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Heel Debate - Why So Many Methods to Teach a Dog to Walk Well?

Heel is one of the biggest things people struggle with when training a dog.

On one side you have the options of using treats to keep the dog close to your leg.

On the other side you have the option to put your dog in a choke chain and yank on it.

The list for methods is quite long: a treat by your leg, a toy by your chest, change directions, stop and wait when the dog pulls, yank on their leash, use a training collar, wave a stick in front of them, step on their paws, bump them with your foot, shout “heel” loudly, jump around excitedly to get the dog to follow you. There are new methods coming out all the time.

Pros and Cons for Reward vs Force


Reward

Pros:

  • Works well for dogs highly motivated by food.
  • Can teach lower ranking dogs where to walk.
  • Works excellent for puppies to overcome opposition reflex where when you pull on the leash the puppy wants to pull the opposite way.

Cons:

  • Doesn’t work well if the dog isn’t food motivated.
  • Doesn’t work well if the food isn’t as motivating as the distraction.
  • May need to always keep treats handy if this is the only method used.


Force

Pros:

  • If a dog is testing to see what is the downside if they pull, a force correction can be enough to stop the dog from testing.
  • One of the oldest methods of training Heel. Has worked for lots of dogs.
  • Dog knows you will make them follow through.

Cons:

  • Can cause or make leash aggression problems worse.
  • Can injure the dog.
  • Can cause the dog to bite their handler.
  • Dog can become habituated to correction so they pull regardless of whether they can breathe or not.
  • Falling out of favour because it looks really bad to many other people.
  • May get yelled at by random people for correcting your dog this way.
  • Can cause arm or back injuries to the handler trying to provide the correction.


Some Dogs Naturally Walk Perfectly on Leash

Most dogs will pull on leash but some walk excellent on leash right from Day 1. From our experience these have been Omega dogs.

It seems that a natural Pack Structure rule is that the Alpha walks in front. Omegas naturally want to follow and follow they do, this is why they seem to walk slightly behind you.

Betas or Alphas are happy to pull in front. They are the ones that require more training.


Why 2 Sides?

Force training has worked for a lot of dogs in the past. The main issue would happen when Force was applied to a naturally lower ranking dog. Teaching a dog to walk in a specific spot is a lot to learn for the dog. If they weren’t in the right spot they got corrected. If the handlers timing was off then it would really confuse the dog.

Lower ranking dogs would shut down when they were corrected. This might cause a Force Trainer to think the dog was being defiant and could result in even harder corrections. This could break the bond down between dog and handler.

If the dog was naturally higher ranking, they tend to be able to take more corrections and put things together faster. They would often do quite well.

Some of the really tough dogs with high pain tolerances couldn’t be corrected hard enough for them to perceive it as a correction. We had a client one time that went to see another trainer before us. They said the dog wasn’t listening well on leash so they put a spiked plastic collar on the dog’s neck. They broke 3 collars off the dog’s neck and the dog still didn’t care. The dog was determined to be in front.

The Other Side’s View

Yanking a dog around on a leash looks rough and that’s because it is. Reward trainers sought a way to teach dogs to walk well on leash without needing to be yanked around.

Treats is a standard go-to in a Reward Trainers arsenal. So treats were held at the person’s side to get the dog to walk well next to them. This works well for any dog to start. If they aren’t food motivated, if they go long enough with food, they will be motivated to work for food. Freeze dried beef liver can also be highly motivating.

Reward trainers found this training worked excellent for naturally Lower Ranking Dogs. This is where the Force method often caused problems and shut these dogs down.

These dogs were happy to do as told, they just didn’t understand what they were being asked to do. Using treats was a way to teach them in a stress free manner. They would often even do well as treats were weaned off.

The Struggle

If reward worked perfectly then everyone would be doing it. Even Force trainers would see how happy the dog was and they would stop using force and just use treats for a short period of time, wean the dog off and all would be good.

This isn’t the case. Some dogs can fully understand where you want them to walk but they don’t want to walk there.

They may think “what is the downside if I pull in front”?

It seems that where a dog walks plays into Pack Structure. The higher ranking dogs walk up front. If a dog wants to be higher ranking than their human they will pull to get in front of them.

Some may find their dog walks well alone but if another dog walks with them, their dog pulls like crazy to get in front of the other dog.

We have found the day a dog walks a half step behind you willingly is the day everything starts to become a piece of cake with training. That seems to be a big sign the dog has respect for their handler.

The Solution

If the dog cannot be rewarded to always stay in position and eventually stay there without a continual reward then it seems a bit of a consequence for trying to get out of position works well to finish off training.


An Extremely Important Role In Heel

How the dog was socialized will play a huge part into training heel. Take a look at the article on Socialization for a more in depth explanation.

If a dog was permitted to greet every other dog and person they saw out on a walk then this teaches them it is always their job to go and greet every person and dog they see on a walk. This falls under the Core Rule: Training Every Second. Whatever is practiced with a dog becomes their habit.

This is the norm for socialization standards but it can cause huge issues for Heel training later on. This is where people find their dogs walk well except when seeing other dogs and people. They find their dogs get super excited and want to pull their humans over to visit them.

There is another method of socializing a dog mentioned in the Socialization article which can make things much easier on you for training.


Why Left Side Heel?

Almost any trainer or person you will talk to will tell you your dog needs to be trained to walk on the left side.

Not many people ever stop to ask why that is and many trainers don’t know the full reason either.

It stems from Gun Dogs. Most people are right handed and shoot their rifles right handed. The first dogs ever really walked anywhere on leash were gun dogs. Other breeds like herding dogs, terriers, and guardian dogs needed to be free to do their jobs.

Picture this: You are a right handed shooter and you have a fully grown 80 pound dog that isn’t the greatest on leash yet. You need to keep the dog next to you until you get to your hunting spot where you can release the dog to do their job such as flush out game. You also need to carry a loaded gun with you to this location. You naturally are going to hold your loaded gun in your right hand as that is the way you shoot. Do you think you also want to hold this 80 pound, wee bit crazy retriever in your right hand as well? Nope, you are going to find that holding the dog in your left hand is safer.

It would be natural that if someone else needed to train their dog to walk well, the majority of the population is right handed, therefore right hand shooters. These people would be teaching others to also walk their dog on the left since they were right handed.

At that day and age, who took their dog for a walk through town? Pretty much no one. Dogs were still thought of as working dogs so they were meant to be out on the farm, not in town.

I grew up in a small town farming community. The town consisted of 950 people. I could count on one hand how many people had a dog in that town and I only remember seeing one person walk their dog in town. Now when I go back home to visit, almost every yard has a dog. It has become much more popular to have a dog in an urban environment.

We live out in the country now and there are still people I talk to that have always lived in the country that think it is crazy for people to have dogs in town.

So you can see a lot has changed in a short period of time.

We Suggest Training a Dog to Walk on Your Right

We tell clients to train their dogs to walk on their right hand side. We ask them “do you plan on carrying a loaded rifle in the city while you walk your dog?” They laugh and say no.

We find that when walking on a pathway or sidewalk, other dogs and people will almost always pass you on your left. By training your dog to walk on the right helps the dog see you as the leader and the one that will engage other dogs and people first.

If we are working with a dog that is aggressive or reactive to other dogs and people, it speeds up training tremendously to teach them to walk on your right.

We don’t think the first hunters that were training their dog on the left could ever picture the day that there were thousands of dogs in the city being walked on sidewalks everyday.

In the case of Dog Shows, dogs are walked on the left to help everything look uniform.

We Suggest a Half Step Behind - Ever wonder why the command is called Heel?

These days you see a lot of dogs walking with the dog’s shoulder parallel to the handler’s knee. The reason the command was called Heel was meant to mean “follow my heel”. Training the dog to walk with their nose just behind the backside of your body really helps gain respect. We have found a big difference between the dog walking with their nose in front of you an their nose behind you. When they walk with the nose behind you they are showing a lot more respect. They perform much better in distractions than the dogs that walk with their nose in front of you.

It Pays to Ask Questions

You don’t have to take any one person’s advice as gospel. Ask questions as to why things are done the way they are. Change them if they don’t work for you. We always trained dogs to walk on the left because that is what we were told to do. One day I was working with a dog that was reactive to other dogs. I thought it would be a lot easier for him if I could walk him on the right. We set out to answer the question of “why the left?” And that is what we found. Once we switched to the right side, training sped up immensely and the dog did great.


Summary

Lower ranking dogs like Omegas are easy to train to walk on leash. If you are working with a Beta or Alpha it gets considerably more difficult as the dog’s desire to be boss increases.

Take a look at the article on Loose Leash Walking to see what we find works for any dog.

Following Pack Structure Rules and socializing a dog in the manner we mention in the article Socialization helps out immensely with training.

Many dogs do well on leash until a Distraction presents itself. In this case you will want to do Distraction Training first and then the dog will do much better walking on leash in that area of distraction.

Force and Reward each have their place in training a dog to Heel. There are ways to use Force methods that aren’t harsh like originally intended. See the article on Loose Leash Walking for methods that seem to help no matter what kind of dog you are training.