What Does Heel Mean For A Dog & How To Teach A Dog To Heel

There are lots of stages involved in training a dog, from the basic ‘sit’ and ‘stay’ to more complex commands. Training your dog to follow instructions when you are out and about is very important and will ensure that you both have a fun and safe experience when out for walks. 

There are several different elements to leash training, and one of the key commands you will want to teach your dog is ‘heel’. This will come in useful both on and off the leash.

Keep reading to find out more about what the command means, and how to successfully teach it to your dog

What Does Heel Mean For A Dog & How To Teach A Dog To Heel

What Does ‘Heel’ Mean?

When a dog walks to heel, it means that they are walking side by side with you. They will match your pace and walk with their head in line with your heels, hence where the name of the command comes from.

It can also be used to call your dog to your side if they are walking too far ahead or straying behind- it reminds them that they should be walking next to you. 

Many working dogs and service dogs are taught to heel. How close they are to their master’s leg will depend on the role of the dog.

A gun dog will usually be trained to leave a bit of space between themselves and their owner, to avoid the owner being jostled whilst they are holding a gun. A service dog will be focusing ahead, not looking up at their owner, so might walk a bit closer to be more alert to verbal commands. 

Why Teach Your Dog To ‘Heel’?

Some people might think that teaching a dog to heel is a waste of time if the dog already has good recall or walks well on the leash. But there are some additional benefits to the heel command.

If you are walking in a busy area and you need your dog to stay close to you at all times, you can use the heel command to keep them at your side.

This is also useful if your dog is off the leash in an area where there are potential hazards for your dog, like animals they shouldn’t interact with, busy roads, or fast flowing water.

It can also be useful when your dog is on the leash but you want a nice brisk walk with a consistent pace, as walking to heel will stop them from running a head or stopping to sniff things and getting distracted. 

How To Teach Your Dog To ‘Heel’?

Before you train your dog to heel, it is beneficial if they have a bit of experience walking on the leash – stopping, waiting, not pulling. It is also a good idea to make sure you are able to get your dog’s attention and hold it, even in a busy or distracting environment.

A good way to build this foundation is to teach the ‘look at me’ command. Show your dog a treat, hold the treat between your eyes, and say the command. Once they make eye contact with you then give them the treat.

Repeat this, gradually replacing the treat with praise when the command is followed, then practise it in a busy area. This command will help to reset your dog’s focus on you if you are ever in an overwhelming or over stimulating environment. 

You can teach your dog ‘heel’ on or off the leash- some dogs are distracted by the leash whereas others will learn faster with it on- you know what is best for your dog. Try to find a quiet, enclosed area to begin the training, like a garden.

Make sure you have plenty of treats to hand that you know your dog loves, though you will also be using praise and positive reinforcement during the training.

One of the most important things to bring with you to this training session is patience- walking to heel can take some time to get used to for a dog and losing your patience will only hinder the learning process.

Avoiding shouting and chastising if they don’t get it right- use a firm ‘no’ for any disruptive behaviour like leash biting or pulling, but give plenty of praise for the positive behaviour. 

Begin in a standing position and get your dog to sit beside you on whichever side they would usually walk on. Keep a treat in the hand on whichever side your dog is sitting and hold it close to their nose so they can smell it.

When you start to walk slowly forward, keep the treat close to their nose and use your hand to keep them in the desired position, repeating the command ‘heel’. Only walk a few steps and then give them the treat and lots of praise. 

Repeat this several times, making sure to give your dog the treat before they lose interest or their attention wanders. You must be repeating the command, so the dog learns to associate the word ‘heel’ with walking in that position.

Once they are doing it consistently, you can start to lengthen the distance you are walking and give them treats less frequently. Try taking 10 to 15 steps with one treat halfway and one at the end. Then a bit further, and a bit further.

Give your dog plenty of encouragement and praise throughout if they are doing it right. If your dog makes a mistake then it is best to stay calm, reset your position, and start again. 

When you are confident that your dog is starting to understand the command, try walking about 30 to 40 steps with a treat in your hand but don’t give it to them until the end. Maintain the praise throughout so your dog knows they are doing the right thing.

If you can do this successfully, then it’s time to try the command without the treats. You should still leave your hand out beside you as a visual cue for the command, and continue to repeat the word ‘heel’.

Give lots of praise if they get it right, and if they become distracted then bring their attention back to you and do it again. If your dog refuses to follow the command without the treat, do it a few more times with a food reward then try again. 

Once you have mastered the command without treats, you can gradually start to bring your hand away so your dog learns to rely on the verbal cue alone. It can still be a good idea to use your hand initially to get your dog into the heel position, but you shouldn’t need to leave it there whilst you are walking.

When you first try this command in a less controlled area, like on a walk or in a busy park, you might need a few treats just to make sure you can hold your dog’s attention and stop them from getting distracted.

Continue to give them plenty of praise to reinforce the command in this new environment. 

Once your dog has learned to walk to heel, you can use this command at any point during the walk to reset their position and stop them from pulling on the leash. 

Daniel Johnson