dance community, we all like to take turns feeding him treats, playing with him near the dance floor (no, he’s not supposed to go on that floor), or even occasionally walking him outside for a few minutes.

Last night, I saw a friend trying to walk him in high heels.  He was going one way, while she had a plan to go to her car for more sensible walking shoes.  It was a bit of a tug-o-war, that stressful game we all engage in from time to time, and often (as my character, Daisy, finds out) with the human end of the leash losing out.

I stepped in to help.  Sorry, but I am a bit of a busy body.  I held onto Macio while my friend found her shoes.  He sat. He stayed. She was impressed.  May I puff out my chest a bit here?

Macio the good dog.

Macio may not ballroom dance, but he’s a good dog.

I told my friend what dog books and trainers have told me.  When you want a dog to learn to heel nicely, gentle corrections are needed.  No, I don’t mean a swat or a yell, but the clear repetition of the command “heel” and walk in the opposite direction of where the dog wants to charge off to.

Admittedly, this learning to heel thing is a long-term commitment on your part.  Proph and I need to work on it constantly, and sometimes he still likes to take the lead.  But what better way to spend time with your dog than in positive training together?

Some people go into training like knights prepared for battle.  There are weapons and armor and a tough-guy attitude that frankly, to me, doesn’t work.  Have I lost my temper with Prophet? Yes. Is it appropriate? Absolutely not.

Sometimes, people begin training for heel with a choke chain or pinch collar.  One dog trainer had me use the pinch collar on Prophet and even put it on my arm to prove it doesn’t really do more than grab the dog’s attention.  But Petsmart doesn’t allow either tool, as these are items of negative reinforcement meant to overpower your pet, not grow together as a team.

My favorite dog trainer and friend, Sandy, reminded me that often that dogs don’t really internalize your commands until they are over a year and a half old.  As puppies, you need to remember they have to learn not only how to be a dog, but a second, human language in the time we expect our people babies to learn to walk and say less than 20 words.

So, how to teach your dog the heel command?  Here’s what worked for Prophet and me:

  • Invite your puppy to “training” – I used the word with a happy, excited tone.  Frisky can read your emotions a lot easier than your words. If you’re not in the mood to train with patience and play, DON’T try a session.
  • Keep the learning sessions short – a maximum of 5 minutes to begin. Use a timer if needed.
  • Use a regular 6-foot lead to start.  It’s a whole lot more challenging than those retractible things that let Beanie go off and explore Mount Everest while you chat with the neighbor next door, but this is Beanie’s time, not your neighbor’s.
  • Put Poopsie in a sit at your side.  Stand next to her, and praise her for being your friend.
  • I then like to use a small hand gesture that means “heel” to me, and now it means the same to Prophet.  As I use this gesture, I say “heel.”  You could just as easily say “follow,” “move along,” or “supercalifragilistic-expiallidocious,” but be consistent.  Use only that one word for having Sophie follow at your side.
  • Begin to walk.  It’s that easy.
  • When she trots off in front of you, turn direction and say “heel” again.  The more you turn in unexpected ways, the more attention your dog needs to pay to you.  Give that attention back, and you’ll both be happier.
  • Take longer and longer walks. Start in your driveway, then move down your street.  Eventually you’ll be able to walk around the block without Snickers charging after every squirrel and other dog in the area.

Now, I have to admit that I use a lot of treats to train with.  I’m not as good at free play (brought on by a release word, like “break”) as others, but whatever works for your dog and you is the best way to motivate Spot and add a little more joy to your own life.  It won’t be long before your neighbors are asking how you get your dog to heel so nicely instead of asking who’s walking who here.

I hope these tips help.  What’s your favorite dog training tip?