One of the trickiest and most important skills we must teach our dogs is how to heel in position. This blog is part one of a three part series on the subject. Let's dive in!
Assume the Position
In the dog training community we typically call this position the "basic" position. It involves the dog sitting or standing willingly at your side, her shoulder in line with your thigh, with her attention positively focused on you, the handler.
We'll use feeding times to teach this to our older dogs for ease of execution and integration in our daily lives.
1. Take your dog's bowl of food and stand in front of a mirror or window so that you can see your reflection. Put the bowl on a table or bench next to you (on the opposite side of your dog and ideally, elevated), and take some kibble in your hand.
2. Bring your dog into the basic position by taking some kibbles in your left hand and moving the dog by luring her into the position. When she sits, give the cue "Heel".
3. Give your dog the kibble in your hand straightaway. Then release your dog by saying "Free!" or "Let's go!" and move away from the area. This is your release word, and it's a critical part of teaching 'heel' well.
4. After a few seconds, repeat the exercise. Cue "Heel" and wait to see if your dog will assume the correct position (remember: shoulder in line with your thigh, sitting on your right side, attention on you). If the dog does not yet know the cue and its associated behavior, use the kibble as incentive once again and repeat steps 2-4 above.
5. After a few repetitions, when the dog takes the correct position of her own accord, put the bowl back and let your dog finish her meal undisturbed. Repeat this exercise as many times as is necessary unti your dog truly understands what is expected.
It is key to remember that consistency and repetition are key to ensuring your dog learn anything quickly and robustly. Never reward a crooked position, and always use the same cue word before delivering the reward. You can repeat this exercise every time you feed your dog.
I'm going to start this blog with what will be - but really shouldn't be - a controversial, firm statement about dog training: People who need prong or pinch collars, electric shock, or any other high-pressure tool to train a dog have no clue how to train a dog well. This is no longer debatable, as the scientific research and scores of data we have on the subject make the point a fact.
It is critical to understand that unless you have a cultivated a good relationship with your dog, training will be an incredible challenge, and may even be impossible. The handler and dog must have a positive bond. Without this, any training you do will fall apart.
Walk away from dog trainer that tells you that you can have your dog fully trained in a matter of weeks. Good canine training takes months, if not years of effort. With this kind of commitment, your results will be exceptional. Solid. Lifelong. Without it, you can expect spotty compliance, resistance, and a dog that performs under duress due to the high-stress environment of an expedited training program.
Building a good relationship with a dog, laying the foundation of a lifelong, pleasant partnership, takes a lot of time. I cannot emphasize how important this part of the relationship is no matter what you're training your dog to do; whether it's being a generally good all-round family member, scent detection, retrieval, basic obedience, resolving reactivity, etc.
When training your dog, encourage her to utilize her natural faculties but do not exploit them or push the dog too far, too fast. The agreement between you and your dog to work together in harmony is a delicate one. To achieve this balance, it is critical that you learn to inhabit your dog's world and point of view. This is what it means to be your dog's true friend, and training your dog should be a pleasant experience for the dog and for you, the handler. It should be a successful learning process for everyone involved, one that yields progress and a deeper connection between you.
Let all of your work with your dog be directed at garnering a better understanding of the animal before you, strengthening your bond, and having an enjoyable time. Don't settle for anything less.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, Decoding the Dog Park, and the Big Book of Dog Training.