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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.
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.
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!
The Firm Pull Method
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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