Bird Dogs & Training  |  05/17/2023

A Simplified Approach to Heeling


How to teach an essential skill that every bird dog should have

By Jeff Ebert

Heeling is one of the easier obedience lessons to teach your dog, but many dog owners seem to struggle with this concept.

I have witnessed perhaps dozens of schemes to get a dog to heel, including pinch collars, funny looking leads, and some harnesses that attempt to physically distort the dog into submission. Many of the problems stem from the dog’s drive and desire to get out and just have fun. After all, heeling means we are going for a walk, right? Other problems can arise from the lack of good communication between handler and dog. When we issue the “Heel” command, what is the expected behavior? 

As with anything we teach our dogs, breaking skills down to the most basic level often leads to the quickest success. If we want to teach a dog to be steady to wing, shot and fall, it is not a good idea to teach all these skills all at once. There are too many variables. Instead, we would teach the dog to be steady on the sight of a bird, and then steady to the flush. We would follow this by teaching steady to the gun, and then finally the fall of the bird. 

So, why is it that we try to teach heel by dragging a dog on a lead to our side and immediately try to get it to follow us as we go on walkabout? Once again, too many variables—it takes the dog a little longer to realize that what we mean is to follow us at our side. This can be increasingly difficult if your dog likes to lead or pull.

It is important to realize that obedience is the foundation that we build all of our training on, and compliance without submission is our goal. So, if you are struggling with this obedience skill, or if you have not mastered it by the time your dog is ready for bird training, consider this simplified approach to heeling. Remember that NAVHDA recognizes heeling as simply an obedience skill — it is not scored in any category except obedience. It is your dog’s willingness to respond to command. Without this basic skill, all the rest of your training breaks down.

By modifying the heeling lesson only slightly, this approach will attempt to address your dog’s desire to get out and go, and it will break the lesson down to its most basic level so that communication between dog and handler is successful.

To begin, stand in a position as if you are ready to start walking. With your dog on lead, issue a heel command and bring the dog to your side in heeling position. Do not walk! Praise your dog for a correct response and position. Your dog should be standing facing forward with its head aligned to your knee.

Repeat this process without moving. Add into your training a hand signal for heeling such as a tap on your knee. Repeat this training process for several short periods throughout the day until your dog reliably comes to your side in heel position without you moving. You can extend this by increasing the lead length, changing your stance and changing your position. Do not attempt to walk the dog until you can reliably get the dog to come to your side on command with “Heel.” 

You are now ready for the walk. Begin with just a few straight steps. If your dog does not follow, repeat the command and assist it in coming back to the heel position with a snap of the leash. Continue by extending your straight line walk and getting your dog to follow in that position. If your dog begins to lead, stop and command heel. Use leash corrections to get the dog to return to your side.

When this works reliably, you are ready for a couple of turns. Do not make the mistake that most new handlers make and turn away from your dog. In the beginning, you want to turn into the dog. Make the dog move out of your way and maintain visible contact with your knee. Soon you will see that your dog watches for your turn. Now you are ready to turn away from your dog. Again, encourage your dog to the heel position with leash corrections. 

The leash should never be tight—it is a correction tool and not a restraint. The rest is repetition. You will actually find it will not take long for your dog to reliably heel on command. Actual results may vary. You can increase the challenge for your dog by changing pace and adding obstacles like walking on heel through the woods or field.

It is very important to remember that, at first, the duration of the heel should be kept short. Do not let your dog become bored with the lesson. Too many people place their dog on heel and go for a half mile walk around the block. The dog will always lose interest. 

Remember: “Heel” is a command. With all commands, there must be a release. Without the release, your dog will start to test how long is “long enough.” This is a breakdown in obedience. The heel, like all commands, must be maintained until the dog is commanded with a release. This is another lesson and is called “Consistency.”

Why is this approach different in the dog’s eyes? 

Well, perhaps the biggest reason is that you are teaching your dog that “Heel” means to come to your side, and not that we are going for a walk. Perhaps equally important, is that you can successfully communicate to your dog that there is only a single action — coming to your side in heel position—that will result in praise and reward. In addition, the dog will not become distracted by the sights and smells of every little thing you walk by. 

Give it a try!

This story first appeared in Versatile Hunting Dog Magazine.