The heel command is a frequently misunderstood but incredibly helpful skill for any dog and handler team to have. Taking the time to teach your pup proper heeling technique will not only make walks a breeze — it will strengthen your bond and solidify your dog-handler relationship.
Table of Contents
- What Does “Heel” Mean in Dog Training?
- Loose Leash Walking vs. Heeling: What’s the Difference?
- Leash Manners and Safety: Why It’s Important to Teach the Heel Command
- How to Teach Your Dog to Heel When Walking
- How to Teach a Puppy to Heel on a Leash (Is it Harder Than for an Adult Dog?)
- Advanced Training: How to Teach Your Dog to Heel Off-Leash
- Common Challenges of Teaching the Heel Command
- Tools of the Trade: Helpful Products for Teaching Dogs to Heel
- Competition Heeling: How is it Different and How Do I Train for It?
What Does “Heel” Mean in Dog Training?
The dog heel position is described as the dog walking on the left side of his handler with his head or shoulders parallel to the hander’s legs. In this position the dog is directly next to his handler—not in front of nor behind him.
The heel command is especially important in a variety of dog sports and competitions, such as Schutzhund Training. Schutzhund is German for “protection dog,” and the heel command in German is fuss (pronounced foos).
Loose Leash Walking vs. Heeling: What’s the Difference?
The main difference between loose leash walking and heeling is that while heeling is a command, loose leash walking is a trained behavior.
The heel command specifically directs a dog to enter and stay in the heel position while walking.
Loose leash walking, on the other hand, is the default behavior of a dog not pulling while on a leash. The dog can stand on either side and walk in front of or behind his handler.
Leash Manners and Safety: Why It’s Important to Teach the Heel Command
While loose leash walking is an important skill for any dog to know, heeling is equally important.
Loose leash walking allows a dog to explore and interact with its environment. Inevitably, however, your dog will come across something in his environment that you need him to get away from immediately.
Whether that be a sharp object on the sidewalk, trash or food on the ground, or another incoming dog, having the heel command in your repertoire is essential.
Being able to call your dog back to your side in a snap and focus on you is an invaluable tool.
A dog who is focused on getting into and staying in position is less likely to react to his environment or ingest something toxic. Heeling can also be used to call the dog directly to your side to avoid dangerous things like broken glass or moving vehicles.
The heel command is a fantastically versatile tool. Heeling requires your dog to multitask mentally and physically. In order to stay in the heel the position the dog must focus on you, what his body is doing, where he’s standing, and more.
The mixture of mental and physical energy being expended gives the dog a well-rounded workout, which can reduce stress for the both of you.
How to Teach Your Dog to Heel When Walking
Teaching your pooch to heel is a multi-step process that may change depending on the type of dog you have. The basic tools you’ll need are a leash, some regular treats, some higher-value treats, a clicker if you use one, and plenty of patience!
As you would with any other command, you want to start teaching your dog to heel in a safe, low-distraction environment like a fenced backyard or large room indoors. This will make it easier for your dog to focus on you and prevent any incidents with strangers, other dogs, and other distractions or hazards.
Step One: Teaching the Heel Position
To teach a heel in motion, you first have to teach a stationary heel.
The heel position puts the dog directly next to you, with his head or shoulders lined up with your legs. To teach your dog that this is where you want him to be, you’ll start by luring him into place.
Many handlers new to the heel command wonder which side their dog should heel on? If you plan on competing in confirmation or sports with your dog, the dog should be trained to heel on the left side.
Otherwise, pet dog owners should choose the side that makes them feel the most confident and secure when handling their dog.
With treats and clicker in hand, call your dog to you and reward him. Then, use a treat to lure your dog over to the side you’ve chosen for heeling and guide him into the sit position. Click and reward your dog as soon as his behind touches the ground.
Once your dog has eaten his tasty reward, give him a release command and start over.
Step Two: Taking Steps Forward
Once your dog knows the position, you want to put him in motion. Put your dog on a leash, get him into the heel position, and mark and reward him.
Put a treat directly in front of your dog’s nose and take one step forward with your heeling-side foot. Use the treat to guide your dog forward with you, and then into a sit — mark and reward him once his behind touches the ground again.
Once your dog is confidently heeling for one step, move on to two steps, then three, and so on.
Step Three: Removing the Lure
Now that your dog is confidently heeling in motion, it’s time to remove the lure. The way you guide your dog into the heel command will not change aside from the absence of food.
Since your dog is used to the reward being in your hand, he will still follow your hand without the food being present. Now, once your dog is guided into the heel position and sitting, you’ll mark and reward. Same goes for taking a step forward—guide, mark, and then reward.
Step Four: Generalizing
Since dogs don’t generalize their commands, you’ll likely have to re-teach your dog to heel in a variety of environments.
Heeling in the backyard, to a dog, is completely different from heeling on a walk.
Practice guiding your dog into the heeling position and taking steps while out on walks, while at the park, and anywhere else you take your pup.
There are far more distractions out in the world than in the backyard, so make sure you’re using high-value training treats like hot dogs, lunch meat, cheese, or anything else your dog goes crazy for. You want to teach him that focusing on you and heeling are more rewarding than getting distracted.
How Long Will Teaching the Heel Command Take?
Every dog is different, and the timeline for training the heel command can vary.
Breeds like retrievers (Labs, goldens) and herding dogs (German shepherds, Belgian Malinois) may pick up on the command more quickly due to their eager-to-learn temperaments.
Breeds like hounds (beagles, bassets), northern breeds (huskies, Samoyeds) and gun dogs (pointers, Spaniels, and setters) may struggle due to their prey drive, distractibility, and independent natures.
No matter what, owners should expect the heel command to take at least a month to successfully train with consistency. Some dogs, however, could take far longer. Persevere—it’s worth it!
How to Teach a Puppy to Heel on a Leash (Is it Harder Than for an Adult Dog?)
Teaching a puppy to heal isn’t much different from teaching an adult dog to heel, with a few caveats.
For one, it’s more beneficial to start by teaching a puppy loose leash walking.
Teaching him that not pulling on leash is a desirable behavior is crucial to the success of a variety of other commands and types of training. Once loose leash walking has been taught, heeling becomes far easier.
Puppies also cannot train for long periods of time — a three month old puppy will be absolutely exhausted by the end of a three to five minute training session. Don’t push it!
Burning out a puppy can lead to frustration and disobedience, so it’s better to keep things short and sweet. If you want to practice heeling while on a walk, only do so for maybe a minute of the walk, and then allow the puppy to explore and play for the rest of the walk.
Advanced Training: How to Teach Your Dog to Heel Off-Leash
Heeling off leash is an impressive feat that feels incredible to show off, but involves a lot of training and patience. Without a leash physically tethering your dog to you, it’s solely the dog’s focus on you that’s keeping him there.
Use extremely high-value treats or rewards for this training — if your dog isn’t super food motivated, try a ball or toy reward. Follow the steps to regular heeling without a leash on your dog.
Off-leash training should only be done in safe, enclosed spaces. If your dog were to get distracted and break his heel in an unenclosed space he could get lost, injured, or killed. Off-leash training can take months to master — don’t rush the process. Slow and steady does win the race with this one.
Common Challenges of Teaching the Heel Command
Heeling can be a difficult command for new owners and distractible dogs, but don’t lose faith!
Here are some common reasons your dog might be struggling to heel and a few troubleshooting ideas:
1. You Moved Too Much, Too Fast
We think highly of our dogs and often expect them to learn more quickly and permanently than they do.
Keep in mind that dogs don’t generalize — performing a command is more difficult in new places around new people. If you notice your dog getting frustrated or struggling to stay in the heel position, slow things down and reward him more frequently.
2. The Environment is Too Distracting
If you go from practicing in your quiet backyard to practicing in a busy park with lots of other people, dogs, and distractions, your dog is likely to become overwhelmed.
Pay attention to your dog’s body language. If it’s loose and wiggly when practicing at home, but stiff and high-energy elsewhere, the setting is likely too distracting. Scale it back and try a quieter space with higher value treats.
3. The Training Session Went on Too Long
It’s important to remember that dogs can get burnt out. Training takes a lot of mental and physical energy, especially for a puppy. If you notice your dog becoming restless, whining, barking, or simply not listening anymore, you may have trained for too long.
Young dogs don’t need to train for more than five to ten minutes consecutively. Adult and mature dogs may be able to train for longer periods of time, but it should be worked up to — you wouldn’t go from lifting 10lb weights to 100lb weights in one week!
How to Teach a Stubborn Dog to Heel
The first step to teaching a stubborn dog to heel is to take a step back and objectively look at what might be causing the roadblock.
Oftentimes, we attribute human traits to dogs because we humanize them in our lives, but more often than not, dogs are not simply headstrong — there’s almost always a reason behind the behavior.
Dogs who pull ahead of their owners do so for a number of reasons. Stay calm in the moment and take a look at your dog and your surroundings.
- Are there other dogs or people around?
- What about small children?
- Are there squirrels, birds, rabbits or other small prey animals?
If there are no distractions visible to you, think on your dog’s level. Is the dog pulling off to the side to sniff at something? Has the dog been pulling the entire walk, or did he suddenly lunge forward? Have there been passing bikes or vehicles?
Putting yourself in your dog’s position will help you troubleshoot how to help them. Once you find the source of the “stubborn” behavior, you can start to solve the problem.
The world is a gigantic exploration playground to dogs, and it’s easy for them to get distracted. Try offering higher value treats, using a front-clip harness, and training in a quieter area.
Tools of the Trade: Helpful Products for Teaching Dogs to Heel
How to Use a Heel Stick
A heel stick is a thin, long, lightweight rod frequently used for hunting dogs. The stick guides and keeps dogs in a heel position. The heel stick provides a physical boundary reminder for dogs that struggle with their spatial awareness.
It’s most commonly large, lanky dogs who struggle with this, but many dogs are not fully aware of their body unless trained.
You can find a relatively inexpensive heel stick on Amazon, or simply purchase a lightweight dowel from your local hardware store and decorate to your heart’s desire.
How to Use a Clicker for Teaching Heel
The clicker is a neat little tool used to mark a dog’s behavior. The “click” sound is charged for the dog, meaning you teach the dog that a click equals desirable behavior, after which a reward comes.
Clicker training is a positive, highly effective method, but timing is important so plenty of practice is needed for the handler.
You should be able to find a clicker at any pet store, or you can order one on Amazon for a few bucks.
How to Use Treats When Teaching Heel
Dogs are notorious food fanatics and using food rewards is the most common training tactic people use. There are some minor mistakes that can occur when using food in training, though.
The most common issue is always having a treat in your hand—many owners think they must deliver a treat immediately for a dog to understand that their behavior was desired.
However, using a marker — like “yes!” or the click from your clicker — tells the dog what you’re rewarding them for. For this reason, you don’t need to have food in your hand.
In fact, if you constantly have food in your hand, your dog is less likely to listen when you don’t have a visible treat.
Treats should be small because you’ll be feeding your dog frequently. You can buy bite-sized treats like Zuke’s Mini Natural Training Treats, or you can chop up cheese, hot dogs, and lunch meats for a less expensive option.
Aversive Tools: Why They Aren’t Worth The Trouble
Aversive tools are tools that modify a dog’s behavior by using discomfort or pain rather than modifying the behavior using positive reinforcement. These are tools like shock collars, e-collars, prong collars, choke chains, and more.
Aversive training tools may have the desired effect, but they can also come with negative side effects. Especially when used with sensitive dogs, aversive tools can cause a dog emotional or physical distress.
Some dogs may shut down and refuse to listen, or they may start displaying fear behaviors when the aversive tools are used.
Though many dogs can be successfully trained with aversive tools, more often than not it’s equally (if not more) effective to use positive reinforcement.
Positive reinforcement training builds a bond between handler and dog, increases your dog’s trust in you, and makes training more fun.
Competition Heeling: How is it Different and How Do I Train for It?
Competition heeling is an incredible act to watch. It requires the dog to be in a perfect heel, with undivided focus on his handler and maintained eye contact. Competition heeling also requires the handler to train their dog to have hind-end awareness.
Competition heeling forces dogs to focus on their speed, position, and arousal level. It’s show-stopping for sure!
Teaching your dog to heel can certainly be challenging, but if you take your time and progress slowly, most dogs can learn to pick up the command.
Have you tried teaching your dog how to heel? We’d love to hear about your experiences — good and bad. Share your stories in the comments below!