Walking nicely by your side
Heelwork is teaching the dog to walk at your heel.
Teaching the dog the heel position and to walk at heel early on enables a very easy transition from on-lead heelwork to off-lead heelwork.
It is very popular to teach ‘loose lead walking’ which is where the dog needs to be somewhere by your left or right side and needs to keep the lead loose. When you have taught loose lead walking the dog becomes aware of keeping the lead loose but not always of its own actual position. Off lead heelwork then needs to be taught as a new exercise. This is why we prefer to teach the heel position earlier on.
To teach heelwork the dog needs to learn firstly the correct position or location in relation to the handler.
Dogs are traditionally walked on the left but unless you are planning to enter competitions you can walk your dog on whatever side you most feel comfortable with. Most pet owners like to walk their dog on the inside of the pavement, away from the traffic and this means, therefore, that the dog needs to learn to walk on both the left and the right.
I would suggest that if the dog cannot maintain this position when you are stood still it is unlikely to be successful in maintaining it when in motion. So the first thing I would teach is the heel position statically before attempting it in motion.
We will break the exercise down into achievable parts:
- To Focus on the Move
- The heel position – maintain this location statically
- Walking at heel – maintain this location on the move
Focus on the Move
We have already taught the dog to sit and focus on the handler, making eye contact. We can also teach the dog to focus on the move. In this exercise it doesn’t really matter where the dog is located in relation to the handler. What it teaches is that the dog is to stay with and follow the handler. This is an especially easy way to start to teach the dog to walk with you. It is also a good way to stop the dog from jumping up.
Firstly click and feed the dog for being in front and making eye contact with you while you stay in the same position.
Click and treat around five times. On the sixth time that the dog looks up at you, you are going to step backwards and, as you step backwards, the dog should move with you. As the dog starts to take its first step you’re going to click and feed.
I would recommend that with this exercise your food is dropped onto the floor in front of the dog.
Dogs are influenced by the position of the reward and their motivation is to get the food as quickly as possible. If the food is being delivered from the floor and a dog has to put its head down to get the food treat it is less likely to jump up towards your hands. Jumping up will mean it takes the dog longer to get back down to the floor to get the treat. If your dog is jumping up to take things out of your hands you need to go and work on the ‘food manners’ exercise to resolve this.
Once you can take one step back you can then take two steps back and three steps and so on. Once you can easily take four or five steps backwards with your dog following you can then turn yourself to the left or the right so you’re facing in the same direction as the dog. Now the dog is at heel and you can continue to build your steps of heelwork.
The Heel Position
If you are teaching the dog the heel position on the left you’re going to need to have your lead and your clicker in your right hand, your treats need to be in your pocket or your treat bag or you may be able to hold enough treats as you need in your right hand along with your clicker. Six to ten small treats is fine.
With your left hand you’re going to hold one treat and lure the dog around to your side so your feet and the dog’s paws are facing in the same direction, click and reward the dog for being in this position
If you are teaching the dog the heel position on your right you are going to need to reverse this and have your lead and your clicker in your left hand.
The aim here is that the dog gets lots and lots of treats for being in the heel position by your side.
Most of your training up to this point will have involved your dog being located in front of you and your dog will have a natural desire to be there because this is where all the good stuff has happened up to now. What we’re aiming to teach the dog is that lots of good stuff also happens at heel and so it’s a good place to hang out.
For the first few repetitions when you click and deliver the treat the dog will probably pop out of the heel position and sit back in front of you. You will then lure the dog round back to the heel position with a treat and click and feed there.
You will continue to do this until the dog stays in position, i.e. by your side, after the click and treat. When the dog does stay in position you are going to click and treat again for making the smart decision to stay there.
Continue to click and feed the dog in the position one second at a time. Once the dog is maintaining this position you can then withhold your click for two seconds then three seconds and so on, with the aim of building up the amount of time that the dog can maintain the heel position for around five to ten seconds.
As long as the dog is in the correct position it does not matter whether it is sat or stood.
What you have achieved is that your dog can maintain the heel position while you are stood upright and comfortable without having food in the dog’s face. The dog is now being clicked and treated for maintaining the heel position and the handler has normal relaxed body language.
Building Duration in the Heel Position
Once your dog can maintain the heel position while stationary for around five seconds you can then start to think about adding movement, you will do this by taking one step forwards.
If the dog moves off with you click the action of movement and deliver food to the dog in the heel position.
If the dog does not move with you, step forwards to the end of the lead and give the dog time to think. As the dog eventually gets up, click the action of movement and then drop your hand down and feed in the heel position.
Once the dog is comfortable with moving off in the heel position you can progress and take two steps before you click and treat. Increase the number of steps one at a time.
If the dog makes a mistake such as becoming distracted, rushing ahead or jumping up, do not click and treat but just start the exercise again with fewer steps.
Error Free Heeling and Rapid Reinforcement
This is a method that I would use with an easily distracted dog that is very busy and lacking focus.
You are going to start by standing still, clicking and then dropping the treat onto the floor just behind your left or right leg, depending on which side you want the dog to walk on.
As soon as your dog has eaten a treat you are going to click and deliver another, click and deliver another – this will happen so quickly that the dog doesn’t have the opportunity to do anything else other than stay at heel eating the treats. You can now introduce a movement, as the dog is eating the treat off the floor take one step, as the dog’s head comes up and it moves towards you, click and deliver a treat by your side. Take another step, click and feed the dog. Once you can do one step, you can then progress to two steps etc.
As the dog is having a very high rate of reinforcement and no opportunity to make errors it is going to think that it’s very good at this exercise and the success rate will motivate the dog to engage. You can then build up on your dog’s ability to remain engaged for longer and longer in the correct position.
Watch the Video
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Copyright Jane Ardern BSc (Hons) 2018