In fact, a picture perfect heel is a portrait of patience and persistence. It exudes joy, excitement, and precision. It is a beautiful art form propped up by the pillars of behavior science, and a picture perfect heel is one of the most elusive marks of an exceptional trainer. In this next series of blogs, I'll be exploring the steps to creating a perfect heel with my own dog, and we'll discover together the difficulties and joys in training the perfect heel.
Though there are slightly different definitions for heel, most people understand heeling as the dog walking on the handler's left side, with the dog's right shoulder to the handler's left hip. Technically, I consider heel to be a very precise position in which the dog's front legs move in synchrony with the handler's legs. I also require that the dog look up and at the handler's face (preferably, staring into the person's eyes). So, as the handler takes a step, the dog anticipates this movement and takes an equal step, all while maintaining solid eye contact. The dog and the person move as a seamless team.
Why is it so hard to train "heel"?
"Heel" is notoriously difficult to train because there are multiple criteria that must be met, and none of them are simple or easy:
1) The dog must have exceptional body awareness (proprioception). If the dog isn't aware of her own legs, she'll never understand how to move them in synchrony with yours!
2) The dog must keep eye contact with the handler at all times. No matter if the person is walking slowly or quickly or turning left or right, the dog must work extraordinarily hard to keep her eyes locked onto her handler. Can you imagine the level of focus this requires? Most people can't do this!
3) The dog should look joyous and happy while heeling. This is probably the most difficult and elusive component to teach. This is stuff of urban legends. The secret to joyous heeling is different for every dog, and it cannot be forced or beaten into an animal. This is why many trainers have turned away from compulsion/force-based techniques and are embracing behavior science as the most effective way to teach beautiful heeling.
So, how in the world do you teach a beautiful "heel"?
First, understand that "heel" is actually very simple. It is just a position. The dog stands on your left, her shoulders to your hips, her eyes locked onto yours. Simple enough, right? The difficulty is training the dog to keep this position even when you start moving! But that's material for upcoming blogs. For now, it is imperative that the dog understand the heel position... and to LOVE that position. So, the steps are pretty simple:
1) Teach the correct heel position: dog's right shoulder to your left hip. Her front feet should be aligned with yours.
2) "Proof" the position. Test your dog: ask her to find the correct heel position from many different angles, try to pull her out of heel position with distractions, etc.
3) Build joy. Make working with you and finding the heel position the most exciting moment of your dog's life. If it isn't intrinsically rewarding to work with you, you've lost the battle. The dog won't be ready to give all her effort and joy, and your resulting "heel" will not improve. Engage your dog in play and/or food games, and turn these training sessions into actual, fun games.... because, let's face it, that's all they really are!