How to Train Your Older Dog to Heel

How to Train Your Older Dog to Heel
Hard difficulty iconHard
Time icon1-3 Months
General training category iconGeneral

Introduction

You’re out walking him, the roads are unusually quiet and you’re having one of those ‘life is good’ moments when you’re pulled to the side by your aging dog. Nobody told you when you first picked him up from the kennel that he’d never walk calmly by your side. Instead, he lunges for every rodent he sees and insists on pulling you over to every pile of animal feces in scent range. 

Training him to heel will save your arm from feeling like it’s been pulled out of its socket. It will also make walking peaceful and, dare I say it, relaxing. He may have spent years pulling, but it’s never too late to rectify this behavior. Getting this training right will also help you train him to do a range of other things too.

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Defining Tasks

It’s never to be underestimated how tricky it can be to train a dog to heel. It’s particularly hard if he’s spent years of running riot while on a leash. Training will consist of obedience commands to re-assert your control and taking a number of steps to manage his behavior when he’s on his leash. Because the behavior is so ingrained, it will take a minimum of 3 weeks to break the cycle. If he’s a tricky customer and you aren’t consistent with the training, it could take 2 to 3 months. 

Getting it right will be more than worth the hassle. Every walk from that day on will be leisurely and in the direction you choose. In the long run, it will also be good for your mischievous dog too. It will ensure he’s more receptive when it comes to other training, so if you finally want to teach him to ‘wait’ or ‘roll over’ then master the ‘heel’ first.

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Getting Started

Before you can crack on with training you’ll need to gather a few bits. A body harness and a short leash will be needed. A body harness will prevent unnecessary strain on your dog's neck and afford you greater control. You’ll also need treats and lots of them. They will motivate and incentivize him to walk calmly by your side.

You will need time to practice training each day when you’re walking him. Apart from that, just find all your patience and a positive attitude and you’re ready to head for the door!

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The Firm Pull Method

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1

Get ready for the walk

Secure him to a short leash and a body harness, if you have one, and begin your walk. Ensure you have a pocket full of treats with you and head for a relatively quiet area where he won’t get too distracted.

2

React swiftly

As soon as he uses up the leash, pull him firmly in the opposite direction and start walking. Don’t yank him too hard but make sure you are in control. Doing this will show him if he pulls he won’t get to go in the direction he would like.

3

Repetition is key

Repeat this process even if you look like a crazy person to anyone driving past. Each time he pulls, head in the opposite direction. It will be frustrating and to start with you’ll constantly be walking a few paces back and forward, but he will eventually get the message. Practice this every time you walk.

4

Enforce the new rules

If someone else walks him, ensure they follow this technique. Consistency is the most important element to this training so anyone who walks him needs to keep up the steps.

5

Reward and praise

As he starts to improve and walk calmly by your side, give him verbal praise and the odd treat. The mixture of negative and positive reinforcement will help him to understand what is and isn’t expected on a walk. After many weeks, and possibly months, of successful walking you can stop giving him treats.

The Verbal Cue Method

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Time to get stepping

Secure him to his leash and head outside for your walk. Make sure you have some treats in tow and that you’re in a relatively quiet area, like a field.

2

'Heel'

As soon as he walks ahead of you, issue the ‘heel’ command. You don’t have to use that word, you can choose anything you like.

3

Stand your ground

As you give the command, stand still and pull him back to your side. Do not move or say anything, just wait for him to stand perfectly still next to you again. You don’t want to scare him, but you want him to know you mean business at this point.

4

Use the treats

Once he’s back at your side, give him a tasty treat. You can also give him some verbal praise to emphasize going back to your side is the right behavior. Practice this technique constantly whenever you walk. It can be annoying and make walks tediously time-consuming, but it will be worth it in the long run.

5

Cut down on rewards

After weeks or many months when you can go for a walk without him pulling on his leash, you can slowly stop giving him treats and praise. At this point, walking next to you will have become his normal behavior and he’ll no longer try to run wild and free. It will have been a long slog, but you will have finally reached the other side. Well done!

The Positive Reinforcement Method

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1

Stock up on tasty treats

Head out for your normal walk, but make sure he’s on a short leash and you’ve got plenty of treats. The shorter the leash the easier it will be to control him.

2

Praise straight away

As soon as you leave the door, start praising him and giving him a treat. The idea is that you reward him consistently when he isn’t pulling. So really show him how proud you are of him when he walks just a couple of steps without pulling.

3

The 180

As soon as he pulls, stop walking and turn around. Stand still and don’t communicate with him until he makes his way back to you. You don’t need to shout or punish him, training through fear only terrifies dogs and makes other training more complicated.

4

Once he is next to you, set off again

Just like before, give him verbal praise and treats for as long as he walks next to you. Practice this whenever you go for a walk and make sure anyone else that takes him out does so also. It will take a while, but over days and weeks you’ll be able to walk further and further before he starts to pull. You will need to practice until you can get the whole way round the walk without any incidents.

5

Introduce distractions

Once he’s got the hang of heeling, you can start taking him to places where there will be other dogs and people to test out the training. If he passes these tests you can stop giving him treats. If he gets distracted and starts to pull, follow the same steps as above until he can handle distractions like a relaxed old gentleman.

By James Barra

Published: 10/15/2017, edited: 01/08/2021

Training Questions

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Training Questions and Answers

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Belle

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Belgian Malinois

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5 Years

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Question

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Belle is not very interested in treats when training (unless indoors). When we're outside, no matter if we're in a busy or quiet area, she seems to constantly be distracted or interested/hyper focused on anything but us and the task at hand: walking nice on a lead. It makes going on a walk very unpleasant for everyone. Any advice for dogs who just are not interested in treats/are super distracted/ hyper focused on their environment? Thanks!

March 2, 2022

Belle's Owner

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Caitlin Crittenden - Dog Trainer

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1133 Dog owners recommended

Hello, Check out the article I have linked below and the Turns method. You can use this method without giving treats, just praise. The main way that this method works is your speed changes and turns teach pup that they need to pay attention to where you are going and stay with you. If pup tends to pull ahead of you, then pay special attention to the step where you turn directly in front of pup at a ninety degree angle as soon as his nose starts to move past your leg. Timing here is important. Pup will probably run into your leg at first, and this will probably feel awkward in the beginning. As pup starts to hang back and watch you more closely after being cut in front of several times, the turns should get easier to complete though. Start this somewhere open, like your yard, a field, or empty cul-de-sac, instead of a straight sidewalk, until pup has built a habit of watching you better. With a highly distracted dog it will be super important to work up to lots of distractions gradually. Pup probably has too much stimuli to really focus and learn on a normal walk right now - squirrels, other walkers, continuous new scents, continuous new sounds and sights, other dogs, leaves blowing, bugs, ect...For a highly distracted dog a normal walk can be a lot. Start somewhere boring, like an open empty field, yard, or empty cul-de-sac to help pup learn the training basics without all the extra stimuli. Once pup is consistent in that environment, then gradually add in intentional distractions. When you are ready to tackle places like side walks again, then instead of one straight long walk, imagine a + and choose areas where you can walk down the street south a little, then the opposite way north for a bit, then east at an intersection, then west. Basically only cover a short amount of distance in a particular direction then go the other way and keep repeating that, so pup's environment isn't changing as much while practicing some straight sidewalks again. Doing it this way also keeps pup from assuming that they know where you are headed - which can lead to pup just tuning you out because they don't need you to lead. If you keep pup guessing at first, pup is more likely to learn that they better KEEP paying attention because you might change directions on them unexpectantly. Thresholds: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-w28C2g68M Heel article - The turns method: https://wagwalking.com/training/train-a-poodle-to-heel Heel Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OTiKVc4ZZWo If pup is pulling as soon as you exit your front door, then work on thresholds too. How you start the walk will effect what happens next. A breed like a Malinois tends to benefit from the mental stimulation and exercise that incorporating training into the walk and keeping pup guessing provides. You might find pup is a lot calmer after that type of training walk than a typical one. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

March 3, 2022

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Lewis

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English Springer Spaniel

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8 Years

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Question

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I've tried the techniques to teach him to heel and he is not interested in food on the leash. I have tried a wide range of treats and there is no interest at all. He is a rescue dog and had at least 3 owners before me.

March 2, 2022

Lewis's Owner

Expert avatar

Caitlin Crittenden - Dog Trainer

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1133 Dog owners recommended

Hello Bruce, Check out the article I have linked below and the Turns method. You can use this method without giving treats, just praise. The main way that this method works is your speed changes and turns teach pup that they need to pay attention to where you are going and stay with you. If pup tends to pull ahead of you, then pay special attention to the step where you turn directly in front of pup at a ninety degree angle as soon as his nose starts to move past your leg. Timing here is important. Pup will probably run into your leg at first, and this will probably feel awkward in the beginning. As pup starts to hang back and watch you more closely after being cut in front of several times, the turns should get easier to complete though. Start this somewhere open, like your yard, a field, or empty cul-de-sac, instead of a straight sidewalk, until pup has built a habit of watching you better. Thresholds: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-w28C2g68M Heel article - The turns method: https://wagwalking.com/training/train-a-poodle-to-heel Heel Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OTiKVc4ZZWo If pup is pulling as soon as you exit your front door, then work on thresholds too. How you start the walk will effect what happens next. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

March 3, 2022

We also have a rescue who is not very interested in treats when training (unless indoors). When we're outside, no matter if we're in a busy or quiet area, our dog seems to constantly be distracted or interested in anything but us. It makes going on a walk very unpleasant for everyone. Any advice for dogs who just are not interested in treats/are super distracted? Thanks!

March 2, 2022

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