The first days after bringing home a puppy are always the most stressful ones for both humans and puppies. How to Teach a Puppy to Heel? After the initial excitement has calmed down, you might wonder at what point you can begin training your puppy to heel and how to best go about this process.
You can start training your puppy at about four months of age. Before that, it is more important to socialise your puppy, let it get to know all family members, and make sure it feels safe and confident in its new home after being picked up from its mother and siblings at the breeder.
Since dogs, and especially puppies, are very food-motivated, training your puppy involves a lot of little treats as rewards.
What Is Heel?
“Heel” means that your dog is walking directly next to you, rather than behind or in front of you. It is all about paying close attention to your pace or when you stop, which is a challenge, especially for excited puppies that want to sniff everything they encounter.
Since this training takes a lot of effort and discipline for your dog, patience is key. Taking your time with heel training and making sure your puppy knows what to do is crucial, whereas with undue haste you will only lose more time and become frustrated.
Why Is It Important That My Puppy Can Walk At Heel?
Walking at heel teaches your dog impulse control. This is very important for walking in busy areas with lots of traffic and other dangerous distractions.
It is important to train in a quiet place without distractions so that the learned commands are really well ingrained before they can later be practised in a more busy environment.
Going out for a walk should not comprise heel time, though. Your puppy also needs explore the environment.
How To Teach a Puppy To Heel
There are two very similar methods, depending on whether you want to begin while walking or if you first want to teach your puppy to come to your side when called. In both cases, you should prepare lots of little treats, since puppies are motivated by tasty rewards.
You can additionally use a clicker to emphasize the praise, but saying “yes” or other words of acknowledgment work as well.
If you want to teach your puppy to come to you, begin by standing still and pointing to the side toward which you want your puppy to walk.
You can choose, of course, either side, but if you want to participate in obedience competitions with your dog later on, the left side is the traditional side for walking at heel. When pointing to your side, say “Come here” or whatever command you want to use in these situations.
If done right, reward your puppy with a treat. Take care to hand over the treat on the side on which the dog sits so that it does not have to cross your body to get at the treat! Praise your puppy for a job well done and click the clicker, if you have chosen to use one.
Steps to Teaching Your Puppy to Heel
Start in a Distraction-Free Environmen
The initial steps of training your puppy should be in an area where distractions are minimal. This could be a quiet room in your house or even a secluded part of your yard. The absence of distractions like toys, other pets, or outdoor noises helps your puppy focus solely on you and the command you are trying to teach.
Leash Up and Get Treats Ready
Attach a leash to your puppy’s collar. The leash will help you guide your puppy’s movement. In your other hand, have a few treats ready. Treats are a powerful incentive for puppies. Ensure the treats are small so they can be consumed quickly and won’t distract your puppy for too long.
Introduce the ‘Heel’ Command
Begin walking with your puppy at a slow pace. When your puppy is in the right position (walking closely beside your left leg), give the command ‘heel’ in a firm but friendly voice. If they stay in the right position, reward them with a treat and verbal praise like “good heel!” to reinforce the behavior.
Keep rewarding your puppy every time they follow the ‘heel’ command correctly. This consistent reinforcement helps your puppy understand that ‘heel’ means they should walk beside you and that doing so will earn them a treat. With time, your puppy will start responding to the command even without a treat.
Gradually Increase Difficulty
Once your puppy is confidently following the ‘heel’ command in a quiet area, gradually introduce more distractions. This could mean walking them around different rooms in your house, moving to the backyard, or eventually taking them to a park. The goal is to have your puppy successfully follow the ‘heel’ command in a variety of environments.
Training a puppy to heel isn’t a one-time thing; it requires consistent practice. Set aside time each day for training. Shorter, more frequent training sessions are often more effective than infrequent, lengthy ones. Regular practice not only reinforces the behavior but also strengthens your bond with your puppy.
Remember, every puppy is unique and will learn at its own pace. While some may catch on quickly, others might take a little more time to fully understand and respond to the ‘heel’ command. Always stay patient, consistent, and positive to ensure the best results.
Troubleshooting Common Issues
Lack of Focus
Puppies are easily distracted by their surroundings. If your puppy is having trouble focusing on the task at hand, try moving to a quieter, less distracting area. Also, using higher value treats or a favorite toy can help maintain their attention.
Pulling Ahead or Lagging Behind
If your puppy is constantly pulling ahead or lagging behind while you’re trying to teach them to heel, it may be a sign they don’t fully understand what’s expected of them. Slow down, and ensure you are rewarding your puppy only when they are in the correct position (beside you). Consistently stop moving when they pull ahead and reward them when they return to the correct position can also help.
Fear or Anxiety
Some puppies might become fearful or anxious when first introduced to leash walking. If this happens, it’s important to move at your puppy’s pace and make leash training a positive experience. Offering plenty of praise and treats, and gradually increasing the length of the leash walks, can help your puppy become more comfortable over time.
If you’re inconsistent with the ‘heel’ command – for example, sometimes using it when you want your puppy to come to you – it can confuse your puppy. Make sure you’re using the command only for its intended purpose.
Refusal to Follow Commands
If your puppy is refusing to follow commands, it could be a sign they’re not interested in the treat you’re using. Switching up the treats, or using a favorite toy, can help reignite their interest. Also, make sure your training sessions aren’t too long. Puppies have short attention spans and may simply be getting bored if training sessions go on for too long.
Once you have practised these steps and they work out well, you can begin walking around the room and calling your puppy to your side. Gradually increase your pace, walk in different directions, or turn around so that it gets more difficult for your puppy to find the right position again.
When all this works out well, you can try adding eye contact and non-verbal commands. Never add too many new commands in a single day, though, especially when training a puppy.
It is more important to make sure that your puppy remembers a few simple commands safely over days than adding a lot of commands in a single session.
When you want to start the training while you are already walking, you can use the treat as a lure to call the puppy to your side while strolling through the room.
When rewarded with food and words of praise, your puppy will learn that good things come from walking by your side. Gradually increase the number of steps you take before reward your puppy with a treat, and then intermittently replace treats with verbal praise.