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How to Teach a Dog to Heel, the Easy Way

Walks with our four-legged friends are meant to be enjoyable. After all, exercise is important for the health of both you and your pup! But nothing is worse than walking an untrained dog. They pull, yank on the leash, create tripping hazards, and drag you all over the sidewalk…not fun!

Here at Fluffy, we often hear, “My dog is out-of-control. I don’t know what to do!”

The solution? Teach your dog the “heel” command.

What Does Walking at Heel Look Like?

A dog who knows how to walk at heel will display the following position:

  • At your left side

  • Parallel to you

  • No more than six inches away

Don’t Dogs Already Know How to Walk?

Nope…not really!

All canines are born with the ability to walk, yes. But keeping a regular pace alongside their human companion isn’t a skill that comes naturally to puppies. They need you – their alpha pack leader – to show them exactly how it’s done.

Why Training Your Dog to Heel is an Essential Skill

Let’s face it…an out-of-control dog is a nightmare. Going on “walkies” together should be a pleasant experience. But dogs who haven’t been taught proper leash manners make outdoor time stressful. Dogs who don’t know how to heel can end up:

Injuring their necks. When a dog gets too excited and pulls on a leash, their collar adds pressure to their neck. Too much pulling can restrict the airway. This can lead to throat damage, like bruises or even cuts. Ouch!

Gagging and coughing. Pulling also results in less blood flow getting to the eyes and ears. A dog who doesn’t yet know how to heel might choke, gag, cough, or vomit.

Being overly reactive. Do you have a reactive dog? Do they jump at every squirrel, car, and stranger? Teaching a dog to maintain the heel position will result in a calmer state of mind, since they are focused on completing a task. Remember, being at heel is a way to practice impulse control. It is a mental exercise (as well as physical) for your dog.

Getting Hurt. In a worst-case scenario, a dog who hasn’t been taught how to heel can end up pulling so hard, the leash slips through their owner’s hand. It only takes a second. Suddenly, they are on the road in the middle of traffic. Avoid this scary situation by walking at heel, always.

In addition to being hard to control, dogs who don’t know how to heel can be dangerous…to themselves and others. So, help your dog out by teaching them this necessary life skill! We all want obedient, happy, and safe pets.

Ready to learn how?

Practice Inside the House First

Before we can go outside, first you must make sure your dog is calm and ready. An overly excited dog or one who chews on the leash isn’t ready to heel. Here’s what to do:

  1. Pick up the leash

  2. Call your dog to you in a normal tone of voice

  3. Say, “Come!”

  4. Clip on their collar and/or leash

  5. Walk to the door together

If your dog jumps up, tugs on the leash, or tries to bite your hand and take away your power, put the leash down. End the game. Wait until they are calm. Then try again. Mastering this step is a crucial part of learning how to heel.

How to Train a Dog to Walk Beside You in 5 Straightforward Stages

  1. Follow the food. The first step of the training process involves using food as a motivator. Grab the yummiest, smelliest, most high value treat – something your dog really loves to eat! Chicken breast chunks, hotdog bits, small pieces of cheese, and dried liver all make good choices. You can cook your own treats as well.

  2. Show your dog the treat. Then hide it. Obviously, your dog will smell their delicious snack! But make sure they see it. Next, conceal the food in your hand. Curl your fingers tight around it and bring your arm to rest on your left side, right below your hip.

  3. Wait. Hopefully, your smart pooch will instinctively follow their nose…right to your left side. If they don’t, show them the treat again until they come closer to where you want them to be (right beside you).

  4. Step forward. The idea is to lure them to follow the food. Move ahead a step and pause. As your dog walks with you, praise them lavishly. Reward with a treat.

  5. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Keep going! When your dog starts to get the hang of heel, try walking a little bit further. Increase to ten steps. Then fifteen. Finally, practice going for a longer walk at a quicker pace. Gradually increase the length of time for each training session until walking at heel is routine.

For more handy tips, check out these American Kennel Club suggestions.

The “Stop, Start, Change Direction” Heel Method

After a while, your dog will try get ahead of you. They might mistakenly believe they are the pack leader, after all. To combat this, you are going to use the “stop, start, and change direction” method.

Soon, your pup will learn that you are walking them…not the other way around!

  • Stop. Okay, your dog is trotting along nicely beside you. But they start to pull ahead. Abruptly pause.

  • Start. Chances are, your dog will notice you stopped. “What the heck is going on?” they think. Lure their attention back to the side you want them on – usually the left – and start walking again.

  • Change Direction. Turn your body in the opposite direction. Praise your dog in a happy voice and give yummy treats when they follow and stay by your side.

How to Teach a Dog to Heel Off Leash

It’s healthy for dogs to have off leash time. They love to explore and sniff. However, off leash heel skills are equally important.

  1. Pick a safe training location, like a backyard.

  2. Position your dog on your left side

  3. Give the “sit” command

  4. Reward with a treat.

  5. Lure your dog 5-10 paces forward with food

  6. Say, “heel” as you go to teach this verbal command

  7. Reward with treat.

  8. Call your dog back by their name if/when they wander off

  9. Keep practicing!

Soon, people will be amazed at how well your dog listens off leash.

Do’s and Don’ts of Dog Heel Training

  • Do limit training sessions to 10 minutes

  • Do start off inside the house, then progress to the sidewalk

  • Do carry food rewards and give generously

  • Do praise often

  • Do be patient

  • Don’t use choke chains

  • Don’t zap a dog with shock collars

What Age to Teach a Dog to Heel?

Puppies can learn to heel around 10 – 12 weeks old.

They have short attention spans, so begin with easy obedience commands. For example, “come,” “sit,” “down,” and “stay.”