Perfect Heel by Carlos Garcia |Published 06-29-2020
The heel has always been the favorite obedience command for many dog owners. And for good reason. It allows the dog handler to enjoy a walk while looking impressive.
The only thing is, it's complicated. I mean, just think about how unnatural it is! You're asking a little four-legged animal to stand next to you!
Well, I'm going to teach you how to do the basics right now. And there will be no luring required. So, no pointing your fingers to your side or any of that.
Make sure you get these few things before beginning this easy session with your dog.
Start your session outdoors. In the driveway or the front street, if it's not busy. Also, make sure your dog is hungry. If you need to skip part of his breakfast, do it.
Don't worry, you won't have to be a master dog handler for this! But do grab a leash to control your dog.
To manage him, don't allow him to pull you anywhere. Or the leash to pull him into heel position, either. It's only to keep him near you.
This part is so exciting for me! And it will be for you, too.
Shaping is the route we will take. This will work for "heel" because we only want our dog to walk next to us.
So then, we're not exactly preparing for a competition.
If he breaks the position before he sees your new treat on the ground, just wait and toss another treat in the right spot. He will come for it.
Continue the same technique. He will see that you are predictable and catch on.
Move like you mean it. Stay one step ahead of him. And before you know it he won't want to leave or pass you.
You don't have to be a behavior expert to observe your dog for this session. But you will need to watch for a little detail.
For example, is your dog interested in something else? Or is he engaged with you?
Dogs are fast at reading body language. If you stay calm and stick with the techniques, he will notice. And when he does he will relax a little more. Then he will be more focused.
At this point when he's more locked in, add more steps.
Let's start bringing this heel to life!
Up until now you have been practically "stealing" steps. But now you're going to ask more of your dog.
The next time you drop a treat, don't step forward. Just stand there.
Did your dog eat and run? Did he wait for another?
If he did break the position, be patient. Almost like a statue. He should return. And when he does, carefully drop a treat behind your heel and step forward.
If he waited and did not pass, simply build a duration of a few seconds before stepping forward again.
Your goal is to accumulate time with him standing behind you. And if he gets distracted, to return to you.
At this point, he should see your side as a valuable place to be.
Now that your furry little buddy notices how valuable the back of your heel is, it's time to increase the number of steps even more! This is where it would normally get tricky. But today it won't be that way. I'll just tell you plainly.
Up to this point, I instructed you to put a treat behind your left heel, and as Fido goes for it, to take a big step forward. And so on.
Now, let's crank it up.
Instead of one step forward, take two. Don't: try to sneak two steps as he goes for the treat.
Do: wait for him to eat the treat. And right as he lifts his head up, take two big steps forward. Do this at a normal pace. If he delays, be patient.
If he passes you, hold still.
Give him up to 20 seconds to go behind you. If he doesn't go behind you, let him see you dropping another treat behind your heel. If he does go back there, repeat the exercise.
Once he does this three repetitions consecutively, add another step to your arsenal. So, in that case, you would then take three steps at a time.
Do this until you get up to four steps. You will find that this is easier than you think. You will be tempted to add more steps. Don't make that mistake.
Now, why not exceed 4 steps per reward?
It's because your wee doggie will become uninterested. More steps are a lot to ask for one treat. Besides, if that were not the case, your patterns would become too predictable.
To get more steps immediately, switch to a variable ratio in the amount of feet that move forward.
What is a variable ratio? Well, It's simply an irregular pattern. It's also how casinos get people addicted. So harness the power and take advantage!
Instead of four steps, do one. Then six. Then two. Then 9!
Here is an example of a list of numbers to give you a flow: 1,3,7,2,9,2,5,4,1,8.
Can you see numbers already climbing by the end of this list? And so after that give your boy a break for a minute and raise the average just a little. You will see your dog give up trying to learn your pattern and just walk behind you.
Ok, so you made it this far. Very good! But this is a controlled setting, to some degree. We still want your little one to perform out in public.
Once you get your dog into new areas, you may quickly see his training fall apart. And so you say: Wait. What. But I thought …
But don't worry! It will appear that your dog is going backward but really he's learning more. If you don't give up, that is.
To truly get your dog to walk well in a new environment, you need to make sure he's doing good from afar, first.
How far? Your dog can answer that better that I can.
To gauge this, go away from things that make your dog pull. Get to the point where he can view the object but not be excited.
Train in that general vicinity and when he's calm, move closer. When his tail starts to wag and breathing goes up, mark that area with a mental note. Then reverse. Go back down the sidewalk and work with him some more.
He will become stimulated from the focus, then get closer again.
Over a short amount of time he will do better, even with new environments!
And of course you should see by this time, you should be using less food rewards. You will actually get less results with more food.
This exercise is almost entirely positive reinforcement. And when you train like this there can be limitations. For example, some breeds are genetically prone to intense reactivity, like the Jack Russell.
This article is not a one size fits all. Because every little doggie is different. There are humane ways to use tools for practical purposes. But for many tiny rascals this exercise is worth learning. And you'll get a grasp on reinforcement schedules, too!
Carlos Garcia (CFSDT) does dog training in Cherry Hill, NJ. There he specializes in dog aggression and emphasizes humane methods at Exclusive Dog Training LLC. Carlos enjoys making training videos for "heel" and other commands."