Heel, or is it Heal?
by Barbara DeGroodt
A standing joke at my training center is “Please, heal my heel!” So in order to begin, you need to know what “heel” really is. Heel is a position the dog maintains as you walk. It is done on your left, and your dog’s shoulder is even with your knee. When you move, the dog moves with you maintaining this position; when you stop, he does an automatic sit. It is very pretty, and in its original form was very functional.
Most of our true obedience originates with military dogs or sporting dogs, and in both cases the dog must be under complete control. A sentry dog walking a post with its handler does not venture far and wide; this is a job, not just an evening walk. A bird dog must quarter a field or retrieve a bird when asked but must contain that energy when watching another dog work. Even in the competition ring, the heel portion is only about 3 minutes long (although it seems much more like half an hour).
Most pet guardians really only want their dogs to stop pulling, and that’s what we’ll address in this article. I once watched a woman walking her boxer, and as they walked down the sidewalk, her dog pulled and pulled, but as they approached an intersection the dog began to walk closer to her. When she stopped, he sat immediately and looked up at her; the minute she made a motion in the direction she was going to go, the dog began to pull again. I watched her for about 20 minutes, and the scenario repeated itself time and time again.
So, why does your dog pull? The simple answer: because you follow. But what should you do when he pulls? The simple answer: don’t follow. I know I’m making this seem so easy, but to me, heel is one of the simplest behaviors to teach. If your relationship with your dog is strong, he doesn’t want you to wander off and leave him. He wants to stay by your side, maybe not in that perfect heel position, but close and not pulling, because he doesn’t know where you want to go—and he needs you!
This is what I often tell my students: Start walking with your dog in an empty parking lot, using the parking strips as a map and following them as you walk. This way you’re not tempted to walk in a straight line. Instead, you change directions; you go left, right, turn around, and halt. After you do this a couple of times, I’ll bet your dog is paying more attention to you. If you don’t like what the dog is doing, do the opposite. If he goes left, go right; if he pulls, go slower. I actually don’t care which side the dog walks on. If you’re going into competition, heel will have to be on the left, but if you’re just walking and are more comfortable on the right, then so be it.
You will, however, need to be careful not to use the word “heel” if the dog is pulling, especially if you haven’t taught the position. Teaching the position can be as easy as stepping into the correct position, taking one step with the dog, stopping, and rewarding if the dog hasn’t rushed forward. Next, take a couple of steps, stop and reward. Now begin to take some steps and randomly reward him, but only if he stays close and isn’t too excited and beginning to pull. Once you’ve mastered this, you can begin to use the word “heel,” but only if he is in position. You can also lure the dog into position. Here is one method. Begin with the dog in front of you, facing you. Lure the dog by showing the him a treat, drawing a half circle away from your body and bringing the dog into position along your left side, then rewarding him with the treat. Practice this several times without the dog until you can do it smoothly, then add the dog. Again, practice, practice and bingo….heel happens. Happy walking; a great way to enjoy our wonderful coastal areas.
Barbara De Groodt is the owner of From the Heart Animal Behavior Counseling and Dog Training in Salinas, CA and has been an animal behavior counselor for over 30 years. Barbara was one of the original founders of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, APDT (under the guidance of Dr. Ian Dunbar); she’s a professional member of International Association Canine Professionals and several behavior organizations, as well as a certified animal trainer. She is a regular speaker at Western Career College’s Animal Health department and lectures around the world to veterinary groups, law enforcement agencies, trainers and pet owners. From the Heart is located in Salinas, CA. Barb De Groodt can be contacted at (831) 783-0818. www.fromtheheart.info.