To train your dog to walk to heel, it is vital they are calm and responsive. This allows them to have the focus to learn what you are asking of them.
To accomplish this, it will help to plan the walk in a series of stages, starting off at a place with minimal distractions so you have the dog’s attention and can teach it the correct response. Then working through the stages whilst simultaneously reinforcing the response until your dog walks to heel in a busy place with many distractions.
- Stage 1 – pick up the lead
- Stage 2 – teach in the home.
- Stage 3 – teach in the garden
- Stage 4 – walk out the front door
- Stage 5 – teach in a quiet residential street
- Stage 6 – teach in a busier street
- Stage 7 – teach in a town
- Stage 8 – teach in a park
The first stage is to pick up the lead and call the dog to you to put the lead on. The dog may become overexcited at the sight of the lead. If it does, put the lead back down again. This will demonstrate to the dog that you do not move forward until it gets it right. Repeat the lesson of picking the lead up and putting it back down again until it reacts in a calm manner and comes over to you.
Once you have the lead on and the dog is calm and relaxed, the second stage is to walk around the house, once again encouraging it to your side with food rewards and praise. If the dog gets it wrong by pulling forward, correct the mistake using a method called stop/start/change direction. This involves stopping every time the dog drifts in front of you and pulls on the lead, moving back a few meters and encouraging it back to your chosen side. Once the dog is in the desired position (facing the direction in which you are going and the lead is loose), wait a few seconds so that it can process the information about what has just happened, and then start again (or change your direction altogether).
If the dog is getting it right by following you, reward it with a treat or praise it. Once the dog gets it, you can further reduce your feedback to build up the time before you reward or praise it. Make sure to only reward your dog whilst it is in the correct position, looking forward and walking on your desired side. By reaching over to the dog’s side with a food treat in the direction of its mouth, your body language and the reward are enough to indicate that the dog is in the correct position.
Repeating this method in the house lays the foundations for a good walk. Keep practicing and get it perfect in the home. If a dog does not listen to you in the home, with no distractions, then it will definitely not listen to you outside with all the sights, smells and other distractions you’ll come across.
Whilst still in the home, make sure your dog gets its cues from you, listening to and watching you, by making your movements unpredictable. Turn, speed up, slow down or stop, praising or rewarding each time the dog listens to you. If it gets it wrong go back and practice again until it is in sync with your actions.
When making a maneuver, make a soft noise, like a clicking noise, and show the dog a food reward as it follows, rewarding it with praise. When you have done this a number of times you will see that the noise conditions the response and you will not even need to show the dog the food, although you can reward them afterward whilst it is still learning. Eventually, just the movement will be enough and the rewards will not be necessary.
Once you and your dog have mastered these skills, the third stage is to practice the same maneuvers walking around the garden. If you do not have a garden, then go on to the next stage.
Now you can walk around the house and garden, and you feel the dog is stopping, turning, speeding up and slowing down when you are, the fourth stage is to walk out the front door. If, when you open the door, the dog rushes out, then gently pull it back in and close the door. Once the dog is calm, open the door again. Keep repeating until the dog is relaxed and waits for you to walk through first. If it rushes out a hundred times, you pull it back in and shut the door a hundred times. Once again, do this without talking; let the dog work out what it should be doing from the consequences of its actions.
The fifth stage, after you have successfully practiced the previous maneuvers, is to continue from your front door and look for a quiet area such as a residential street in which to build upon the techniques. Keep correcting the dog by stopping and coming back a few meters, starting and moving again/changing direction (SSCD). Keep away from other distractions by leading the dog in a different direction, again showing it that you decide where to go.
Once the dog stays to heel and follows you away from distractions, you can move on to stage six, further afield to a busier place such as a street with more activity with cars, people and other distractions. Walk up and down the street, all the time encouraging your dog to stay by your side and practicing the maneuvers. If you or the dog feel anxious, then go back to a stage at which you both felt comfortable and progress from there.
As your dog becomes comfortable by your side, pick an even busier location, with many distractions. Further stages should gradually increase in difficulty due to the number of distractions, but make sure that you are both comfortable with each stage before advancing. The stages will vary according to your environment, so plan ahead and seek appropriate spaces for each stage, starting off in a quiet place and building gradually.
The next stage could be a park, full of other dogs and children. Again, if your dog pulls as soon as it gets there, then turn around, walk back and try again. Keep repeating until you can successfully walk through the park with the dog walking to heel.
Here is a video demonstrating the method in action:
For more information on how to ensure your dog is happy and well behaved buy my book from Amazon (check my bio below).
Nigel Reed is an Amazon best selling author and dog behaviourist with 15 years experience. He lives in London, England with his wife Stephanie and his daughter Amélie. His goal is to help 100 000 dogs in his lifetime which he plans to do this through online courses, talks, his book The Dog Guardian and online videos which he receives 10’s of thousands of views each month. He is also very keen to travel the U.S to help owners better understand their dogs.
For more information on how to ensure your dog is happy and well behaved buy my book from Amazon : The Dog Guardian: Your Guide to a Happy, Well-Behaved Dog