There is confusion about the definition of “heeling” as it pertains to dog training.
The original meaning, and correct one, refers to the formal heel, which has been used in competition for decades, in both retrieving and competition obedience. It was also traditionally trained with force. The dog was collar corrected each time he went out of heel position.
This is what “heel” means. It was meant to be only done for a short period of time in competition and NOT used in daily life to keep your dog walking beside you indefinitely in distracting situations.
Put this definition in your memory. Remember it, but not the method used to train it.
The new way to train heeling for competition, agility, and other dog sports is to train it with a front paw platform or disc. This method trains the heel behaviour as a trick. Heeling is a long duration behaviour that is built up over time and so is often seen as quite boring. But doing it this way is not boring and is actually quite the opposite.
Look at the face of the dog in the picture above.
That is what heeling should be like for the dog and you. Real heeling is fun. You and your dog are working together.
To train good heeling, your best bet is to use a paw target or perch. You can use almost anything that is the appropriate size for the dog and that won’t fall apart with repeatedly being stepped on by a dog. A circular one that is wider at the base is the best. Being wider at the bottom prevents the perch from tipping as the dog moves around on it.
I learned how to teach this behaviour from Sylvia Trkman, the agility expert from Solvenia. She talks about training heeling as a trick.
How It Works
The idea behind teaching this behaviour is that you train the dog to walk around the perch with his back feet, in both directions, and in a complete circle. This mimics the movement of the hind legs your dog would make in competition obedience or rally-o doing things like pivots, heeling turns, or the swing finish.
Learning pivoting on a perch makes it easier for your dog to do these behaviours accurately by strengthening the leg muscles and creating muscle memory for the behaviours. What seems like a silly circus trick (spinning around on a block of wood) actually has a great benefit to your dog AND to your skill as your own dog’s trainer.
Unlike traditional heeling training, this way of training the heel can be started when the dog is a puppy. There are no collar corrections used at all. Instead, we use shaping to teach the puppy to think about what behaviour is getting him the reward. As you can see below, this is one of the first behaviours I worked on with baby Ira (the others being name recognition, sit, stand and down).
Teaching pivoting with a foot target helps the dog to learn where exactly he needs to be during heeling.
When your dog has learned the behaviour of staying at your side well (by standing on the perch), you have made the most progress to actually starting to training your dog to heel in a straight line. Having been heavily rewarded for keeping the “heel” position, all you have then to do is start walking and you have heeling.
Being out of position is what gets docked the most points during competition heeling. By training the heel position with perch work, your dog has developed muscle memory as well as real memory for the position and is unlikely to leave it. You are training your dog to actually use his brain to figure out the most advantageous position in which to be.
Besides using it in competition, you can use the heeling behaviour in other circumstances, such as if you are walking through a crowd with your dog or elsewhere that you may want his attention on you. It really does become a game to play. You would not likely have to force your dog to play for fun.
With so much changing in the world of dog training these days, I am happy to say that training your dog to do a formal heel can be extremely fun and rewarding, especially when you take the frustration out of it and train it as a circus trick. Any dog, with the right amount of time put into it and using the correct techniques (shaping), can learn to heel well and enjoy it. It no longer has to be the boring old heeling of days gone by where the dog is forced into position.
As I always like saying – “If a KUVASZ can be taught to enjoy heeling, ANY dog can learn to enjoy it!”
Everything you need to start working on this behaviour with your dog is in the videos below!
MAKE YOUR OWN FOOT TARGET OR PERCH!
Below is our video on how to train perch work or just how to get your dog to stand on a paw target.