13 tips for teaching your dog to heel



How to teach a dog to heel

The mutt and I (not pictured) are continuing to work on heeling. Some walks are better than others, but he is slowly improving. He has come a long way since the day I met him and took him on his first walk. Yep, he did not get a single walk for the first year of his life (that would explain the tennis ball obsession).

Whether you are just starting to teach your dog the heel command or if you’ve been working with her for a long time and getting nowhere, below are some tips for teaching your dog to walk on a loose leash. If you have other ideas, share them. Most of our dogs could use help with heeling, including mine!
Elsie the light colored golden retriever outside in the snow by Lake Superior

1. Remember the walk starts at the door.

As soon as you touch the leash or put on a coat, your dog might become excited. If she is out of control before you even put the leash on, make her sit or lie down until she is calm. The same is true with walking through the door and down the stairs. Every piece makes up the walk. This might mean you have to put your dog’s leash on a half-hour before you intend on walking so by the time you are ready to go, she is calm. A calm dog can pay attention and learn. A frantic dog can’t.

2. Make your dog sit every time she lunges forward.

This technique works better than people realize. The problem is, most of us don’t have the patience to stop every five seconds during an entire half-hour walk. The day I brought my mutt home, he wanted to barge out of his kennel, barge through the door and barge down the stairs. Instead, I stopped and had him sit every time he pulled. It took us 10 minutes to get from his kennel to the front door and at least 10 or 12 attempts to get through the door. I remember people staring at me like I was crazy. I had steps outside and had to go through the whole routine again at the top of the stairs. But after that first day, Ace had already learned that in order to get anywhere he could not pull.

3. Be consistent.

If you allow your dog to pull sometimes, she will try to get away with pulling all the time. If you make her heel but your husband doesn’t, she will learn heeling is optional.

4. Buy a dog backpack.

Ace heels much, much better with a dog backpack on because it gives him a job to do. It really puts him in a focused mode, and he is less concerned with pulling. Plus, I’m in favor of anything that tires the mutt out! Another way to give him a job is to let him carry something in his mouth like a stick or water bottle. He will carry anything I hand him, and that becomes his job instead of pulling.

5. Stay relaxed.

If you are angry and gripping the leash like there’s a bear on the other end (OK, for some of you, there pretty much is!) or anticipating bad behavior from your dog, it gives her more reasons to be anxious, too. Dogs pick up on our energy more than we realize. The best thing you can do for an overly excited dog is to stay calm and in control. I know that’s easier said than done! Focus on standing tall and proud without being tense.

6. Don’t allow the leash to get tight.

Part of staying relaxed is keeping the leash loose. If you pull back on the leash constantly, your dog will resist and pull harder. Instead, allow slack in the leash and when your dog pulls ahead, give the collar a quick pop. The leash and training collar must be loose when you give corrections in order for them to be effective. A correction should be a light pop, not a frustrated yank!

7. Focus ahead, not on your dog.

You can sense where your dog is without staring down at her the whole time. If you are constantly staring at her, then she is in control. If your dog sees you as weak, she will take advantage of that and take you for a walk. One trick I use with Ace is to loosely hold the middle of his leash at the seam of my pants. That way when he begins to sneak ahead, I feel the leash tighten without looking at him. It also reminds him to stay in heel position.

8. Sign up for an obedience class.

Taking an obedience class will really help if you want to teach your dog to heel. When I first adopted Ace, I planned on training him on my own. I’d trained other dogs and taken them through formal obedience classes, so I thought I could teach Ace myself. Let’s just say I changed my mind when Ace pulled and was basically out of control every time we passed another dog on a walk. Once I started taking him to dog obedience training, he got used to other dogs so it was no longer an event every time we passed one on the street. After taking Ace to that first class, I was hooked and have been taking him to obedience and agility ever since.

9. Use treats.

Use anything to keep your dog’s attention. It might be plain old kibble, jerky treats, bits of hotdogs, cheese or a tennis ball. It doesn’t really matter as long as you can get your dog to look at you and reward her when she is not pulling. I try to reward Ace when I catch him making eye contact.

10. Walk at different speeds and directions.

Walking at different speeds and directions will require your dog to pay attention to you. If Ace sneaks ahead, I slow down or even stop and he backs right up. I’ve even unintentionally trained him to back up when I say “Get back.” Teach your dog that you are unpredictable and don’t always go in a straight line or at the same pace. You are deciding where to walk, not your dog! Do a U-turn, walk in a circle, etc. If you are able, run with your dog for the first 15 minutes. It will be easier for her to stay at your side if you are going at a faster pace. Plus it will get rid of some pent-up energy and make it easier for her to focus when you slow down to a walk.

11. Practice random obedience during the walk.

Randomly telling your dog to sit, lie down, stay or come while you are walking will also teach her to pay attention to you. It will also help to keep her in that working mode. Try taking a step back and calling your dog to you if she sneaks ahead or pulls. I own a dog walking business, and one of the best ways to tire out a dog is to go for a walk and work on training.

12. Limit distractions at first.

Don’t expect too much from your dog. Be patient and take training in small steps. Work indoors first, then in your driveway or a parking lot with few challenges.

13. If all else fails, use a head collar (at least for now).

I don’t see anything wrong with Gentle Leaders or Haltis. If it means you can walk your dog in peace, it is worth it! The goal is to use these collars as a tool to encourage loose-leash walking. Then you can eventually return to a choke collar and hopefully a regular collar. Other people will depend on a Halti or Gentle Leader all the time. It’s up to each owner and depends a lot on the dog.

Pretty soon you’ll be teaching your dog to heel off leash!

(Pictured is my parents’ golden retriever, Elsie.)

If you just got a puppy, you may be interested in my post on how to train a puppy.

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15 Readers Commented

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  1. Saint Lover on November 12, 2008

    Great tips! Some people have no idea how to even start leash walking their dogs.

  2. Apryl DeLancey on November 12, 2008

    Your picture today is making me cold just looking at it!

    Gus is very funny with his backpack – he sometimes just stops and refuses to walk at all. The best way to get him moving? I rub his head and tell him what a good boy he is and he gets moving. He sometimes does this without a pack and I do the same. It is like he needs encouragement all of the time. I find it a funny part of his personality!

  3. Lindsay Stordahl Author on November 12, 2008

    Apryl, you are so lucky to have such a mellow guy! I would love to have to encourage my dog to keep moving! Haha! Gus is so cute.

  4. vee on November 12, 2008

    Cool this is what we are working on Jakes obedience class so far.
    Ima gonna print this out as a reminder!
    Thanks Lindsay!

  5. Biggie-Z on November 12, 2008

    These are great tips! I have used all of them, and still do.

    “If you are angry and gripping the leash like **there’s a bear on the other end** (OK, for some of you, there pretty much is!)…”

    Um, you wouldn’t be thinking about a certain kuvasz we know, would you? ;)

    Biggie-Zs last blog post..Pros and Cons of Having an Intelligent Dog

  6. Apryl DeLancey on November 12, 2008

    Not moving so much has its endearing moments…others not so much! But yeah, overall – if he gets off of his leash there is no danger of him outrunning me.

  7. Marie on November 13, 2008

    I really think the first tip is a good one to keep in mind. The problem that I find is that almost always I haven’t left myself enough time for everything, and I’m in a rush. Things never turn out well when you’re in a rush. Especially with multiple dogs. If you can’t allow for time to start out calmly, you can expect problems to follow.

    Maries last blog post..Wordless Wednesday 11-12-08

  8. teach dog to come on December 3, 2009

    I love the First tip too. and keep asking myself why dogs were exited when getting out (is it all the playing thing?) well, i love dogs and I’m train searcher for my dog. n_n thank you for this one.

  9. Melanie on January 13, 2010

    Lindsay -
    Great post! I am printing this one off to take home. I have the gentle leader which is the only time we have good walks but even then she pulls.

    I’m so glad I came back to check out the rest of your site.

  10. Lindsay Stordahl Author on January 13, 2010

    Glad I could help! Good luck working on loose-leash walking.

  11. Dalas on August 2, 2010

    I just found your website, I absolutely love it. Thanks for all the wonderful tips and insight. I’m working on this with my lab mix. My question is should I treat the walks where were training the same as when I’m just taking him out to the bathroom?

  12. Lindsay Stordahl Author on August 2, 2010

    I would treat all walks the same, whether you are visiting a new park, walking around the block or just heading out for 30 seconds for a bathroom break. Consistency is the most important thing.

  13. Old English on October 22, 2012

    We just adopted an Old English Sheep Dog that was abandoned outside my local store. She is 9 months old and a BIG bundle of joy. Only 9 months 48 pounds, and only getting bigger. We know she has been taught how to sit (sometimes) =) and loves the couch. I was looking for training tips online and discovered this site. Today I will start day 1 of using your tips. I’m excited to see what happens. Wish me patience!

    • Lindsay Stordahl Author on October 22, 2012

      Best of luck to you! Enjoy your new dog and thank you for giving her a home. She sounds awesome!

  14. Casey on December 20, 2012

    To correct my 6 mo old pit bull Lola, I hold the leash in my left hand, guide it around my back and have her walk on my right side. When she pulls the leash hits the back of my legs and gives and automatic correction. It helps me not focus on her as much (I had a hard time trying to focus on the walk at hand the first week or two we had her). Lola is 40lbs and came into our house with some leash training. I can see how this wouldn’t work as well if you have a frantic bear on the end of your leash!

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