Heeling is defined as a dog walking closely by your side, turning with you,
adjusting her pace to yours to remain in position. Before starting to train this
behavior, decide which side you want your dog to heel on. In American
Kennel Club obedience trials, dogs are required to heel on the left side of the
handler, but if you have no such aspirations, you can heel your dog on whatever side you like, as long as you standardize it.
Heeling is not only a complex behavior for a dog to learn, it is mechanically
tricky for new trainers. I recommend you practice the mechanics of luring,
delivering, and counting steps without a dog before starting to train.
Heeling I: Mechanics (Practice without Your Dog)
The heeling method you’ll be using employs prompt dropping, which is different from the prompt fading (gradually eliminating the prompt) we used when
instilling Sit and Down. The first mechanical skill you will need is that of walking in a straight line with a food target held at your dog’s nose level at your
side, near your pant seam. You can hold the target in either hand, as long as
you keep it glued to your pant seam at your dog’s nose height. Try different
combinations (target on left side, held by left hand; target on left side held by
right hand brought across your body, and so on) to see which feels the most
comfortable. Watch the DVD segment a couple of times, and then practice
without your dog.
Some people can easily load their hand with the five treats that will make
up a set, dispensing on the fourth beat or pace like a Pez machine, and then
carrying on. (I’ll explain what I mean by beat or pace presently; just stay with
me here.) Others prefer to stash all but one treat in their other hand, luring
with one treat at a time and reloading each time they pay the dog. Experiment with both. You may change your mind once you start working with your dog,
but it’s still well worth your while to consider this problem up front.
You will be walking a certain number of paces with the dog’s nose on the
food target, delivering, and then carrying on. Each delivery is one repetition.
As usual, we’re going to Push for five out of five correct repetitions (correct
being defined as the dog was right in position for the duration), Stick on three
or four out of five, and Drop on two or fewer.
For this method of heeling, it’s fantastically useful for you to think or say
out loud, in rhythm, the pattern of walking and paying. People who have been
on drill teams or in marching bands will be familiar with this. Get in the habit
of walking briskly. Believe it or not, slow walking doesn’t help the cause. Really
stride out as though marching.
Let’s look at the first pattern, which is three paces of luring, paying on the
fourth. Walk in a rhythm, reciting as follows:
“Lure, lure, lure, pay, lure, lure, lure, pay,” and so on.
Some people, such as ex-marching band members, may prefer to keep
count in beats: “One, two, three, pay, one, two three, pay.”
For now, because there is no dog and you don’t have to decide whether or
not to pay on the fourth beat, you will automatically dispense the food, dropping it onto the floor. This simplifies what is already a mechanically tricky
task: walking in a straight line, counting, keeping your food lure right against
your pant seam, and paying on the fourth count.
When you think you have the hang of it, pick up the food you’ve been
dropping and get your dog.
Heeling II: First Round with the Dog
Now that you have your dog with you, there are two differences from what you
did in Heeling I:
● During the first three paces, you’ll have to gauge whether the dog is in
good enough position or not. For the first set, be a bit lenient, as the
feeding for position goes a long way here. It’s good nevertheless to hone
your observation skills: is she following or not? Dispense on the fourth
beat only if she has made the grade on the first three.
● Once you dispense, the dog will consume the reward, which means she
might stop to chew. The use of very small and very soft treats makes
this less likely, so I highly recommend that you use rewards with as little chew factor as possible. It’s absolutely possible to teach fine heeling
to dogs who can’t walk and chew (or even walk and swallow) at the
same time, but it’s easier on the trainer if the walking rhythm isn’t constantly broken up by chewing. As your dog gets more advanced and the
rewards become fewer and farther between, it’ll be much smoother.
Also, some dogs have a lot of chew factor initially but with practice
actually learn to chew and walk. There are some dog mechanics, too!
Here are the first three stages of teaching the heeling behavior:
Heeling III: Prompt Removal
Once again, I suggest that you practice this maneuver without the dog. It’s a
brand-new wrinkle in what is already, as you have seen, a complex task. The
new bit is that you will remove the food target for one beat, the beat right
before you pay. Watch the video example several times and then practice.
Turn up the sound and march along. The first level consists of three lured
paces, one removal pace, and then payment. So the pattern looks like this:
Lure, lure, lure, remove, pay,
lure, lure, lure, remove, pay, etc.
If you keep count, it is: “One,
two, three, remove, pay, one, two,
three, remove, pay,” etc.
This dropping of the prompt
immediately before paying teaches
the dog something very, very important: whenever that food lure disappears, it means she is about to be paid. It’s
important to remove the lure for only one beat (even a half beat, if you can manage it) so that the dog keeps heeling on momentum. It’s almost as though you’re
paying just as she starts to notice it’s gone. She doesn’t have enough beats to slow
down (which would be bad for the cause, as you would be rewarding her for being
out of position). You will get a lot of bang for your Pavlov’s Dog buck, however,
as dogs are extremely good at learning these kinds of patterns.
When you’ve practiced to the point where it feels second nature, don’t get
the dog just yet. Practice the subsequent few steps so that when the dog comes,
you’ll be able to flow nicely from one to the other with minimal mechanical