Back in the old days of dog training, dogs were expected to do precision heelwork. Upon hearing the command, “Heel!” the dog would walk alongside the handler in precise alignment, match the handler’s pace, and sit automatically when the handler stopped moving. I’ve taught many a dog to heel over the years, especially early on in my career. The skill can not only prove helpful on walks, but teaching it in a positive, gentle way can be a relationship-building experience for owners and their dogs. Besides, trainers should know how to get precise behaviors. But in today’s world, has heelwork become obsolete?
In my experience, today’s average dog owner could care less about a militaristic-style heel. I’ve had clients ask, “But doesn’t the dog have to be on my left side?” I explain that the custom began in the military, when the rifle being held in the right hand necessitated the dog being on the soldier’s left. Nowadays, I figure if you’re walking down the street with a rifle, you’ve got bigger problems than getting your dog to heel. The truth is, of all the clients I’ve had over the years, there was only a handful who really wanted that precision positioning. The vast majority just wanted their dog to stop dragging them down the street.
What’s now commonly referred to as “loose leash walking” works well for most dog owners. Rather than maintaining a precise position, the dog is expected to walk within an area defined by an imaginary circle by the owner’s side. When done correctly, the dog is neither pulling nor lagging. I prefer loose leash walking for my own dogs, and teach it on both sides (what’s the chances you’ll only ever want your dog to be on that one side?). I also think it’s important, though, that if I’m walking Sierra, for example, and need her to be right by my side—say, we’re on a narrow path at the park and a work truck drives by—that I can say, “With me!” and she’ll place herself immediately in position. Heel position has also been useful in my work with Bodhi’s dog reactivity. I’ve taught him over time that it’s fine to walk ahead of me (and no, that does not mean he thinks I’ve handed over the keys to the kingdom) as long as he doesn’t pull. But I’ve also taught him that if he sees a dog who makes him feel nervous, he need only walk by my side to get guidance and treats. He now voluntarily puts himself into position when he feels overwhelmed by an oncoming dog.
The bottom line is that the better trained your dog, the more freedom you can allow. But there’s overkill, too—I don’t understand owners whose idea of a leisurely walk is to have their dog constantly maintain heel position without being allowed to sniff the grass or investigate enticing scents. Moderation is a good thing, and having your dog trained to at least do loose leash walking means that you can decide when you want him next to you, and when to give the release cue to go and sniff.
What do you think? Other than in obedience competitions or sports such as Freestyle, do you think heel still has a place with modern pet owners? I’d love to hear your thoughts.