Most of the time you are probably content that your dog walks nicely without pulling. Sometimes, however, you may want your dog to be in a more precise position, such as the heel position. You can teach your dog the heel position in several different ways.
The traditional, but no longer favored, method was to let your dog lunge out in front of you, then repeatedly jerk him back, or even turn and walk the other way, until the dog realizes the safest place for him to keep an eye on such an unpredictable handler is by your side. This technique, however, encourages dogs to lag behind you, reduces the trust your dog has in you, and most of all, is potentially dangerous as it can injure the dog’s neck.
You can also mold your dog into heel position by holding him in place with a tight lead and rewarding him as you walk. Or you can gradually move him into heel by praising and rewarding successively closer approximations to heel. But a better method is to use what trainers call targeting.
Here’s how to teach your dog to target. Common targets for teaching heel are the palm of your hand (for large dogs) or the end of a stick (for small dogs).
- To teach your dog to target your palm with his nose, start by holding a treat between your first two fingers near their base so your dog must touch your palm to get it. As soon as he does, praise and reward.
- As he gets the hang of it, move your hand so he has to step forward to touch it.
- Gradually work up until he is walking several feet to touch your palm.
- Then place the treat in your other hand so that when he touches your palm he’s rewarded from the other hand. Repeat this until he is doing it reliably.
- Then add the cue “Target!” and practice some more. Soon you can use the palm of your hand to call your dog to you and to lead him around as though with a magnet.
If you use a stick to target, you may want to attach a plastic lid to the end. Smear some peanut butter or squeeze cheese on it at first and teach your dog to target it just as you did with your palm. Here’s how to use a target to teach your dog to heel:
- Use your target to maneuver your dog into heel position (on your left side, with his neck even with your thigh). Once he is there reward him. You may not be able to get him there at first, so praise and reward at first just for getting anywhere close. Then gradually reward him for getting closer and closer.
- Eventually he should be in heel position and you can start to fade out the target by closing your fist and then raising your hand out of position (if you are using a target on the end of a stick, make it gradually smaller until you just have the stick, and then raise the stick out of position.) Be sure to continue rewarding him for being in the proper position.
- Next add the cue: “Heel!”
- After he is heeling while you walk calmly, make staying in heel position a game by running and turning, praising and rewarding when he is able to stick to your side.
Now you have a dog that walks along in heel position with his tail wagging and eyes on you. Who could ask for more in a walking companion?