Dog training: Heeling off-leash

It is important for the family to agree to heel the pup on one side. It is bad news for the pup to cross over from one side to the other. Eventually, you will tread on it causing injury, or you will trip over the pup and injure yourself. Changing sides is also dangerous on-leash. If the pup circles its owner, the leash might wrap around the owner’s legs, and the owner hits the dirt like a hog-tied heifer. Most trainers teach people to heel dogs on the left, because this is required in most obedience competitions. However, if for some reason you want to heel the dog on the right, that’s fine, just reverse the following instructions.

For a single heeling-sequence: 1) Get your pup to sit facing forwards by your left side by saying “Rover, Heel-Sit” and using a food-lure handsignal with the right hand to accurately position the pup. It’s helpful at least to start with both owner and dog facing forwards. Hold food treats in both hands. One piece in the right hand for the next sit signal and the rest in the left hand to heel the pup. 2) Bait your puppy and peak its interest by waggling the left hand in front of its nose, say “Rover, Heel” and move your left hand from left to right in front of the pup’s nose (heel signal) and quickly take three huge steps forwards. 3) After saying “Rover Sit,” slow down, motion sit with the right hand and then stand still and offer a food treat once your pup has sat by your left side. When stopping, try to remain facing forwards and give the sit signal in front of the pup’s nose with your right arm crossing in front of your body. Thus, the pup will come to sit by the owner’s left side, facing forwards and all ready for the next heeling sequence.

After saying “Rover, Heel,” move off briskly. If you want some snappy heeling, your pup has to learn that the word “Heel” means action. Don’t dilly dally around. Keep your pup on its toes. Let’s be disciples of digitigrade; no time for plantigrade plodders here! Should your puppy attempt to improvise on the heeling pattern, as with “Following” do the opposite and do it quickly. Accentuate your pup’s mistakes, and make the puppy hustle to correct itself.

Sometimes, work with food as a lure only, but do not give it as a reward. Praise or pet your dog instead. At other times, keep the food in your shirt pocket as occasional rewards for especially good heeling sequences, and use lure/hand movements with empty hands (hand signals) or maybe use other lures, such as a tennis ball, or squeaky toy. At yet other times, keep the food in your pocket and don’t use it at all; instead use different lures (hands, tennis ball) and different rewards (praise, petting, “Go Play,” “Go Fetch” etc.). During initial training with most puppydogs, food is the very best choice of training lures and rewards. However, you want to phase out the use of food as soon as possible.

Before heeling anywhere, it is vital the pup can sit at the drop of a hat. If the pup does not yet sit quickly and eagerly, heeling will become a drag for both owner and dog. Heeling a poor sitter is frequently interspersed with frustrating moments, when the owner reprimands the dog for not sitting. However, with prompt and reliable sits, off-leash heeling may be taught via a simple sequential process, with the pup assuming a controlled heel-sit position each time the owner stops between each sequence. Active, precise heeling requires a lot of attention and mental energy; the heel-sit is the recovery period. In addition, the heel-sit is the owner’s emergency control command. Whenever things begin to drift out of control, immediately instruct your dog to “Sit.” Good sitting is essential for good heeling.

Heeling sequences

Always think of heeling in sequences: ‘three steps heeling and then, puppy-sit and owner-relax’. Phew! Take another treat in the right hand and then repeat the sequence. Always start each sequence with your dog in the exact heel-sit position. There is no sense in starting with the dog out of position and then, further complicating the issue with motion. Things will only go from bad to worse. If your pup is facing sideways or looking backwards, say “Rover, Heel-Sit” and reposition the dog using the food lure in the right hand before moving off in the heel.

Until it is possible to string together several short heeling sequences, always heel in a dead straight line. Instead of turning when in motion, come to a stop, instruct the dog to “Heel-Sit,” turn in place and reposition the dog with the lure in the right hand, i.e., to get your dog to perform a bunny-hop sit-adjustment in place, so that you and the dog are both facing in the new direction.

Heeling strategies

There are two basic heeling strategies depending on your dog’s size, speed, and frame of mind: 1) rapid heel-sit sequences for smalland/or fast dogs and 2) long straight-aways with infrequent sits for large lumbering dogs. Rapid-fire, multiple heel-sit sequences are also useful for a lackadaisical dog – to blow the cobwebs out of the dog’s brain when it is goofing around and not paying much attention.

1) The Paquita Principle — The biggest problem with little dogs is speed; the dog is everywhere and then some. Initially, speed works against training. However, once the speed has been marshaled and brought under control, little dogs make for flashy obedience. With small and/or fast dogs, do a series of one-step heeling sequences before trying to take two steps. Some dogs are so fast that they have vaporized before the second step. And so, don’t try to heel for two steps until you can heel for one. Once your dog can perform a rapid-fire, staccato sequence of several one-step heels and sits in succession, try some two-step heeling sequences, then three-step sequences and so on. In no time at all, long, straight-away heels will be a piece of cake.

When heeling little dogs in this fashion, initially it will be necessary to bend the knees and walk Groucho-style to accurately lure the pup with the left hand. As heeling progresses and you are taking longer straight-aways, stand up and walk quickly -the faster you move, the easier it is. A pup with little legs will have to walk a straight line to keep up. It will only be necessary to bend down when giving the signal to sit or to occasionally gather the pup’s attention during mid heel. Otherwise, after giving the heel-signal, the left hand may be held comfortably at waist level, which encourages the puppy to look up. To further entice your pup to look up and pay attention, you might want to try using human food as lures and rewards, and keep it in your mouth, periodically moving your left hand from mouth (to get a treat) to the pup’s nose (to lure and/or reward).

A 30-inch length of rigid plastic 1″ diameter pipe is a wonderful training aid for little dogs. After priming your puppy by dropping several pieces of dinner kibble down the tube, it is possible to manipulate the bottom of the pipe to precisely position your pup when heeling. Tape a bent spoon to the bottom of the pipe (to catch the kibble), teach your pup “Off” and the positioning pipe is even more effective. Moreover, by threading the puppies leash through the pipe is it possible to construct a ‘solid-lead’. Thus, the pup’s leash only has a couple of inches free play at the bottom of the pipe. The puppy is quite comfortable. It is accurately positioned by your side, and it can not get underfoot.

2) Long Straight-aways – Generally, when heeling big dogs — the sack o’ potato, moose-like breeds, it is not wise to include too many sits. Large dogs seldom derive much pleasure from bobbing up and down like a yo-yo. With large dogs, long straight-aways are the name of the game. It is imperative to start with your moose pointed in the intended direction, and then instruct and/or signal it to heel and off you go — QUICKLY — like a bullet out of a gun — in a dead-straight line for at least 30 feet before slowing down to sit your dog. During the first few heels, many owners will get a good 10 feet away before the pup even moves, and then, whoooshhh! — the moose catapults to heel position. The pup learns: “Wow! When she says “Heel,” she’s gone! Will I have to watch her!” If you always move off quickly, your pup will begin to move off smartly, such that when it comes time to heel at normal speeds, your puppy will be right there glued to your left side with Velcro shoulder pads.

Motel hallways are some of the best places to practice heeling (and recalls). Drive to a motel that accepts pets. (There is always convenient parking.) Go in the side entrance and up to the second floor, and off you go. No freezing cold in Omaha, no drizzle in Seattle and no blazing sun in Phoenix. Just a long straight hallway with fire-doors (safe), and carpets (good traction) and environmental control (comfort). If anyone sees you, just say “Sorry, wrong floor.”

Large dogs especially need lots and lots and lots of encouragement when heeling. Without sufficient praise, maintaining an enthusiastic and speedy response becomes progressively harder as the dog gets older. Always try to walk as quickly as possible. It is vital to instill the notion of speed into the dog before we introduce on-leash heeling. With most dogs, ill-administered leash corrections tend to slow the dog down even more – the more you pull and jerk, the more the dog resists.

Three gears of heeling

Varying speed or ‘changing gears’ is one of the best ways to keep the puppy’s attention. If your pup feels that nothing much is happening and you are not going anywhere in particular, it will quickly get bored and wander off. Think of heeling in three gears: slow, normal and fast. Make lightning gear changes, but at first, inform the pup when you are about to change. Before changing up, say “Hustle” or “Quickly” (the particular word does not matter to the puppy – your choice), and rapidly accelerate from slow to normal, from normal to fast or directly turbo-change from funeral-slow to Warp Factor 9. Similarly when changing down, say “Steady” and instantly decelerate from fast to normal, from normal to slow or from fast to slow. Your pup will soon anticipate your change of speed as it learns that “Hustle” means you are about to gun it and “Steady” means you are about to hit the brakes.

In no time at all, “Hustle” prompts your puppy to speed up and “Steady” causes it to slow down. Wonderful! When walking at the same pace, “Hustle” and “Steady” now become wonderful corrections for pups that are lagging or forging. These instructive reprimands allow the owner to correct the dog’s improvisations when heeling off-leash, and they remove the need for much pulling and jerking during on-leash heeling. Both commands facilitate negotiating turns during heeling. Additionally, “Hustle” is a marvelous instructive reprimand to speed up slug-like recalls.


When turning to the left or on left-about-turns, say “Steady,” place the palm of your left hand in front of your pup’s nose and move it backwards, so that your puppydog’s head is slightly behind your left knee before you turn. Otherwise, if the pup is too far ahead when turning left, either you will bump into the pup, or it will scoot forwards and end up on your right side after the turn.

When turning to the right or on right-about-turns, say “Hustle,” waggle the left hand in front of the pup’s nose to position your puppy’s head in front of your left knee before making the right turn. Otherwise, when you turn right, a smart pup or a lazy pup will take the shortcut behind you to end up on your right side after the turn.

Excerpted from How to Teach a New Dog Old Tricks, by Ian Dunbar.

Ian Dunbar is a veterinarian and animal behaviorist, founder of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and the author and star of numerous books and videos on dog behavior and training. He lives in Berkeley, California with his wife, trainer Kelly Dunbar, and their three dogs. The Dunbars are contributing editors to DogTime.