What You Need to Know about the Heel Command Before You Start Training Your Dog

What You Need to Know about the Heel Command Before You Start Training Your Dog

Did you know that most owners seek help from trainers because their dog’s behavior is out of control in one way or another? Owner’s number one complaint is that their dog pulls on the leash. To get the help you need, without causing additional problems, you need to be aware that two approaches are used to teach a heel. You can train positively, or you can train negatively. It is essential to understand that they have scientifically discredited and outdated negative methods as abusive.

Negative Training:

Yes, eventually, some dogs will learn to remain in the heel position to avoid corrections. Another percentage will learn to aggressively react when their owners correct them or become leash aggressive toward other animals and people. If your dog reacts aggressively, who do you think it is more likely to bite – someone who is kind to it or someone who is cruel? If your dog does try to bite you, a negative trainer will suggest the use of even more abusive measures to teach your dog who is “alpha.” Studies show punishment can cause dogs to develop other behavior problems, including but not limited to aggression. Another percentage of dogs will into a behavioral meltdown meaning they refuse to do anything (picture your dog glued to a spot on the floor, trembling and unresponsive) in absolute terror of breaking some incomprehensible rule it does not understand.

Negative trainers encourage owners to use punitive methods and abusive equipment in training. What happens if either is “not enough?” Negative trainers have nothing left to fall back on, except to administer ever more abusive corrections including manhandling your dog. “More” includes but is not limited to choke, pinch and shock collars, ear pinches, toe pinches, and numerous other painful practices. It also includes “helicoptering” (using centrifugal force to cause a dog to go airborne circling around your body at the end of its leash.) Shock collars always have higher settings so if the first setting doesn’t work; it can always be turned up! All of these practices, including flat or belt style collars, can damage a dog’s neck veins, arteries, nerves or break various small neck bones. Further, it can cause hypothyroidism, ear and eye problems, excessive paw licking, front leg lameness, and other neck injuries such as tracheal collapse or whiplash.

If a trainer is willing for whatever reason (lack of knowledge, lack of concern) to abuse dogs under his tutelage, how is he going to treat you? He is not going to hesitate to call you out if you fail to follow orders or if you allow your dog fails to perform correctly. A negative trainer will continue to set you and your dog up to fail, that way he can correct you, and you can correct your dog.

Negative training takes time. During that time, problems may arise, possibly nothing as grave as described above, but the bond between you and your dog will suffer or be completely broken. Using punishments and corrections will reduce the trust your dog has in you; so, even if your dog does not develop any of undesirable behaviors or physical problems, your dog will never completely trust you again. That broken trust will make any future training you want to do more difficult. To cite an example, years ago a man was training his dog. He used a shock collar. The dog connected the punishment with its owner. When the dog broke free from its owner, and it occasionally did, it would run around wildly giving a wide berth to its owner. It would not come to the person who had been or was shocking it – it knew better. Eventually, if he acted like he was going to leave, it would come back, crawling to him and role over, submitting to the punishment it was about to receive. It was sad to watch. Obviously, I am not a devotee of correction/punishment based training.

Why would anyone pull or drag a dog into position when one does not have to? Why set a dog up for failure when one can set it up to succeed and reward it for its success? The reason has to do with some of the darkest aspects of human nature, for example, the need for control or to dominate others. Anger when one is unable to control an outcome. The need to punish someone, in this case, one’s dog, if it fails to respond appropriately and does not respond to one’s unrealistic expectations.

Positive Training:

If you train positively, you control the setup and the sessions, meaning you largely control the results. Your sessions are easy, exciting, fun and productive. Positive Training incorporates everything you like doing with your dog and that your dog loves doing with you and tops it off by adding rewards, usually treats early on in training. You teach your dog to move into the correct position relative to you using treats and, when it gets in the right position, you reward it. You are not limited to one way to get your dog into a heel position; there are lots of ways. You are happy, your dog is happy. Life is good.

This post is not a “do-it-yourself” guide; you will still need the guidance of a good positive trainer; however, understanding the basics, and knowing why you will be doing things in a certain way will make the training easier and more effective.

This description will help you visualize what “heeling” is. Heeling, once you cue it, means your dog should stop what it is doing, turn in your direction, move in your direction, and then take specific steps so that it ends up, close to but not touching, your left leg facing in the same direction as you are. Your dog should sit in that position until you release it or decide to move. If you move, your dog should move with you, staying in position, whether you move quickly, slowly or erratically step back or to either side. When you stop, your dog should stop and sit in the heel position beside you. It will take some time before your dog can heel this fluidly. Heeling is a chained behavior, not a single behavior, like down or sit. It involves a series of moves that your dog must learn one step at a time. Only then can you pull together the various steps in the final behavior we call “heeling.”

With positive training, should your dog “fail,” you address it by taking a few minutes to reflect on what caused the dog to fail. It could be that you need to go back and retrain one or more steps, making sure you sufficiently address the three Ds (distractions, distance, and duration) of training this time. You definitely need to rethink how you set up the exercises so, next time, failure is not an option. You just fix what caused the snag and continue training. It was merely a learning opportunity – no punishment necessary! You then keep setting your dog up for success, adding the steps one at a time, and your dog for moving into the correct position relative to you and remaining there whether you are walking, running or whatever. This is a more natural, humane, and scientific way to train. You and your dog will both enjoy the process.

I introduce heel in the second session of my basic classes because before we begin to teach a dog to heel, it needs to be familiar with three commands: attention, come and sit. I encourage owners to start training inside their home if at all possible. The only distractions in your home are ones already known by your dog. This will help your dog focus on you and the task at hand. Once your dog learns the basics inside your home, you can start to extend your dog’s dependability in relation to the three Ds of training in a variety of environments and situations. Work on distractions by moving to new locations that provide ever-increasing challenges for your dog. I usually suggest a backyard next, as long as there are no significant distractions there. If your neighbors have dogs that run the fence and bark, children who are active and loud, or there is a squirrel your dog loves to chase or a bird or cat that delights in taunting your dog, or moles or voles your dog loves to dig for, it is not suited for the next step in your dog’s training. You will have to find a more suitable place to work.

You should also keep in mind that you should only increase one of the three Ds at a time. You cannot go from an area with no or low distractions to one of significant or multiple distractions. You cannot go from a single step to a hundred or from a few steps in a straight line to a complex heeling pattern. If your dog does not come to heel from three feet, it certainly will not do so from 3 yards. All of these aspects have to be worked on one at a time, over time. This process can take weeks, even months, depending what your commitment and ultimate goals are. Ultimately, if you follow a positive training method to teach your dog heel, it will learn what you expect of it and be happy to meet your expectations. I have clients whose dogs were reactive to other animals and people who can now have nice walks with dogs that no longer pull or react to anything.

Finally, in doing this work with your dog, you will learn a lot about your dog and yourself. Learning to train positively will make you a better owner and, possibly, even a better person. This is why I prefer the positive approach; now that you understand the difference, I trust you will too.