The HEEL command is the first and most important command to teach your dog regarding “following the leader.” Heeling not only means that he is walking nicely on a leash for you, but more important, it means that he’s following you as a leader, paying attention to you, and walking with you, not against you. Only when your dog is following you well and paying clear attention at HEEL will he be able to listen to you through other commands and distractions.
To teach the HEEL command, hold the dog on your left-hand side and walk in a left circle. By walking in a left circle, your body motion keeps “herding” your dog left. This consistent left and slightly backwards motion will encourage your dog to remain at your left side in the proper HEEL zone.
Begin this exercise by walking very slowly. Baby steps or half strides may be necessary to achieve the slow pace necessary for your dog to maintain the proper position. Most dogs will learn HEEL at a reasonable pace; however, exuberant dogs will require a very slow pace until they learn the concept.
How big should this circle be? Most dogs will learn HEEL in a circle about fifteen to twenty feet across. More exuberant dogs will need a smaller circle only five to ten feet across. The tighter the circle, the more “herding” influence your body will exert. As your dog understands the concept of HEEL, you may widen the circle.
Be careful with this exercise! Walking in a circle that is too tight and watching your dog may make you dizzy! If you feel dizzy, slow down or stop all together. Pick your head up and look at the horizon. Begin again but with a wider circle and slower pace.
Give the verbal command HEEL and start walking very slowly in your left circle. Hold the leash with your left hand with minimum slack. Gradually tighten your circle and slow your pace until you feel the leash slacken. When your dog’s head is within the HEEL zone, verbally praise with “good HEEL” to teach your dog that HEEL means being in this position.
During the early teaching stages of HEEL, complete between three and five circles before you stop (this will be known as a series). Repeat one series of three to five circles seven times.
Your dog may want to walk ahead or behind you. Using the leash, quickly guide him back into the proper zone and praise with “good HEEL” when he returns to the zone.
What training tool should you use to teach your dog HEEL? Start with a flat collar. If the exercise is difficult because your dog is a hearty puller, switch to a prong (or finger) collar, Haiti, or Gentle Leader. Remember, the goal is to wean away from physical control so any of these tools will be temporary.
During HEEL your dog should walk with his head aloft. Most dogs like to sniff the ground while taking a walk. While this is natural, it is hard for your dog to sniff and watch your movements at the same time.
Teach your dog to keep his head at least even with a line drawn from his tail through the shoulder blades. How? Baiting with a nugget of food is helpful. Baiting with a favorite toy is also useful. Pat your side and motivate your dog to watch you with your voice. Once your dog’s head is up and watching, verbally praise “good HEEL.”
Once you have taught your dog the middle of the HEEL command, you need to introduce the beginning and the finish. The HEEL command begins with your dog anywhere in your proximity. Give the verbal command HEEL and hand signal. As you begin walking, your dog should walk over to your left side with his head within the HEEL zone. Praise!
The hand signal for HEEL is relatively simple. Begin with your left thumb on your left hip, palm flat and facing backwards (the back of your hand faces forward). Make a scooping “U” motion with your left hand so your left hand returns to your left palm facing forward. All of this motion is behind your hip.
The next step is to introduce the finish of the HEEL command. As you come to a stop, reach across your body and grasp the leash near the buckle with your right hand. Shift your left hand to your dog’s rear and place into a SIT position at your left side. Don’t use the SIT command yet. Your dog is still learning the HEEL command and giving your dog too much responsibility with reinforcing the SIT command may distract him from learning his HEEL lessons.
Put it all together. Give the command HEEL, take four steps, and place your dog into a SIT command. Praise with “good HEEL!” Why four steps? It is important for your dog to link the beginning with the middle and the finish. Four steps help teach your dog that the verbal command is linked to the action of HEEL and to SIT when the motion stops.
Make sure you give the HEEL hand signal and verbal command before you begin moving. Otherwise your dog will move every time you move your feet. You want your dog to move ONLY when properly signaled.