Attention heeling is for when you are walking in a crowded area, or need to walk by something very distracting & you want your dog to stay focused on you & not drag you over, or for competition obedience. Once trained, heeling should be used in short bursts only. Even in competition obedience, dogs only heel for several minutes at a time. This is NOT what you want your dog to be doing the whole time during an hour walk around the park. For that skill, please see the lesson on Loose Leash Walking.
Heel Position: your dog is at your left side, facing the same direction you are. His collar is basically in line with the seam of your pants. (If you want your dog to heel at your right side, please reverse all of the directions for left & right - if you are interested in the sport of dog obedience, you must teach it on the left).
Get yourself ready - have a whole bunch of tiny treats (or one really big treat he can nibble) in your left hand and the clicker in your right hand. If you are in an area where you need a leash, have the leash in your right hand, too. If possible, however, be somewhere where you can forego the leash at first as it will make your life a lot simpler.
Okay, now start out with your dog sitting or standing in heel position. Use a treat to lure him around to that position if needed. Say his name once to get his attention, then step off, praising happily. Take JUST 1 step, then C&T, pausing in mid stride to deliver the treat.
Wait just long enough for him to gobble down the treat, then take 2 more steps, C&T (always pausing to give the treat). CAUTION!! Don't go more than 2 steps for now! You must hold your dog's attention for this to work and that is so much easier for only 2 steps. Be sure to praise enthusiastically the entire time he at your left side! The first few times, you may C&T after 2 steps even if your dog wasn't really heeling or paying attention, as he will likely quickly start to pay attention if the treats are good enough. From then on, you only C&T if he is in heel position, paying attention to you. If you need to turn around, then lure your dog around by holding a treat right in front of his nose, make the turn (a sharp U-turn to the right), pause to C&T, then move on. However - be careful to only use the luring on the about turns and when you have to go past any distractions your dog isn't ready for. Otherwise, when you are heeling you must keep the treats away from the dog's nose. Stand up straight as you move forward, and have the hand with the treat up at your waist and across your body. Be sure not to dangle the treat teasingly in front of your dog's face. When you do pause to give a treat, get that treat down to your dogs mouth as quickly as you can. You want him to still be heel position while receiving the treat. If he does leap ahead of you (or come around in front), simply lure him back around to proper heel position before giving the treat. Try to get it there faster next time.
If you have a very small dog or puppy, you might find it easier to use a long wooden spoon dipped in peanut butter or soft cheese. You just hold it out of the way while walking, then dip it down so your dog just has to reach up a bit for a quick lick before you continue on. Thanks to trainer Patty Ruzzo for sharing that tip - one of her own students thought of it!
I suggest practicing only for a few minutes at a time initially, but as many times during the day as you like. When your dog is consistently staying in heel position for 2 steps, then begin requiring more. 4 steps, then 6 steps, etc. before you C&T. At this point you can also start saying the cue. Before stepping off, instead of just saying his name say, "Name, Heel!" Say it is a bright, happy tone.
It is essential that you use good enough treats, work in a distraction free area at first, and that you praise the WHOLE time you are pleased with your dog's behavior. You cannot praise enough! Usually a happy, high pitched voice works well. Try to sound a little silly! If you become quiet, you are likely to lose your dog's attention. You are competing against the entire environment for his attention so you had better be pretty darn interesting! It is far, far easier to capture his attention before you start out & keep it than to try to capture it back again & again.
Troubleshooting - is your dog basically staying at your left side but jumping up as he heels? Just ignore that at first - consider it sloppy heeling that is good enough for now. As you get your coordination down you will be able to start walking at a much brisker pace which usually eliminates the jumping. If it doesn't, however, once the dog is consistently heeling (albeit jumping while doing it), you can begin shaping his behavior by no longer clicking when he is doing the jumping thing. To get a C&T, he will need to take at least a couple of steps without jumping.
When you are up to 10 steps or so, it is time to start being variable. From now on, don't just go more & more steps before C&T'ing or your dog is likely to lose interest. Instead, work on greater distances variably, throwing in some really short heels now & then (e.g. Go 10 steps, C&T, then 12, then 8, then 15, then perhaps just 3. Then 13, 18, 20, 24, 19, 4, 23, 25, etc. Of course, you are still praising the entire time you are moving & then pausing to C&T.)
You can also begin making turns, going fast & slow, etc. Keep up the high-powered treats & praise. Whenever adding a new element like that, though, be prepared to go back to C&T'ing after just a few steps to warm up. If you lose your dog's attention, then stop & wait for him to return to your side (encourage him verbally - at this point lure if you must but don't actually feed him the lure). If this happens frequently, think about what you are doing & what you need to do in order to better hold his attention. Fewer steps? Better treats? Hungrier dog? More praise? Fewer distractions? Practice the heeling, like everything else, in a variety of places. Be sure to use a leash if you are outside in an unfenced area - either tie it around your waist or hold it in your right hand. The leash should be loose - if you hold your dog in position he isn't learning anything and you are wasting your time. Make him want to stay by your side!
Eventually you will be ready to work around distractions, although don't rush this! You want your dog to be successful - keep it easy for him. When you are ready, start out with very mild distractions (other people across the street or watching, etc.) and work slowly up to better ones (other dogs around, first far away then closer). Whenever you work in a new place or with a new distraction, be prepared to use really high potency treats and to go back to just a couple of steps at a time as a warm up. Also use other fun things as rewards! Great heeling can get the dog a treat, or a ball thrown, or a quick game of tug.
The Automatic Sit - would you like your dog to sit nicely, in heel position, whenever you stop without even being asked? That is the Automatic Sit. To teach this (I would wait until you are up to at least 8 steps or so) simply take a a couple slower, smaller steps before you stop, and as you take the last steps use a treat in your left hand to lure him up into a sit. C&T. No verbal command is needed. When he is starting to sit promptly for his treat, then test it - slow down into a stop and wait.... If he does sit (he may need to think about it for a few moments - be patient!!) then C&T, giving a jackpot! If he doesn't sit, then continue heeling for a few steps and try again. If that happens several times in a row perhaps you need to continue luring him on the sit a few more times to help him know what is expected. Don't worry if the sits aren't perfectly straight at first - you can shape them into being more precise later. When you do stop, be sure to stand up straight & bring both feet together. This will help your dog to distinguish a true "halt" (when he should sit) from a pause for a treat (when you are in mid stride and likely leaning over a little bit). Be careful not to rely on the lure very long for the sit (or anything else, for that matter) or you will be stuck with it. You also want to be sure to continure to click actual heeling (i.e. while he is moving at your left side, looking up at you) as well as when you stop & he sits.
Mary Woodward & Susan Greenholt
last updated 03/01/09
copyright © 2002 Mary Woodward