Part 3 of our heelwork advice concentrates on getting the dog to want to be with you, on associating in the dog’s mind the heel position as being one of pleasure, praise and reward. Heelwork should be a positive and happy experience and not accompanied by constant corrections, verbal or physical.
We find that, once the dog understands that by being next to you (s)he will be rewarded and praised, that this becomes a default position. The dog now chooses to be with you rather than is forced to be with you on the end of a tight lead, which is both uncomfortable and potentially damaging for both handler and dog.
For this, we use treats and placeboards. We rely initially on the dog following a food treat. But as the exercises progress, we start to ration the treats and eventually remove them altogether. Same goes for the placeboards: initially they become a target for the dog to keep them aligned, but eventually they too can be dispensed with. So how does it work? The following exercise assumes you normally walk your dog on your left. If it’s normally on your right, just substitute “left” and “right”!
With the dog sat on the placeboard on your left side, put a small treat between forefinger and thumb in your left hand plant the treat on the dog’s nose. Move your treat hand tight against your left leg so that the dog’s head is against your left knee. Move off by turning sharp left in front of the dog, so that the dog has to give way to you in order to follow the treat. Walk half a circle only around the placeboard, delivering praise and the word “heel” (or equivalent) in a gentle tone. Lead the dog back on to the board, keeping your treat hand low and on the dog’s nose throughout (if you have a small dog, you’re going to have to bend your back!) Don’t let the dog take the treat, just let him nibble! Once the dog is back on the placeboard alongside you, then (and only then) raise your treat hand to your shoulder to promote the sit. As soon as the dog sits and is making eye contact, mark the behaviour with “Good!” and then treat.
- Do not be tempted to do several circles with the dog. Initially, half a circle is plenty. Build this up into a full circle and then widen the radius as things get better.
- Once the small circles have been mastered, you can feed the dog the treat during heel work, but be sure to reload your treat hand and continue. Aim to increase the time between treats as heelwork improves.
- Heel work should be a happy and positive experience for your dog. Ensure your treat hand position is correct and that the word of command “Heel” is delivered in a soft & gentle way & only when the dog is correctly positioned.
- For outdoor heelwork (or if the dog is easily distracted) use a slip lead held in the right hand, draped behind your legs, leaving your left hand to treat. Only the left hand controls the lead.
So, the aim of this exercise is not to stuff treats into him, but to build an association in his mind that being next to Dad/Mum in the heel position is a great place to be for reward and praise. Once this behaviour becomes engrained, you will have a dog that focuses on you and chooses to be with you – the holy grail of heelwork!