Before beginning to teach your dog to walk to heel, make sure that you are both prepared and happy. It is vital to understand that the dog’s needs have to be met before teaching it anything, so make sure it is not hungry or desperate for the toilet, and that you both feel safe.
To ensure the dog feels safe and is not distracted, start in the home, where distractions are at a minimum. This is a great place to teach a dog because it should feel safe and relaxed, and can therefore concentrate on the task in hand.
The end goal is to get the dog to walk by your side, with the lead loose in your hand, in a busy place, and with the dog looking to you to make the decisions of where to go and at what speed.
To master how to train your dog to walk nicely to heel, first practise walking around the house without the lead, but with a food reward to encourage the dog to stay by your side, rewarding it on a regular basis when it gets it right. This will get the dog into the habit of listening to you and watching where you are going. If it follows you off the lead in the house, this is by its own free will, giving it a feeling of comfort and you an opportunity to teach patiently. If you cannot get the dog’s co-operation, it means it is not ready to listen, and forcing the issue by putting them on a lead will create resistance, which is obviously not good when training. When the dog does decide to participate, which usually happens fairly quickly as it understands where the good place to be is, you are ready to begin the first stage of the walk. The idea behind using stages in the walk is to start in a place where the dog feels comfortable, with no distractions, and to gradually build in the foundations and manoeuvres that you want your dog to learn. As your dog improves, you can then slowly progress through the stages, each one containing more distractions. If you skip stages, missing the necessary foundations for the dog’s development, it can create problems down the line, as it is not yet ready to move on. So remember, there is no hurry. Take your time and be happy and in control at each stage.
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 and jump up, run around, nudge you or make too much noise. If it does react in such an undesirable manner or is in any heightened state, then 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. Resist asking the dog to sit and stay whilst you struggle to put the lead on, as it will not be learning anything; in fact, you will be removing the dog’s capacity to think and work it out for itself. Once the dog is in a calm state, you are ready to put the lead on and move to the next stage. If the dog does not come to you, then do not go out for a walk; the dog is clearly testing you in this area and not giving you permission to move forward. If you then approach it, put the lead on and take it out, whether due to a lack of time or for any other reason, then it will create more resistance.
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 a food reward. If the dog gets it wrong, correct the mistake using a method called stop/start/change direction. This involves stopping every time the dog drifts in front of you and encouraging it back to your chosen side. Once the dog is in position, make sure it is 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 direction altogether).
If the dog is getting it right, reward it with praise and a food treat. Start off with reward and praise whilst the dog is learning, then slowly decrease both, going from the stimuli of food, sound and movement, to keeping the movement and sound whilst slowly reducing the amount of food given until the dog’s response becomes a reflex. Once the dog gets it, you can further reduce your feedback to randomly rewarding it with food and praise
Once you and your dog have mastered these skills, the next stage is to practise the same manoeuvres walking around the garden. If however you do not have a garden, then go on to the next stage. If, when you open the door, the dog rushes out, then gently close the door, encourage the dog behind you using your body language and open the door again. Keep repeating until the dog is relaxed and waits for you to walk through first. Once again, do this without talking; let the dog work out what it should be doing from the consequences of its actions.
The next stage, after you have successfully practised the manoeuvres in the previous stages, is to find a quiet residential area in which to build upon the techniques. Keep correcting the dog by stopping, starting and changing direction (SSCD). Avoid other dogs by crossing the road or walking in the other direction, showing your dog that you lead all the time. Keep away from other distractions by leading the dog in a different direction, again showing it that you decide where to go. Once you decide it is time to approach another dog that you, as the decision maker, know is friendly, make sure that your dog does not pull you by repeating the SSCD process.
The more you play a leader role and make smart decisions, such as choosing flight from potential threats, the more the dog will feel safe in your company and begin to trust your decisions. As the dog stays to heel in this area and successfully follows you away from distractions, then you can move on to stage further afield, to a busier place. If the dog is still having problems, however, spend the time here first before moving on. The next stage should be a busier residential street with more activity, such as cars, people and other distractions. Walk up and down the street, all the time encouraging your dog to stay by your side. If you or the dog feel anxious, then go back to a stage at which you both felt comfortable and progress again from there.
As your dog becomes comfortable by your side, pick a 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 your own environment, so plan ahead and seek appropriate spaces for each stage, starting off in a quiet place and building gradually. You will then know how to teach your dog to walk to heel outside.
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 on the lead.
Once you are at the point at which the dog is walking to heel and you want to let it have a play, it is vital to know that it will come back when called, so the next levels of development, still in stages, involves practising recall by walking around the park with the dog on a long lead. Seek out distractions. If the dog pulls on the long lead, then repeat the SSCD technique.
A video underneath to show how to train your dog to walk to heel
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