If you want to stop a dog from pulling on their leash, then you need to teach them to heel. This is the only reliable and permanent solution to your dog’s pulling problems.
Walking with your dog at “heel” involves teaching them to stay close by your side at all times, which establishes self-control in your dog to remain disciplined whether on or off the leash.
What is the Heel Command?
Before we dive into the training steps, let’s back up and explain what this command means. When a dog is walking along next to their owner or handler, they’re said to be at “heel”. A dog at “heel” is typically on the left-hand side, but this isn’t a must and you can even train your dog to heel on both sides if you want.
At “heel”, the dog will have their head and neck aligned with the leg of the person they’re walking with. In obedience competitions and heelwork to music, the dog will be looking up at their handler as well.
That being said, heel positions differ depending on the role of the dog. For example, a service dog won’t be looking up at their owner since they need to be looking ahead to do their job.
Similarly, a working gun dog is a bit of an exception when it comes to the distance between the dog and their handler at “heel”.
In most cases, heel positions have the dog quite close to their handler’s leg, maybe even brushing against it. But with a working gun dog, there’ll be some extra distance between them to avoid tripping with a gun in your hands.
There are a bunch of slight variations like the ones we mentioned, but they all fall under the same definition. The heel command means your dog’s walking alongside you, close to your leg. They’re matching your pace, not pulling ahead nor lagging behind.
1. Prepare for Training
First things first, preparation is in order! If you’re planning to train your dog to follow new or difficult commands, you’ll need to have a lot of treats on hand for positive reinforcement.
Pick treats that you know your dog can’t resist, to make sure you can always get their attention during sessions. It’s also a good (and economical) idea to have the treats in small bits since you’ll be giving your dog plenty of treat rewards at first to establish the correct behavior.
You can choose to train your dog to heel with their leash on or off. If you do decide to ditch the leash, make sure you’re training in a safe area with secure boundaries. A fenced yard makes for a great training ground in such a scenario.
2. Establish the Heel Command
Begin the training in a quiet yard or room that’s free of distractions. This means no toys, no kids, and no other animals – just you and your dog.
Have your dog sitting on your left side and hold a handful of treats (or a wooden spoon coated with peanut butter or dog food) in front of your dog’s nose (don’t let them eat it). Then, vocalize the command “heel” and start to walk slowly.
During the first couple of tries, you want to take only a few steps while continuously giving your dog treats as they move alongside you.
If your dog is the type to wander too much, a smart approach would be positioning yourself so that your left-hand side is right next to an obstacle (a wall or fence), allowing just enough space for your dog to fit between you and the wall. This will encourage them to stay close to your leg and walk in the proper position.
3. Slow Down on the Treats
When you successfully walk for several yards with your dog at “heel”, you can start to dial down the number of treats you give.
To do this, begin with your dog sitting on your left side as the previous step. Give your dog the command “heel” and reward them with a treat for getting up and matching your pace. Wait until you’ve taken a couple of steps, then give them another treat.
Timing is the key factor in this step; you should give your dog the treats not too slow that they lose interest, but not too fast that you ruin the ‘slowing down’ process. Remember to start with only a few steps between treats, and gradually increase the distance to a yard or two between treats.
4. Put More Distance
By this point, you should be able to walk with your dog at heel for several yards using only a few treats. Congratulations, it’s time for you to walk for further distance. This is also a good time to slowly start fading out the treats.
If you notice that your dog keeps breaking out of a heel, you’re probably moving ahead too fast. In this case, simply go back to the step where you were last successful and pick things up from there. Remember, heel training doesn’t happen overnight, so be patient!
5. Incorporate Distractions
Progress to this step once you’re able to easily walk with your dog at heel for a relatively long distance using even fewer treats.
As you can probably tell, the goal here is to add some distractions to teach your dog how to stick to the command in the presence of other intriguing elements. A park is a good place to work on this stage. Taking walks around the neighborhood can also work for this purpose.
Don’t worry if you don’t succeed right away, it’s actually quite expected when dealing with distractions. Just hang in there, go back to shorter walks, and work your way up the distance once more.
6. Let Go of the Treats
The longer the distance you practice walking with your dog at heel, the fewer treats you should be using. After a while of adding distance and spacing out treats, your dog will be able to heel without getting any treats (or maybe a few occasional treats because they’re a good boy!).
7. Polishing the Heel Command
Like any new skill your dog learns, you’ll need to perform some level of polishing to make it perfect. When it comes to heel training, it’s not exactly uncommon for dogs to break out of the command, especially at first. What truly makes the difference is how you act in response.
You need to be patient and consistent if you want to overcome the issues that may arise during training. Your dog will eventually learn what you want if you keep at it with enough determination.
Understand that it’s okay to back up a step or two at any point in training. Rushing your dog through training stages won’t do you or them any good.
Additionally, try to observe your dog’s body language at all times during training sessions. The way their muscles bulge or their eyes zero in on something other than the treats can give you clues to anticipate breaking out of the heel command.
There you have it, how to train a dog to heel in 7 steps! Remember, any dog can be taught how to heel, even the most energetic pups out there! All it takes is consistency and persistence to get things done.
Forrest is a lover of dogs, the wild outdoors, deep mysterious conversations… and coffee. He is the owner of several websites, including Canine Weekly. He resides in Austin, Texas.