Wednesday, April 7, 2010

You asked for it

Baby Phoenix during an early heelwork session.
(Photo by Rilda Sue)

Several people have asked me to write about teaching heeling. This won’t be a novel, I promise.

I love to teach heeling.

There. I said it. It’s true. Call me weird, twisted or just plain nuts but I honestly LOVE to work heeling with my dogs. (No doubt that is why Phoenix got a perfect heeling score on his Open debut and flunked the long down. Maybe I need to love teaching group exercises a little bit more.)

I’ve always enjoyed heelwork and I think it got started when I was a kid with a beagle in 4-H. That was back in the “jerk and yank” days. By some act of doG, my 9-year-old brain actually mastered the “pop and release” technique that escaped everyone else. They didn’t pop. They didn’t release. They just drug their dogs around in a choke hold. So the cool thing was, my dog could heel on a loose leash and do automatic sits and nobody else’s could. Yeah, back then it was totally an ego thing and I admit it. Hey, ya gotta start somewhere. And I had a beagle, gimme a break.

Over the years, I’ve gotten a bit more refined. Obviously, the jerk and yank method went out the window. Nowadays, I love to heel with my dog because, well, it’s just cool! (See? Weird. I can’t help it.) I figure super smooth, powerful heeling is as close to riding a dressage horse as I will ever get. I grew up riding horses but only in the sense of jump on and try not to get tossed off. There was never a great deal of skill or finesse involved. I totally missed the concept of communication with another species.

Now I figure I can achieve that sense of partnership with a 50 pound dog instead of a 1,200 pound horse. Much safer for all involved.

But a lot of people don’t enjoy teaching heeling for a variety of reasons. They think it’s boring or frustrating. I can totally understand that. Many of us started training during the jerk and yank days and still have a lot of negative emotional baggage attached to heeling. You need to get rid of that!

So here are a few thoughts to help you with your heeling training (there are dozens of ways to teach heeling and I don’t want to get into a dissection of each method. Plain and simple, I use food. A lot of food. And it never totally goes away, just moves out of my hand. There ya go, “How To Teach Heeling in 50 Words or Less.")

• Having a beautiful heeling dog —”beautiful” means a dog who enjoys heeling, not necessarily one who is perfect at it — is the product of as much mental skill on the handler’s part as it is a physical skill on the dog’s part. Heeling is a complicated exercise to teach and not only does it take years to teach, it requires constant maintenance. Don’t take it too casually but don’t lose your religion over it, either.

• Realize not every dog is going to heel the same way. Some dogs prance and wag their tails. Others seem to float smoothly while others bounce and vibrate in place. Yet others may be quietly intense. Each dog has his own style. Recognize it and celebrate your own dog’s style.

• Learn to recognize the signs that tell you your dog is enjoying what he’s doing: ear set, tail set, head posture, the “softness” of his eye, the set of his lips and tongue and overall body carriage. Learn also, to recognize signs of stress, boredom and unhappiness.

• Have a clear mental picture of what you want. Think of words that describe it: smooth, joyful, powerful, dynamic, etc. Use words that have a lot of energy. Focus on YOUR dog performing that way vs. saying, “I wish my dog would work like So-And-So’s dog.”

• Realize that awesome heeling is not going to happen over night. Great trainers will tell you they make heelwork a priority throughout the dog’s career even though there are additional complex behaviors to teach and maintain at each level. It can take several years to establish the teamwork that results in (apparently) effortless heeling in the ring.

• Look forward to training sessions as something you WANT to do, never something you HAVE to do. Be excited, be optimistic. Expect good things to happen.

• Never just go through the motions. If you find yourself doing this, STOP IT NOW. You’re boring both yourself and your dog. Look at the dogs who are animated heelers in the ring. Do you think their trainers spend endless hours working L-patterns or heeling in circles around and around a building? NO! Mix it up. Teach a touch. How high can your dog jump to touch? Release to a toy. Run away and let your dog chase you. Let him catch you. (Phoenix loves this. I can always buy new clothes.) Set objects all over the building and do crazy “Figure 8s” around them.

• Maybe the most important? Truly enjoy the process. Don’t be in a rush to get the finished product.


  1. I don't find heeling boring, but I do find it frustrating. I think mostly because not only am I teaching heeling, but I'm also learning about it for the first time. And, like you said, there are dozens of ways to teach it, so I'm massively paranoid and worried that I'm doing everything wrong. While I'm making mistakes and trying to figure it all out, I don't want Layla to think that she's the one making mistakes if she's not. I don't want to be one of those people that hate heeling. It's such a major part of obedience that it would be a waste to hate it, and then I'd cause the dog to hate it. Even thinking about it to write this comment is making me anxious - literally anxious, complete with heart palpitations and a twitchy eye.

  2. Thanks for the post about heeling! It will definitely help me to train my dogs!

  3. Wonderful post! Great to read such a well thought out and excellent post. You are correct in that our human mindset plays a huge impact on how the dog views the exercise at hand.

  4. "You are correct in that our human mindset plays a huge impact on how the dog views the exercise at hand."

    And that's exactly why I get anxious thinking I'll cause her to hate it, and then MORE anxious because I'm worried she'll pick up on it, and then I have no hope of calming down.