Heel to Heal
“Heel” is the single most under-taught, under-practiced, and underused command in existence. Most clicker training people don’t do it. Pet training organizations ignore it. But it is the foundation of everything we do here at Nitro K9 and it’s the cornerstone of any real dog training program.
One thing that almost every client we see asks is, “But what is a heel?” They’ve been through some training, and many know some cool tricks. But tricks are NOT dog training. Dog training starts with a proper side heel and builds from there.
In this article, we’re going to talk about what a heel is, what it’s not, why it’s important—and why a heel truly has the power to heal.
The heel, deconstructed.
So what is a heel? A proper side heel means that your dog is at your side, with his head turned in slightly towards you as you move forward. When you stop, he stops (and sits). If you go faster, he goes faster. If you go slower … you get the idea.
Here’s what a proper side heel looks like.
Heeling is the foundation of obedience
It used to be that all dog training was professional, military-style dog training; every trained dog knew exactly what a heel was. Today, a lot of trainers—particularly so-called positive trainers—don’t teach the heel at all, for the simple reason that it’s too hard to train unless you’re using a balanced training approach.
This is a huge gap. Heeling isn’t just about looking fantastic on lead. It’s also about being in calm, focused state of mind. If your dog cannot maintain focus for long periods of time and doesn’t have self-control, you can forget about the rest of it. You won’t get a good stay or recall, much less reliable off-leash control.
Think about it this way: Let’s say you’re out walking your dog. To you—it’s just a walk. But to your dog, it’s a smorgasbord of stimuli. Squirrels! Other dogs! Garbage! People! Poop! CATS!!!! Any foray is wildly exciting. How do you manage this without your dog yanking you down the street and doing whatever it wants to do?
You train the dog. And you start with the heel command. When you say heel, you focus your dog’s attention on YOU. You positively reinforce this attention. NOT through food—through love and affection and lots of praise (which is what your dog REALLY wants). You remind your dog when it stops paying attention.
All of a sudden amazing things start to happen. Think of it as a continuum of cascading events that circles back and reinforces itself. Your dog:
- Learns that heel means pay attention to YOU.
- Controls his impulses and intensity levels.
- Extends this control over a long period of time.
- Masters self-control.
- Develops the right kind of confidence.
- Trusts that YOU will provide the right guidance and keeps looking to YOU.
That’s why heeling is the foundation of obedience. Once you have this focus, self-control, confidence, and trust you can teach any behavior you want. In my level one program, we do all the basics (sit, stay, come, down, stop, free, and so on). But we start with the heel and work out from there. And when you progress to level two, we take all we’ve learned and do it off-leash. But you will not get there until you’ve mastered the heel.
The other point that I want to make is that dogs must be trained to ignore their external environment when you need them to because the consequences can be terrible. I’m talking about any kind of outside influence—a car, bike, dogs, cats, loud noise from trucks, etc. How do you get there? You got it—training the heel, which trains focus, which trains self-control, which builds self-confidence and strengthens the bond between you and your dog.
Obedience is the foundation of a balanced dog.
If you train the heel, you can train obedience. And if you train obedience, you have a well-behaved and balanced dog. How many times have you come across dogs that jump? That rush you or your dog? These are dogs that aren’t paying attention to their handler. A dog that is paying attention to YOU is not a dog that is out of control. A dog that has self-control is less stressed and anxious, less likely to be aggressive—and as a result, less likely to make the wrong decisions around all the many stimuli that exist in the real world.
A lot of this comes down to the trust that develops between and owner and a dog when they work on obedience training. The heel command is an amazing way to build a positive relationship, and it’s a fantastic way to reinforce it. Whenever we’re teaching new commands, for instance, we always come back to the heel because dogs find it calms them and refocuses their energy.
I have been training dogs my entire life, and I’ve been doing it professionally for more than 20 years. I’ve never seen so many fearful, anxious, and aggressive dogs than I do today. It’s the vast majority of what we deal with, day in and day out. And I can tell you that a large percentage of this behavior has been created by the purely positive movement.
The purely positive people don’t seem to believe in being clear. They leave the dog to figure out what they want. They like to say that this makes everything a game, which makes it fun. In my experience, it often leaves dogs frustrated and anxious. Imagine you have a new job and no one will tell you what your daily responsibilities are. Instead, you’re given a cookie when you do something right, and not given a cookie when you don’t. Wouldn’t you rather have a clear idea of what you’re supposed to do? Yeah, so would your dog. It’s called obedience training—and it starts with the heel.
Obedience training is key to behavior modification
An even bigger problem comes down to trust. Many positively “trained” dogs can’t look to their owners to lead. They’re not guided through life or given boundaries. Instead, they’re left to sort everything out for themselves—what is dangerous, what is not. No one is leading them, so they have to do it themselves. It can make them fearful, anxious, aggressive, and neurotic, and their poor owners have no idea what to do.
Many go to positive trainer after positive trainer, who will tell them that you have to get to the root of an issue before you get to modifying undesirable behaviors. Why is Buster aggressive? Why is Fluffy so fearful? I’m not saying that this can’t be important—particularly when we start talking genetics—but at some point sitting Fluffy on the Animal Behaviorist’s couch and asking about her early childhood just becomes ridiculous.
Especially since so many issues go away when you simply train the dog. If you really want to help a fearful or reactive dog, take the dog’s mind off the problem and refocus that energy on to YOU. How do you do that? You got it—you focus on the heel. Every single day, we show dog owners how the heel command stops aggression, and helps scared dogs relax.
A simple heel can open up a world of communication and stability that you may not be expecting. Let’s say your dog chases cats. Any time you see a cat, you use the heel command and the dog stops focusing on the cat. What if your dog is scared of the sound trucks make? You use the heel command, and the dog stops focusing on the truck. What happens if something flips in your dog’s head when it sees another dog and it starts going crazy? You use the heel command to redirect that focus. You can countercondition any number of behaviors just by teaching your dog to heel. I’m not saying it doesn’t take time and dedication, because it does. But it works.
Heeling is not loose-leash walking.
I want to talk a little about heeling is and what it’s not. But before I do that, let’s talk a little about pulling. Most dog owners walk their dogs; most deal with pulling at one point or another. Dogs like to pull. It’s a fact. The more you restrain a dog, the more it will pull. That is also a fact. A lot of people come to us because of the pulling issue. We train the heel; the pulling goes away.
Instead, most purely positive people teach “loose leash walking.” One technique is that you stop every time the dog pulls in the hope that the dog figures out that if he pulls, he does not go anywhereJust thinking about this makes me want to poke my eyeballs out in frustration. Apparently, a lot of other people feel the same way given the number of dogs in Gentle Leaders and harnesses.
Even in the cases where someone has managed to suffer through this painful process, what these trainers don’t seem to understand is that loose-leash walking isn’t actually dog training. What if an off-leash dog charges you and your dog—how do you escape without a heel? You don’t, especially if your dog engages. What if your dog takes off after a cat? You still don’t have control. Or let’s say you have an anxious or dog-aggressive dog. With a solid heel, you can recall the dog, and focus its attention back to YOU, when another dog approaches. A dog focused on YOU learns to control its anxiety and aggression.
If a trainer talks about training your dog to “loose-leash walk,” find someone else. I’m serious. Loose-leash walking is not training a dog. Don’t get me wrong—there’s nothing wrong with loose-leash walking. It’s what you do to let your dog sniff around and enjoy himself on a “free”—after he’s learned how to heel when you need him to.
Heeling is not heeling when it’s trained with food or toys.
There are some positive trainers who do train something that resembles a heel using clickers and either food or a toy, and a lot of terminology like “inside the box” or “four corners” and “home.” Usually, this is used for competition heeling or ring work—and it can be successful in a closed environment where there aren’t a lot of external distractions and where the dog is conditioned to go into “work mode.”
Guess what? That’s not what real, balanced trainers call a heel either. Yes, the dog is technically where it should be. But a true heel isn’t just about the position of the body and head. It’s also about the position of the mind. Remember the cascade above: You say “heel,” the dog focuses on YOU, learns self-control, gains confidence, trusts YOU.
That’s why you won’t see clicker-trained dogs performing a reliable heel in the real world. Food or a toy isn’t YOU. On the heel command, the dog focuses on the reward. The rest? Poof. Gone. No focus, no self-control—unless the treat is involved. Many positive trainers claim they phase out the reward. Personally, I haven’t seen it. The only videos I’ve ever seen of clicker-trained heeling are in closed rooms or competition rings—again, easy. Especially if it’s a breed of dog that’s super food-motivated. Or they’re heavily edited. Anyone can make a dog look great with video editing software.
And again, this approach is another excruciating process because you have to keep stopping to reward the dog with food or a quick game of tug. It takes 20 minutes to go down a single block. We’re talking about WALKING THE DOG here, not teaching her to perform brain surgery. How is this not nerve-rackingly frustrating for people? For their dogs?
The thing that boggles my mind is that training a heel is not hard. At the end of a first session with almost any balanced trainer, your dog will know exactly what a heel is. It all goes back to not making our dogs guess what the right behavior is—and actually providing the leadership and structure that every dog craves and deserves.
I’m not going to lie to you. Training a dog properly is work, and it takes time, practice, and dedication. So does anything else in life. I know that at first, it seems easier to train with food. You’re in the house, your dog is bored, and you strap on the fanny pack and seem to get instant results. But it is going to break down. It always breaks down. And trainers like me are called in to fix it. What do we do? Yep—we train the heel.
On that note, I will leave you with this piece of ridiculousness. (Hint: look for Part 2.)