Heel Work by John Robert Cox

This is the discipline of ensuring that our dog works as close as to our left leg/side as is practicable and whilst on the move, neither surges nor lags, but happily stays with the handler. Certainly, for the average pet owner, having a dog that behaves nicely during “walkies”, without pulling in different directions and otherwise causing mayhem on the pavement, is normally one of the prime motivators for attending to training classes.

It is one of the basic initial tools in our toolbox to teach “control” and, as we now know, as pack leaders, we must be able to control our dogs. Why the left side and not the right?  Well, it would seem that as the majority of people are right handed, thus the lead which controls the dog is normally held in the dominant “controlling” hand. Consequently it has become common practice almost everywhere, that during obedience work, dogs work on the left side, close to the, loving, stroking and rewarding left hand. However, this is not to say that in certain circumstances, dogs can -not be trained just as well, to work on the handler’s right side.

It is hard to understand why we call it “heel work” when the average sized dog’s head is roughly level with the knee or thigh. Could we not just all agree to call it legwork!!?  Perhaps the breeds used to be a lot smaller than they are today or maybe we inherited the terminology from the days when rat training was all the rage!  Anyway, I suppose it is a bit of a compromise to avoid confusion amongst judges and trainers. We certainly can’t have Chihuahua handlers mumbling “ankle ankle” and Grate Dane enthusiasts screaming “elbow elbow” can we? So it seems we are stuck with heel.

Heelwork is, without any doubt, the very foundation of all serious training and if you cuff this, you certainly pay the price later in many other training exercises. In the “retrieve” the “recall” or the “send away and certain scent exercises”, sloppy heelwork can cost us dearly. This is not only due to the loss of crucial points, but also because poor finishes can generate displeasure on the part of the handler, which the dog quickly senses, causing it uncertainty and unnecessary stress. However, in the initial stages of training in these “other exercises” it would be foolish to manhandle, chastise or scold a dog for a crooked sit after every enthusiastic happy recall. This can quickly build up a bad association with a retrieve or a return to the handler. This is why basic heelwork should really be respected as an essential basic separate discipline.  So, if at any later stage in training we encounter sloppy heelwork or finishes, we need to pause, think and return to basic heel work sessions, where we can safely reinforce compliance.

The finish, in other words the act of the dog moving from your front facing you, to your side facing in the same direction as you are facing, is part of heel work. However, until such time as we are 100% confident of the other exercises, we should try to keep the finish separate, casually finishing any other exercise and praising the dog when the main objective has been achieved successfully. If we do this, we will avoid any other contamination. Remember, the dog associates your praise and pleasure with the very last accomplishment and not with any previous ones.  Unfortunately, the converse is not necessarily true. In other words, punishment or displeasure can easily become associated with the entire sequence or exercise being taught.

It can’t be over emphasised that “Heelwork” is inextricably linked to many other training exercises and because of this it holds far reaching implications for the unwary.  Heelwork, boring though it may be perceived by many of us, should be treated with greater respect. Let us look at a few secrets regarding what we do during heelwork training sessions.

Our conditioning tools are our lead (right hand), our left hand (for encouragement via food or caressing/ stroking the dog and also patting our left side and finally, our voice, where we emit certain “sounds” (commonly called commands) that will hopefully become familiar to the dog.  However, these sounds such as “heel or sit” will mean nothing at first without the use of all the other tools used at the same time.  Critical however, are the timeous and frequent use of the two most important sounds in dog training: The Good Sound (when the dog has done well or is doing well and the Bad Sound when the dog needs correcting “whilst doing wrong or badly” If using food as a motivator, then one always accompanies the food reward with the good sound or praise. In this way we can more quickly dispense with the need for food rewards. Sometimes, with a dog that is “favourite article crazy” i.e. chase mad on something such as a tennis ball, this can become an alternative motivator to food, and if held in the left hand one can “move” a dog in any direction required during heelwork. One may hear of people who are sold on the use of a “clicker” during training. However, I have yet to be convinced that this “click sound” given at the precise moment of compliance by a dog as confirmation that it has done well, can come anywhere close to the positive tail wagging response to a timeous and meaningful use of that…. oh so heavenly “good sound”.  So forgive me if I go no further on the subject of clicker training.

At this point it should be said that that the use of food to motivate a dog during training without in any way ever having to use a jerk or correction on a lead/check chain, is possible, especially at home. However, at a club or where there are other handlers and dogs present, a lead and some form of collar is a must, even if just for safety.  The use of a lead vs the use of food is a complex topic, but in general, it is a personal choice. From my side, I have found great success using both depending on circumstances, including the profile of the dog in question. Certainly the lead gives one the assurance of control and if properly and skilfully used with the voice (checking and not choking), it soon gets any message across to the dog. The use of food during training is extremely effective with puppies and younger dogs.

Handlers will also eventually discover that nowhere does body movement or body position have a greater effect on a dog’s actions than during heelwork, especially if a handler has been consistent during training. In fact it will normally stay the dominant motivator, even for a fully trained dog. This is important to understand because eventually, we will want the dog to respond to us by merely moving, often without any command or any of the other original tools (lead, voice, food etc.). An excellent example would be to stand with your back to your “trained” dog and give the recall “come” sound. It is highly unlikely that the dog will end up sitting in front of you!! 99% of the time it will end up sitting at heel. This is purely because of the conditioning effect of your body position.

There is a great deal to be said for absolute beginners to be put through extensive heelwork sessions without their dogs. During such sessions, handlers can concentrate on and master their body language and correct position (in many cases even learning their left from their right!!) without the added impediment of a new uncontrollable dog. Once the handler knows what is going on, the dog can be trained with much greater consistency and success because the handler has much less to think about.

During heelwork it is important that we remain outwardly enthusiastic and excited. A brisk purposeful pace is important from the onset and, if we permit out dog to surge, lag, or heel wide, we must never start to chase after, slow down or move outwards to accommodate the animal. Use all the tools in the toolbox to get the dog to walk close at heel, at your pace, and in your direction. A lagging dog needs lots of encouragement to speed up, whilst a surging dog  or wide heeler (much easier to correct) merely requires one to turn to the right or about turn, as often as possible, moving off smartly in another direction, using the bad sound and “heel” until the penny eventually drops. You reinforce this compliance by patting ones leg accompanied by use of pleasing good sounds and/or food at the point of compliance. Soon, there will be no doubt in the dogs mind, that staying by the boss is a much more pleasant proposition than heeling wide, pulling or lagging.

Many people tend to take their dogs off lead too early, before they are fully conditioned. Sure, feel free to experiment by quietly removing the lead or food as an incentive, but don’t forget to use your other tools fully… Voice, left hand encouraging, right hand pretending to jerk lead, and so on.  But, at first sign of trouble or lack of control, replace the lead.

Break your sessions up into specific short exercises and especially with new dogs, concentrate on one type of turn sequence at a time, rather than incorporating numerous different directional changes. Remember one of the secrets of dog training is consistency and “repetition”.  20 right turns on the move, rather than 20 different mixed turns (left, right, about etc) will produce 100% better results. Then break for 10 mins rest or fun time, followed by 20 at the halt right turns.  Later that day or the next day, concentrate on Left Turns.

Many people don’t make enough use of the recall on lead and if they do, they tend to introduce the finish too early. Often a beginner can benefit greatly from doing five minutes of nothing but “fast pace forward……….recall…………….fast pace forward…………recall” and so on,  introducing the “halt” or sit in front during a later session, followed by fast pace forward…..recall.
Later, one can teach the finish as a completely independent exercise by intense repetition of “stand in front of your dogs………finish…………..stand in front of your dogs…………finish….etc.  Much discussion has taken place over the years regarding the merits of the quick finish (smartly to the left) or the (heel right around the body) option. However, regardless of which one we choose, we need to be consistent. I am of the view, that once the hand/lead movements are grasped, the quick finish is easier to teach, looks sharper, the dog never leaves one’s sight and perhaps more to the point, it has a lot of common features with the left turn and left flip about turn.

During heelwork sessions, I feel that it is often a waste of time to walk in a straight line for more than 10 paces before changing direction. On the other hand, especially if one is training for the home rather than obedience competitions, the longer straight sessions become more relevant.  If at any time one clips the lead on a dog, it should be “assumed” by the owner, that the dog is now “on duty or under control” The dog needs to understand this, and not be permitted to “drag” the owner/handler from the carpark to the clubhouse or training area for example. Such behaviour tends to quickly “untrain” much more quickly than one would think.  Where you have a dog on lead, but do not wish the animal to be under really strict control, then you would be wise introduce some form of “relaxation of the rules” sound such as “Walkies” Similarly, when letting the dog off lead to do as he pleases, a release sound such as “Go Free or Play” can be used.
One issue that deserves reiteration, is the importance of consistent use of the same sounds for the same desired results, especially during the initial stages of training.  The simpler and more consistent the sound, the quicker the conditioning process. This is clearly not rocket science.  SIT said sharply with insistence, is I believe, simple enough, although many people seek to complicate things by prefixing every command/sound with the dog’s name (completely unnecessary unless merely to get the dogs attention if distracted). However, some handlers complicate the sound “Heel” also said sharply, with authority. The sound “heel” merely means get/stay by my side, whatever I happen to  be doing.  Interestingly, you will find that some handlers, especially when doing the more difficult left turns, see a specific need to introduce a secondary sound such as “IN” or “CLOSE” to ensure the dog stays at the side and/or does not wander wide.  One wonders why not just use the bad sound if necessary, followed by the repeat of the sound of “heel”? This is an example of the inconsistent use of sounds for a similar desired result.

Heelwork should be done at as many different venues, with as many varied distractions as possible such as carparks, outside shopping centres, parks etc. This is not only true for Working Trials dogs, who invariably get tested amongst a crowd or in a carpark, but even for the average pet owner. Such experiences actually go a long way to strengthen both the trust and bond between owner and dog. Try a busy restaurant sometime.  If not permitted entry, do what I do.  Go back to your car and get your white cane, slip on your dark sunglasses, and try again!!