Is it best to teach a dog a formal heel command?

A lot of dog owners do not bother teaching their dogs to walk nicely on a leash.

That’s fine.

Some of us might work on this “heeling” or “loose-leash walking” concept part of the time. Half-assed. Maybe we get somewhere or maybe not.

Some people depend on slip collars or anti-pull harnesses. That’s fine, too.

Ace and I have been working on a pretty strict heel for years, meaning my dog is always at my side while on the leash. I say “hears” because heeling is always a work in progress. No dog or dog owner will ever be perfect.

A goofy, drooling mutt like mine has the potential to create a lot of chaos. We don’t call him Ace the Crash Test Dummy for nothing.

That’s why Ace is expected to yield to me at doorways. He is expected to walk on a leash without pulling. He is expected to save running and chasing a ball for outside.

This works for us.

I don’t obsess about being “dominant.” I just want a well-mannered dog.

Should I teach my dog to heel

Heel vs. loose leash

To me, “heel” means the dog will walk at my side with her nose even with my leg. The leash is always loose, and the dog knows to pay attention, to copy my pace and to stop if I stop. Heel is a “position” more than an action. It means, be at my left side.

There are very few dogs that actually know how to heel.

Walking on a “loose leash” means the leash should always be loose, but the dog doesn’t have to remain at my side. She might be a step behind. She might be four feet in front. Who cares, as long as she’s not ripping my arm off.

Two black lab mixes out running (black lab/hound mix Ace and black lab/German shepherd mix Stormy)

So which is better? “Heel” or “loose leash”?

It really doesn’t matter. Just pick what works for you. Most of us do some combination of the two where “heel” means “just stay generally on my left and not too far ahead.” You have to do what works for you and your dog.

For me, at least at this point in my life, I want Ace and my new pup Remy to obey and understand the heel command. I enjoy traditional obedience training, and I admire the relationship a well-trained dog has with her owner.

I love that no matter where Ace is, I can say, “Ace, heel!” and he walks over and sits at my left side. I love that if we have no leash, he still knows where to be. Remy is not at that point yet. We’re working on it. (Work in progress, remember?)

I also see nothing wrong with allowing a dog to walk ahead on a loose leash for part of every walk or even for the entire walk.

Why should I teach my dog to heel?

A dog that knows how to heel is a dog that is under control. This doesn’t happen by chance. It happens after the owner puts many, many hours into walking, training and bonding with that dog.

A dog that knows how to heel does not appear threatening to other dogs or people. Dogs that are pulling or walking in front usually give off an excited, dominant energy – tail high, ears up. Dogs that are walking calmly beside their owners give off a relaxing energy.

A dog that heels is safe from traffic.

She knows some self control, pays attention to her owner.

A dog that heels is a dog that gets to go along to more places. Walking with her is relaxing, and her leash is never tense. She knows to look to her owner for direction, even under the stress of new surroundings, new people, new smells, new dogs.

A dog that heels is a dog people admire.

How do I teach my dog to heel?

Teaching a dog to heel does not have to be strict. It should be fun.

The concept of heel is often associated with yanking on choke collars or keeping the leash as short and tight as possible.

It doesn’t have to be like that.

I train a dog to heel by teaching her that we do not go anywhere unless she remains at my side. I do not give her the opportunity to get ahead.

No matter what, I hold the leash very lightly in my hand. I should be able to hold it with literally two fingers.

If I hold the leash tight or wrap it several times through my hands, the dog will try to resolve the tension by pulling. If I loosen my grip, the dog relaxes.

Training collars are great tools to give you more confidence and control.

I don’t care what you use – a slip collar, Halti, prong collar, Gentle Leader, shock collar, harness – they all work for certain dogs. I’ve used and recommended each of them.

If you need to correct your dog for sneaking ahead, then correct her with a quick, light pop of the leash. This is not meant to cause fear or pain. Think of it as a tap on the shoulder, something that might cause your dog to think, “Oops! Didn’t mean to get ahead!”

If you are doing your job by remaining calm, staying positive and holding the leash lightly, a slight correction will get your dog’s attention.

And when she’s doing something right, by all means, let her know!

“Wow! What a good heel! Good dog!”

Another trick is to quickly switch directions. Often.

When you walk in a straight line, the dog will focus ahead and try to get to that anonymous smell as fast as she can.

So, change your pace. Walk in circles. Zig-zag. Turn and run the opposite way screaming “Wooooooo! Go, Ace, go!”

You want your dog to have fun!

Also, make sure your dog is getting enough exercise and visiting plenty of new areas. Heeling comes much more naturally if your dog is well socialized and well exercised.

Read my new post: How I’m teaching Remy not to pull.

Why should I teach my dog to walk on a loose leash?

Although I believe teaching a dog to heel is important, the more laid-back concept of loose-leash walking is growing on me.

Man and dog walking together in the woods with backpacks

Humans have bred dogs to do all kinds of work that involves running ahead of us.

We are slow and dogs are fast.

Huskies and malamutes are bred for running ahead and pulling sleds.

Sporting dogs are bred for running ahead to flush, point or retrieve birds.

Shepherds and collies are bred for running ahead to herd and control sheep.

Terriers are bred for running ahead to chase mice, rabbits and other prey or pests.

Most dogs are designed for speed and work.

Why do we get so upset if our dogs have a hard time heeling?

For one thing, it’s about control. There’s a lot of hype about being “dominant” over your dog or being a leader to your dog. A dog that walks ahead of you doesn’t respect you, a trainer might say.

Try not to think of it that way, especially if you’re a control freak. You’ll just end up feeling frustrated with your dog.

My boy Ace is a very submissive dog. It’s clear he sees me as the leader, yet he still pulls on the leash if he gets the chance. And there are plenty of scenarios where he won’t “listen” to me.

Ace is just being a dog. There’s nothing complex about it.

Stop worrying about what everyone else thinks.

Sometimes I worry about what other people think of me and my dog. Do they think I’m training him right?

Who cares.

Forget about that “perfect” dog your friend has. All dogs are perfect sometimes.

Forget about your brother. He just thinks he’s the better trainer.

Forget about what Cesar might do or what any other “expert” might do. You may not see their mistakes, but they still make them.

Every dog is different.

Certain breeds and certain dogs are a lot harder to train than others.

Worry about yourself and what you want from your dog.

Focus on the things your dog does well. He’s probably a very good dog.

If the concept of heel brings out frustration and stress for you and your dog, it’s not worth it. A walk with your dog should always be fun and relaxing. Try the loose-leash walking concept. What’s the big deal?

Black lab mix in the winter, fog, sunset

How do I teach my dog to walk on a loose leash?

Teaching a dog to walk on a loose leash is usually associated with positive reinforcement dog training. The dog can walk ahead, but once the leash is tight, the owner stops. The idea is that the dog goes nowhere unless the leash is loose. It’s a very simple concept, and it works well as long as the owner is consistent.

For some dogs, their favorite treats or toys are the perfect rewards for not pulling. For most dogs, moving forward is enough of a reward.

This means you are going to have to ditch that Flexi, retractable leash for now. Flexi leashes reward dogs for pulling, and since you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you don’t want your dog to pull. Once your dog has mastered loose-leash walking, then maybe the Flexi can work.

If your dog has already mastered the heel command, then walking on a loose leash will take little effort.

All I do is tell Ace “OK!” and he understands he has the freedom to trot ahead, to smell mailboxes, to pee on snowbanks. Every five minutes or so, I tell him “heel” and he is expected to return to my side.

Do you teach your dog to heel?

There’s no right or wrong way to go about dog walking.

The best walks for Ace and I are actually when there is no leash at all – no rules, no worries, no agenda.

Our only goal is to spend time together.

Sign up to receive training tips & more in my weekly newsletter: