How To Train a Dog To Heel – Ultimate Guide

The question of “how to stop my dog pulling” is always a common one, and there are loads of different methods to achieving this; however, there is one method that is better than the rest.

We have all seen and admired highly-trained dogs that snap to the command heel. It resembles a couple of dancers in perfect harmony, and we only wish we could have our dogs trained like theirs. But how do you train your dog to heel?

In this article we are going to teach you how to get your dog to heel and be the envy of all the other dog owners on the street!

The process is not easy however. It will require patience on both you and your dog’s part, and will require you to devote at least several weeks of your time to mastering it.

Your dog will need to learn where the heel position is and the command that will get them in that position. They will need to do it with all kinds of distractions in different places and situations.

While it is a hard process, teaching your dog to heel is a very rewarding experience and will only make you and your dog form a closer bond together.  

What Does Heel Mean

A dog walking ‘at heel’ is walking alongside their owner in a comfortable, controlled manner. They are usually on the left side of their owner; however, it does not matter which side you teach your dog to heel at.

Dogs walking in the heel position usually have their shoulder aligned with their owner’s knee, with their head slightly in front. You will notice that dogs that are trained to heel are often looking at their owner, and in competitions they even do it to music.

Heel positions can vary depending on the role of the dog. For instance, a working gun dog or service dog will look ahead and not at their handler. This is to ensure they can see what is in front of them and is different to the obedience style position that most household dogs are taught.

A working dog may also have a bit more space between them and their handler’s leg. Some dog owners have taught their dogs to heel in a position where they brush alongside them as they work.

While the heel position does vary, the basic principle is the same. Heel means “walking alongside their owner in a position that is not too far in front or behind them.”

Why Teaching Your Dog to Heel is Important?

Walking to heel is considered to be an essential part of dog training for many. There are four main reasons why you should teach your dog to heel:

Control and Safety ­– When you teach your dog to heel, it allows you to move your dog into the walking position with just one word. This can help when you are crossing the road or moving through a crowded place with plenty of distractions.

Better Bonding – Teaching your dog to heel is not just about getting them walking correctly, it is also about the bond and communication you two form. Your dog will learn to focus on you, rather than other distractions around you.

It cooks cool and is more relaxing – Let’s be honest, we are all jealous of people who can walk their dog in a nice heel position. Walking your dog at heel just looks amazing and it is a more relaxing way to walk your pup.

Helpful in certain situations – Learning to walk without a lead can be incredibly useful in various situations. If you need both your hands or you have multiple dogs to walk, the heel technique can be a lifesaver.

Walking at Heel Vs Loose-Lead Walking

Before we dive into heel training, let’s have a look at some of the other training methods to control your dog while walking.

Heel is essentially a formalised command for telling your dog to walk in a certain position. The dog must do what you do and stop when you stop.

Teaching your dog to walk with a loose-lead is completely different. When you successfully teach your dog to walk with a loose-lead, they will stop pulling you down the road, and will instead walk with some slack in the lead.

When it comes to your dog’s position relative to you, it doesn’t really matter as long as they are not pulling. This will be fine for casual walks with your dog, but if you are looking to take your dog walking to the next level, teaching them to heel is what you need to do.

How to Teach Dog to Heel?

Now that we have told you why you should train your dog to heel, it is now time to teach you how to do it.

Setting Up Training Sessions

Teaching your dog to heel is something that will not happen in an afternoon (unless you have godly dog control or your canine is an absolute genius). What you need to do is set up some regular training sessions.

The training sessions with your dog should be five to ten minutes, two to three times a day to begin with. Making training sessions too long will slow down the learning process, as your dog will become distracted with longer trains.

Try to link your training sessions with some other activity or set aside some time each day, so you do not forget them.

Regular training sessions will lead to rapid progress. Sporadic or infrequent training will be much slower, even if you do longer sessions when you do train.  

Get the Basics Down First

Heel training is certainly a bit more involved than other basic commands like “sit” or “come”. This is because it is a multi-step task in your canine’s mind and builds upon previous commands and training.

Your dog will need to learn how to get and stay in the correct position, so you will need some control over your dog already. They need to learn that you are the leader and that they need to follow your movements. A properly trained dog will adjust their own direction and movements to match yours.

Your canine will need to learn to sit when you stop moving forward, and how to stay until you set off again.

All this requires mastery of basic commands, before you can begin heel training. Good communication is essential and will make the training process that much easier.

Sit and Stay Commands

When your dog is in the heel position, they must learn to sit when you stop moving. They will then need to remain in this position until you start moving again. The basics of the sit and stay command are pretty easy, and should be one of the first things you teach your dog.

Check out our ‘How To Train a Dog to Sit Guide’ for more info.

Train Them to Watch You

Along with the sit and stay command, heel training requires your dog to be able to watch and pay attention to you, so they can follow you.

Getting your dog to watch can be easily accomplished by simply associating a cue such as “look” or “watch” with a treat. Your dog will quickly learn to look at you when you use the cue, as they expect a reward. The next stage is for you to give treats randomly when training the look command.

Teaching your dog to watch you or a certain object will help with any training activity, not just heel training. Getting your dog’s attention will speed up the training process and will let them know that you are in charge.

Select a Release Word

Once your dog is in the heel position, they are engaged and active in the training session. To get out of this position your dog will need a release word to let them know they can relax, and move where they want.

The word you use should be connected to the release word you use for the sit and stay commands. For this article we are going to use a release word, such as “okay” or “free”; however, the word can be anything as long as you are consistent and clear.

You need to remember that when your dog is heeling, they are intently focused on you. This means they need a clear and concise release word to understand that they can get out of heel mode, and revert to being a dog.

Getting your dog to heel is a big ask of them, and they should not be heeling for long periods of time, especially at the start. Your dog may get fed up with being in heel all the time, which can lead to bad behaviour.

Try to use a combination of heeling, loose-lead walking and general running about to keep your dog happy. This will keep them focused and mentally sharp.

Should I Use Clicker Training?

While clicker training is not essential, it can help with the training process. If your dog has learned to associate a click sound with the right activity, they will almost certainly pick up heeling very quickly.

If you have not trained your dog to respond to a clicker, then don’t despair. If you want to teach your dog clicker training, you can try and do this before teaching them to heel.

How Do I Train My Dog to Heel?

The heel training process will go through a number of stages. When you get the first stage down, move onto the next one, and so on. By the end of all of the different stages of training, your dog should be capable of walking in the heel position. We have listed the three main stages below:

  1. Establish the heel position and how to enter it
  2. Lean to walk at the heel position and change direction
  3. Introduce distractions and reinforce the heel position

The Heel Command

Historically, dog owners and trainers used a command at the beginning of a training process. This would get them in position and then they would set off on a walk. The dog would then be corrected or punished every time they moved out of the heel position.

At the start of the training process, the dog did not understand the command, but would eventually understand it after a few corrections.

Current day dog training is a bit different however. Dogs are now trained to carry out the desired action before the command is given. The command will then take on the correct meaning right from the start, which will speed up the training process.

Establish The Heel Position

Choose The Position

In reality, there is no correct heel position; however, we recommend that you use your dog’s shoulder as a guideline. Aim to have their shoulder about level with your knee. Your dog’s head will be slightly in front of you. Make sure you are consistent with this position.

If you are wondering what side you should have your dog on, just choose what you are most comfortable with. However, one thing to remember is that obedience competitions will usually require the dog to be on the left side.

Note: For the purpose of this guide we are going to be using the left side.

You will want to start in a quiet room or garden that has no distractions. This means no other dogs, humans, toys, just you the trainer and the dog. At this point we will not be telling the dog to “heel” (as they do not know the command yet). You will not need a lead for this section.

A good tip to getting your dog in the correct position is place yourself in a position near a wall. Have your dog on the side that is closest to the wall, and leave enough space between you and the wall for your dog. This will help to keep your dog close.

How to Get Your Dog in the Heel Position

Now that you have decided upon the heel position and you have a good training location, it is time to train your dog to move into this position.  

When you are training your dog, have a handful of treats in your pocket or treat pouch. You should also have a few treats in both hands as well.

With your dog in front of you, put your right hand out in front of their nose and let them sniff it (not eat it). Lure your dog around the back of you until he can see the treat in your left hand. Give your dog praise as he does this and reward them with a treat. The position your dog ends up in should be the heel position.  

Carry out this movement around three times, or until your dog gets the hang of it (don’t spend too much time on it though). The next stage is to try carry out this same movement without any treats. Show your dog that your hand is empty, and repeat the exact same movement you did when there was a reward in your hand. Use the same hand to move them around your back and then get them into the heel position.

If your dog is being difficult and won’t move into the heel position without treats, revert back to giving them a reward. Repeat this movement until your dog can move into the heel position without the aid of a tasty reward in your lure hand.

The trick with this technique is to lose the treat you use to lure your dog into the heel position as quickly as possible. Remember to keep giving your dog treats out of your left hand though, as this will reinforce the heel position.

Your dog should eventually recognise that your hand movement is the cue to get into the heel position. Now that they understand this, you can add a verbal cue such as “heel.”

After a while your dog will recognise your hand movement as the command to get into the heel position, you can begin to add a verbal cue like “heel.” After a couple of attempts, try and just say “heel” and don’t use your hand. Your dog should soon learn to move into the heel position when you use the heel command.

If you can successfully move your dog into the heel position with just the command, it is time to move onto the next step.

Walking While Heeling

Once you have taught your dog the heel command and position, it is time to add in a bit of walking. Start with smaller distances and then work your way up. You should also be in an environment where there are not any distractions.

For this exercise, we are going to start with one step and then progress from there.

Give the heel command and take one step forward. Treat your dog as they move to keep up with you. Once they move to your position, immediately progress to two steps and then give them another reward.

Repeat this process, increasing the number of steps you take when your dog successfully moves with you in the correct position. Carry on rewarding your dog.

It may take several training sessions to get to ten or more steps and don’t add any direction changes at this stage of the training.

When teaching your dog to walk in the heel position it is best to use short, frequent sessions as they may become bored or tired.

Direction Changes

Now that you and your dog can walk comfortably in the heel position for ten steps or more, it is time to add some direction changes. As before, we are going to limit the distance we travel at this early stage.

When you are ready, take a couple of steps forward and rotate 90 degrees to either the left or the right.

Reward your dog if they successfully turn with you or even attempt to (your dog will improve with practice). The next step is to set off in the new direction. Once your dog turns with you, reward them and then take another couple of steps and repeat. You can try and make shapes or small course to walk around.

Once you and your dog get this down, it is time for the next step, stopping.

Making Them Stop

Stopping is just as important as moving off or changing direction. At some point you are going to have to stop, whether that for a set of traffic lights or to just finish the walk.

When you stop, your dog should not leave the heel position, unless you give them the release word. Your dog should stay in this position and follow you when you take off again.

Staying in the heel position when you are stationary will need some practice and patience; however, it is a very important skill to develop. The majority of people who train their dogs to heel will teach them to sit when they stop. We feel this is a good practice and is what we would recommend you do.

To practice stopping in the heel position, walk forward around 10 steps and then stop. Ask your dog to sit and then reward them for doing so. Eventually, your dog will learn that they need to sit when you command or when you stop when heeling.

While all the information above will help you get your dog heeling, the real test is when you add some distractions. Keeping your dog in the heel position when there are other dogs and new smells about is a whole different ball game. Carry on below to find out how!

Distraction Time

Heeling in your garden or in a quiet area is relatively simple. It is a controlled environment and the most interesting thing to your dog is probably you or more likely the treats in your hand. The real world however, has plenty of other interesting things in it to distract your dog.

This part of the training process will require even more patience on your part, as it is only in your dog’s nature to investigate all the things around them. Remember that your dog is not naughty if they get distracted, they are just a normal canine.

So far, your dog has only learned to walk at heel in the garden or place where you have been practicing. You have to teach them what it means to walk at heel in a place with plenty of distractions.

Adding Distractions

While you could just jump straight in and take your dog out into the big wide world, we recommend a more reserved approach. You need to add distractions and change the training environment you are in slowly.

For instance, you could move from the inside of your house to the outside, or change rooms in which you train in. This is changing the environment, but still keeping it controlled. You should also try move your dog through doorways, as this can be an exciting change of environment for your dog.

When you are training your dog with distractions, have plenty of exciting treats on tap (think chicken or other treats they don’t usually get). This will help keep your dog even more involved in the training process, and they will be less likely to run off to sniff something.

Once you have tried changing the environment a few times, it is time to add in some more exciting distractions. Enlist the help of another person and get your dog to walk with you in the help position past them. If you have another dog, try the same again.

What you want to be doing is increasing the intensity of the training sessions as you and your dog progress. Try to add in distractions they might find when on a typical walk. This will help when you go out for your first proper walk while heeling.

If you don’t have a friend or other dog who can help, you could try and visit a training class where you can work with other dogs. Another idea is to take your dog to a dog park (or just a regular park) and practice in a far corner where there are fewer distractions, moving closer to the other dogs as you progress. For this technique you may want your dog on a lead, so they don’t go running off.

Once you have progressed to adding another dog in your heel training process, it is time to try your training on the street. Keep the walk short, even if it means walking a mere ten metres down the road and back. Every training walk you go on, increase the distance until you can comfortably walk in the heel position.

Making Distractions Easy

As they say, “practice makes perfect” and teaching your dog to walk at heel is no different. You need to keep introducing new distractions to your dog and don’t let bad habits creep in.

Try to avoid walking your dog on a lead too much during the training process and certainly don’t let them pull if you are using a lead. It can be confusing to your dog if you let them pull when they are on a lead and then expect them to heel on other occasions.

If you are walking your dog on a lead, try to keep them in the heel position to reinforce the training you have done. When you get to a park, let them run free and enjoy themselves.

Troubleshooting Heel Problems

We’ve listed a few problems that owners seem to face when training their dog to heel.

Dog Is Unwilling to Follow or Has No Energy

If your dog is lacking a bit of drive to follow your lead when you are heel training, you probably don’t have a reward that excites them enough. You may have to experiment with different treats or toys until you find one that they get excited for.

Dog Has Too Much Energy and Gets Excited Easily

For some, their dog may be the opposite of above. If your dog is so excited that they are almost bouncy off the walls, you might need to opt for a less-enticing reward. You might even want to use the normal biscuits you use for their dinner.

Another problem may be that your dog has too much energy and may need some pre-tiring to slow them down. Try take your dog out for a walk or to the park before you start the training session, this should burn off any excess energy.

Dog Jumps and Lurches for The Treat

A common problem people seem to encounter when training their dog to heel is that the dog will try lurches or jumps to get the reward. In this scenario, you need to remember to only give your dog the treat when they are in the correct position with all four paws firmly planted to the floor.

Never reward unwanted behaviour or actions, as this will only reinforce bad habits.

If you only reward the behaviour you want, your dog will eventually learn that jumping and lurching will not get them the reward any faster.

My Dog Is Easily Distracted

We’ve already talked about adding distractions in this article, but what if your dog gets distracted from the get go?

If you find your dog is getting easily distracted, even when you are simply training them to get into the heel position, there are a few things to remember.

Once again, your dog may simply not be interested in the reward you are offering to them. Try a few different rewards to see what one makes your dog’s eyes light up and their nose twitch.

Another thing to remember is that you may be asking too much of your dog. If your training sessions are too long, or you are making your dog stay in the heel position too long, they may become bored and distracted. Shorten your training sessions and keep them interesting with plenty of progression.

Some dogs need a tough mental challenge or like to walk at a fast pace as well, which can contribute to them becoming distracted. Make sure you are not walking too slow or fast, and try to implement new challenges to keep them interested.

As we have already discussed, environmental changes can distract your dog from training. Try to keep the same training location initially, and change it when you have mastered a step in the training progression.

If you find your dog is becoming distracted from a change in location, try to move back to your original training environment.

Other Tips and Points

Start Them Young

Training a puppy to heel is almost always easier than training an older dog to do it. When your puppy is around four to six months old, they will tend to follow you everywhere and you can use this to your advantage.

At this point you are not teaching your dog to heel, you are teaching them that following you will result in good things happening.

Call your puppy’s name and say something like “come”. As you give them command, walk away and don’t wait for the puppy. Your puppy should naturally follow you and after a short distance, stop or slow down. Wait for your puppy to catch up and reward them with a treat.

Once your puppy masters this, try and add in some more challenges such as walking in different patterns or directions. Try changing your speed as they get more experienced with the exercise.

Keep on rewarding your puppy for walking next to you and catching up. Don’t make the sessions too intense, see it more as a game rather than training.

Tips for Older Dogs

They say “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” but we all know that’s a load of rubbish. Older dogs may take a bit longer to learn new things and they may have developed some bad habits, but they are perfectly trainable.

For older dogs we recommend stocking up on their favourite treats and use them to increase their enthusiasm to learn. You can use the same method we described for puppies above, or you can add toys in as well.

Wrapping Up Dog Heel Training

Teaching your dog to heel is one of the most rewarding experiences and will only make you bond even more with your dog. It is challenging and can be frustrating, but with a bit of patience the benefits will pay off.

You will have more control over your dog and it also looks impressive to watch a dog focus so intently on their owner.

Remember to keep the training fun, short and full of progression. With the tips we have given above, you should get your dog walking to heel in no time.

Now Read: 27 Of The Best Training Tips For Dogs

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