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An Introduction To Heel Training For Puppies

Once you bring a puppy into your home, there are the cute, early stages to enjoy. Those moments when they run around, learning the bearings of their new surroundings.

An Introduction To Heel Training For Puppies

Soon enough, you will want to be able to walk with them outside yet they need to be training indoors first.

This is where you work on your puppy to learn the ‘heel’ command in the hallway, the backyard, and the living room. 

In this guide, we will detail an introduction to heel training for puppies.

The Importance Of Heel Training

Without heel training, your puppy may run amok when they are finally allowed to go outside.

While you can have some element of control over the distractions in your home, it is a big, bold, exciting world out there.

Puppies and dogs can be incredibly distracted and bolt away by seeing things like bicycles, people, other dogs, and even leaves. 

The importance of heel training is to make sure that your puppy can learn to follow the heel of your shoe on your preferred side as you are walking.

Should you need to change direction, you can use the heel command to ensure that your puppy knows where to go and remains in the right position. 

Heel training is also important as it helps your puppy to learn a more formal method of training aside from simply being walked loose on a leash (see also “How To Teach Your Puppy To Walk On Leash“).

Before your puppy is heel trained, they may prove difficult to control on a leash as distractions keep showing up.

With successful heel training, your puppy can learn the importance of self-control and should seem relatively calmer when you do take them out for a walk.

Your puppy may seem boisterous and energetic when you bring them home yet heel training can be done with some persistence and consistency (see also “Fun And Helpful Things To Do At Home With Your Puppy“).

How To Prepare For Heel Training

Bear in mind that you will need a lot of treats for your heel training course though make sure that they are the right ones.

To ensure that heel training is successful, you will need to ensure that the treats are the correct ones and that your puppy will simply be unable to resist them.

If the puppy is so-so about the treats, you can never be confident that the heel training is working.

Chop the handful of treats into small pieces so that after an attempt at heel training, you have not ruined your puppy’s appetite for a later meal.

If they are especially successful at heel training then you should be giving out a lot of treats. For small puppies, or those especially stubborn ones, you may want to use a spoon with a long handle.

The training will involve you having to bend down to administer treats when your puppy is ‘at heel’ so treat them with some wet dog food or peanut butter on the spoon.

With Or Without The Leash

You do have a decision to make on whether to go with the leash or without it. That choice can have a lot to do with the environment you choose to do the heel training.

If you have a relatively safe and spacious backyard then you can use it to heel-train your puppy off the leash.

The backyard is ideal if you want an area you can have some degree of control over that has limited distractions. 

At the start of your puppy’s heel training, you can help the focus by holding it in your own area.

If that is not possible then you may want to use the leash so your puppy does not get easily distracted and bolts off which can waste significant amounts of time.

While you may bring those almost-irresistible treats with you, just those alone may not be enough to hold your puppy’s attention. 

The Let Go Technique

Before you directly begin your heel training, you can try the Let Go Technique.

This may even help you understand whether to go with or without the leash when it comes to performing the heel training in earnest.

Take a few steps while your puppy is on a leash or a harness and pay attention to the pressure that your puppy puts on.

Should the puppy pull or strain at the leash then apply some light pressure at one or the other side of your puppy to try to get them to switch directions.

This technique does rely on the leash guidance so it should be strictly applied to your puppy’s side instead of just straight back.

By committing some direction, your puppy should relate and be guided in whatever way you want them to go rather than creating more resistance.

Should the puppy be more well-behaved with the leash then that can help your decision in whether you use the leash for your heel training. 

Once your puppy has been guided in the direction you want it to take then you can ‘let go’. This is where you state ‘let go’ and then whistle or pat your leg to ensure that your puppy’s attention is directly on you.

As your puppy begins to change their direction to follow you, you can release the pressure on the leash and give them some slack to do that.

Reaffirm their successful maneuver by stating ‘good’ and then rewarding them with a treat.

Before you begin your heel training with the Directed Shaping Technique, the Let Go Technique can be used as ideal preparation.

You can even use it as a warm-up to get your puppy into the mindset of learning commands and being rewarded for them.

Hopefully, the Let Go Technique will help your puppy to gain their focus on you and it can prove to be important for them to learn heel training.  

The Directed Shaping Technique

The Directed Shaping Technique

If you feel like you need to bribe your puppy to get them to heel then at least that’s a start.

The Directed Shaping Technique involves treats, calls, and a clicker to help your puppy understand what it takes to walk alongside you.

  • Grab a handful of your puppy’s favorite treats and cut them up into small, bite-sized pieces. 
  • With your puppy nearby, begin inside your home and walk around a room like the living room or up and down your hallway.
  • Call out the puppy’s name then point with a finger which side you want them to walk on. Remember that left is traditionally known as the heel side so focus on that one and see how you go. Not only is the left side the one that is usually taught for obedience but if you want the puppy to grow up to compete then it is the one used in rally competitions too.
  • If you are heel training with a leash, hold it in your hand on your preferred side and then pick up any remaining slack with your other hand.
  • Make sure that the treats are in the hand that is holding their leash as it will be closer to the puppy and you can quickly reward them or regain their attention. 
  • You can also hold the treats in a wooden spoon and make sure that your puppy waits and follows the command when you tell it to ‘heel’. Once it does, you could walk away for a few steps and continue to give your puppy treats, as long as they remain continuously heeled at your side.
  • Once your puppy comes to that side alongside you, use the clicker, give an affirmative ‘yes’, and then give them a bite-sized treat as a reward.
  • Try the same method a couple more times and then stop calling the puppy but remain pointing to your preferred side. Even though you have not called the puppy, they should still come to the side you are pointing at and will still be rewarded for coming into the right position to ‘heel’. 

This system works as the puppy recognizes which side to go on as the one where they will get a reward.

It can fail if you succumb to their puppy dog eyes and simply hand them a treat when they continually go to the wrong side.

Try to maintain your position with the treat by holding it out at your chest to prevent the puppy from being lured.

They need to learn that the reward is for their behavior and that they should not jump for the treat if it is just out of reach.

Be relatively strict and straightforward, give the puppy some time, and it should fall into line

You should also make sure that you hand out the treat with your preferred hand that is doing the pointing to prevent the puppy from crossing directly in front of you.

Reward the proper following of this technique by reaffirming that it was correct with a click of your clicker or a simple ‘yes’.  

Enhance this technique by increasing your pace of pointing so the puppy has to respond quickly to get a treat.

You can also turn while holding your pointing signal in place and see if the puppy follows you or gets confused.

If not, move on to zigzagging to effectively try to lose your puppy and find out if they can get into heel position again to be rewarded.

Improved performance should be a sign to make the training a little bit more complex by adding some eye contact with your commands such as ‘watch me’, or ‘look’. 

Hold Back The Treats

With some successful heel training, you can teach your puppy to lower its expectations. If you can walk with your puppy at your heel for a few yards then it is time to hold back the treats.

Continue the training as you have been doing with the puppy sitting at your preferred side and then the ‘heel’ command.

You can still give the puppy a single treat yet take a step back to make your puppy be rewarded with another one. 

There will be a few seconds before the puppy follows you and this is crucial. Should they remain heeled and not distracted then they can have another treat.

The distance between you and your puppy is also key as it should be relatively short so it can be extended.

With this training technique, you can start with a short distance only to build it up to a couple of yards. 

Add Some More Distance

The next progression in your heel training is adding some more distance. If you can walk for a few yards with your puppy at the heel then that should only take a couple of treats.

That’s a sign that your heel training is working and it is time to add a bit more distance to your work to reinforce those methods.

You can still continue to give your puppy some treats though you should try to phase them out. 

Assess how far you can add a bit more distance by how often your puppy breaks out of heel.

If this is after two yards then be incremental with your distance as it may be that your puppy is still too easily distracted.

Reaffirm the training by continuing with the two-yard distance until you are confident that your puppy has grasped the training. 

Add In Some Distractions

After you have built up the distance with your training and administered fewer treats, it is time to add in some distractions.

Should you have been heel training your puppy in your own backyard or in the home, it is time to put on the leash and take them into the big outdoors.

Take the puppy through the neighborhood or into a local park but be sure to keep them on a leash.

You will need to revert back to your heel training and keep handing out the treats yet this is a more complex part of the training program.

There should be a variety of distractions outside of the home and this is a real test to see how the training has worked, or has not.

Be consistent with the training, as you have been in the home, and see how the puppy copes when several distractions can cause their interest to wane and drift.

It may be best to keep the walks short and make sure that the puppy understands what is expected of them.  

Final Thoughts

The more successful your puppy proves at heel training, the more you can fade out their treats.

They cannot simply expect a treat every time they do something right so up the distance as you fade out the treats.

Soon enough, your puppy will begin to understand that treats are not applicable for going for a walk. However, if they continue to show good behavior then you can reward them with a treat or two.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Do You Reaffirm Heel Training?

There may be moments when your puppy refuses to abide by heel commands but remain consistent.

This is worth remembering early on as you will need to be patient and maybe go back a couple of training steps.

Make sure that the puppy is ready before you move on to more complex parts of the training. Walk a shorter distance and take your time with it.

Why Is The Puppy’s Body Language So Important?

You should learn to understand your puppy’s body language with training. More often than not, you can anticipate when your puppy is becoming restless.

If you can sense from their muscles or if they look distracted then that can be a surefire indicator that they are about to break from the heel position.

Pivot and walk in the opposite direction to get your puppy to learn the importance of paying you the utmost attention.

Sharon Isaacs