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Nothing bonds man and dog more than a hunt. You work in harmony to stalk, bring down and retrieve your prey. When the sun is out, the morning is quiet and all that can be heard is the quiet breathing of yourself and your canine companion, it’s a feeling of tranquility that is hard to top. One thing you need from your bird dog, though, is obedience and control. If your bird dog can’t heel, he will scare off every bird in the vicinity, before you even get a chance to aim.
If your bird dog can heel and stay calmly by your side, you can creep up as close as possible to your prey, increasing your chances of a successful hit, and the chances of your dog being able to retrieve your catch. So, if you want the real Scooby and Shaggy partnership, then training your bird dog to heel is a must!
It’s just one word, so you’d think 'heel' would be an easy command to teach, right? If only! When dogs get outside, their environment becomes a world of irresistible smells and dirty puddles that need to be laid in. Fortunately, bird dogs are usually pretty obedient, partly due to their breeds. Retrievers, for example, are fast learners.
If your bird dog is a puppy then teaching him to heel will take less time as younger dogs are usually more receptive. You will need a bit more patience with older bird dogs, so be prepared to invest at least several weeks into this training. It is vital to persist, though, if you want an effective prey retriever!
The command itself is simple, but it is accompanying it with the leash movements and positive reinforcements that is time-consuming, not to mention keeping your pooch on task and away from distractions.
Before you begin training, make sure you have some quiet outside space, free from distractions. You will also need a slip leash or normal leash, and possibly a harness if your bird dog is large and strong.
It is also worth stocking up on his favorite food or treats. You will use this to incentivize and reward him.
The only other thing you need is time and the patience of a saint! Once you’ve got all those bits together, you’re ready to whip your bird dog into shape.
The Snatch and Release Method
Put the slip leash around your dog’s neck. This kind of leash is popular for hunting dogs and is basically a thin rope/leash that loops around your dog’s neck, acting like a noose. It avoids the need for a collar and reduces the risk of snagging. Once on, open the door, step onto the street and let training commence.
When your dog's shoulder gets past your knee, give the leash a gentle tug. This movement will gently close the leash around your bird dog’s neck and pull him back into position. Do NOT need to pull the leash hard, you don’t want to cause any injury.
Practice like this without a verbal cue. For the first few days use just the leash to teach your dog not to pull. When you think your dog is beginning to get the hang of it, you can start to introduce the command.
Introduce the 'heel'
Now when your dog pulls, give the leash a pull to bring him back into position, but also say “heel” firmly at the same time. Your bird dog will quickly come back into the right position.
Practice and praise
When your dog return back to your side after the command, reward him with a treat and praise. Slowly reduce the treats, lose the leash and rely solely on the command.
The Distraction Method
Keep him distracted
Begin walking your bird dog on his leash, but constantly play, talk and give him attention so he wants to walk beside you and look up at you.
While your dog is walking next to you and responding to your play, give him treats to show that if he walks comfortably next to you, good things will come.
When he eventually gets bored and tries to walk off, use ‘heel’. Once the playing game is up and they begin to pull, give the command and pull the leash gently but firmly. When your dog returns to your side praise him with words and a treat.
Once your dog responds to the normal heel command without the need to tug the leash anymore (which may take a couple of weeks), practice just whispering the command and continue to reward when he does heel. As a bird dog, you need to be able to communicate quietly when you’re hunting, so it is important he responds to just a whisper.
When you are confident he’ll respond to just the whisper command, remove the leash and practice walking through fields, giving the command and rewarding them each time. When he heels with a whisper and without the leash on regularly, slowly reduce the number of treats you give and get out there and start hunting!
The Step by Step Method
Put on a leash and leave the house
Once outside, put your bird dog on your left hand side and hold a treat in your left hand near your waist.
Call your dog’s name and walk two steps forward. If he walks with you and stops at your side, give him a treat and praise.
Once you are confident he are fine with two steps, build it up to four steps, then six and so on. Don’t increase the number of steps until you are confident he will walk properly with the lesser steps. Remember to keep rewarding when he performs the walk properly.
Remove the leash
Your bird dog should now know and be incentivized to always walk by your side, ensuring you don’t even need to use an out loud ‘heel’ command, which makes stalking prey far more subtle. So lose the leash and keep rewarding when he stays by your side.
After at least a couple of weeks, when you are confident he will walk calmly by your side, practice in busier environments with other people and animals around. If your dog remains calm and well behaved, slowly cut down the number of treats you give. When he heels every time without a leash and treats, even in busy places, they are ready to go hunting!
By Catherine Lee-Smith
Published: 01/02/2018, edited: 01/08/2021