Heel? Loose Leash Walking? What Say Ye?

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.

16 Responses to Heel? Loose Leash Walking? What Say Ye?

  1. TheDogGirl says:

    I teach my dogs heel work because I compete in rally obedience, but I have found it useful on regular walks. I normally only require the loose leash walking you describe, but I like to be able to call my dog into a heel for times when space is tight and I need control – like walking on the narrow shoulder of a busy road, or passing a not-so-friendly dog. But then again, I suppose the same could be achieved by teaching a ‘watch me’ type command, so maybe the heel really isn’t necessary for the average dog owner.

    As for walking a dog in heel position, I don’t understand it either, but I see it a lot. And sadly, those dogs are often being jerked or are wearing prongs. I think we can thank a certain celebrity ‘trainer’ for the trend as he preaches that a dog walking in front of you is ‘dominant’…so people have interpreted that as a dog needs to be right at their side, or at leas that’s my take on it.

    On a related note, I was chatting with a friend last week who told me that his dogs don’t poop on a walk until he gives permission…wow, that sounds like good fun for them! (*eye roll*)

    • Deb says:

      Teaching your dog to do their business on comand is a good thing. That way you know where they are going and you don’t have to carry it with you when you are on a leasure walk…. in less you are someone who leaves your dog poop for someone else to clean up. That would explain the eye roll.

  2. r3dogz says:

    I have been asked the same question in my training classes regarding a left heel, I did not know the history on that so thank you. I think the more tools an owner has in their toolbox the better however I spend very little time on heel in my classes. Owners are more interested in loose leash walking which I prefer to heel since my classes are based on the real world.

  3. CattleDog says:

    Great post! I really enjoy having a formal heel command for “tight spaces” in public (or spaces where he might be reactive – such as trying to chase down that bike!). BUT 95% of our walking is done “loose leash” unless we’re actually in the competition ring, or practicing for it.
    That being said, before my dog had a solid heel, I taught him a sit-stay at my side so that bikes or other “nip-able” objects could pass while he focused on me instead of risking a fang-mark in someone’s tire!
    So, while many owners don’t have the time/skill/patience to teach a really solid formal heel, I think that having a solid “stay and focus” in public serves much of the same purpose and can be simpler to train.

  4. The DIY Dog says:

    I’m with TheDogGirl on this one. Loose-leash walking is more about not pulling me down the street, but heeling is more of a ‘stay in this spot’ kind of thing. I find it useful mostly in off-leash situations, such as on a hiking trail when passing other dogs or bikes. Or on leash if I want my dog’s attention – since LLW doesn’t require her attention, only that she doesn’t pull. And as CattleDog says, for tight spaces in public, like walking through a crowd at an event.

    For me, the value of heel IS the precision – when a bike is flying past us on the trail or if I have my hands full, I want to know exactly where my dog is and that she’s going to stay in that position without needing my assistance. It’s kind of like a moving “stay” in a way. Like you guys, I can’t understand going for a whole walk in heel though – what a drag for the dog…and the person!

  5. Nea says:

    I prefer taking walks for what they are-a chance for my dogs to get out, sniff around, and enjoy the view. 99% of it is loose leash.

    They’re so great at knowing when to fall back at my side (narrow passages, oncoming people/dogs), that I rarely need to cue them (We use “Easy” to slow down/walk by my side). We’re still working on automatically sitting at a corner before crossing, and that’s probably the only time I need them to “heel” for me.

    I have a hard time understanding why some folks feel the need to have the dog “heel” for the whole walk. Can’t imagine it’s a very exciting opportunity for the dogs!

  6. Matthew says:

    my 2 cents. I see heel as a “advanced” skill verse a “required” basic skill. It has it’s uses out side sports or competitions, but I fail to see the value of a constant heel when just out walking.

    I am teaching my dog heel, but only for the challenge and because it fits in with some goals, but it’s not how I walk him when out for a evening walk. that is all loose lead style.

    My dog is also dog/dog and human reactive. Until just recently he was un nerved by someone other than me being behind him. So he learned to walk a loose lead in front of me with me being the “wall” behind him protecting him. he was much more relaxed and no, he didn’t take over and start running things.

  7. I too am saddened when I see people jerking at their dogs leash and screaming at them when they stop & sniff or reply to the Pmail. I try to advise my clients that going for a walk is not always simply about physical exercise (unlike what they might see with a particular “tv guru”) and they are not trying to dominate. Walking is also about mental exercise to and getting out & about, seeing the sights and sounds (and smells) of the neighbourhood. I tell my clients it is IMPORTANT for the dog to stop, sniff and answer Pmail.
    I ask my clients to schedule a mental exercise walk for when they have the time to do so, and the physical exercise walk when they just need to drain a bit of energy from the dog and the owner wants the power walk!

  8. My Dog World says:

    I teach my dogs to walk on loose lead, I allow them in front, behind, let them sniff etc, just no pulling. I can if I need to for safety use the word “close” and they come to me, by my side!

    I have a nervous bitch (1 year old), and am working with her to help her fears, love the teaching “with me” you mention to a point where she would come if worried, I’m going to have to give this a go.

  9. Bina Lunzer says:

    Hi Nicole,
    i personally feel that what I call competition heeling is for competitors in obedience (like my dog) – and they should learn it like “just another trick” and have fun with that. I ask that kind of heeling only during obedience training and trials, I never ask it in everyday life. I do not consider it a good idea to spend leisure walks with a dog that stares at the handler all the time – may produce a sore neck in the dog…? We don’t know…
    I find it very useful to teach a dog not to pull when on a short leash – again with the least intrusive training protocol that one can find. That is a really difficult task for BOTH ends of the leash! With my clients and fellow trainers, I see that the “precision” asked here depends A LOT on the familiy situation the dog is in: A mother with a pram, a kindergarten kid and a primary schooler might find it quite disturbing when the dog changes sides by himself several times on the short stretch from the car to the house. Trainers/owners who live alone with their dog often can’t see any use in teaching a dog to stay on one side during loose leash walking – until the day a baby arrives in the familiy. 😉

    There is also what I call “semi-free” with long leashes up of 4-10 meters. Again, the more your dog needs to share your concentration with other familiy members, the more complicated walking on such a long leash becomes.

    What kind of LLW, what lenght the of leash is sensible and what precision you ask depends on the individual situation the dog lives in – and I feel this is the way we trainers should see LLW: Don’t teach more precision than an individual will need in today’s and future every day life, but also be capable of teaching precision if the goals of a client in training require it (and don’t just tell the client that his goals are “wrong”!).

    Regards from Austria,

  10. A close heel is great for when the school bus doors suddenly pop open & you have to maneuver through 50 squealing children, but this is a pretty rare occurrence, and even here in New Orleans I don’t see a lot of rifles on the street. But I am concerned that I see an increasing number of people walking with the leash up just behind their dogs ears & kept tight. At a recent pibble vaccination clinic I helped out at one handler I asked about this – she also jerked her dog about every 3 seconds for what appeared to be no reason whatsoever – told me that if she allowed him to sniff he’d “be dominant.” Thanks, Cesar!

    I teach the “j shape” with about 3 – 4 ft. of leash as the optimum beginners position, dog at whichever side you feel most comfortable. I have my dog on the left only because I feel more comfortable feeding across my body with my right hand. And I’ve also recently gone back to the good ol’ fashioned “peck” system. I generally find that by the time you are at 25 steps between rewards you are in pretty good shape.

    The biggest challenge for novice handlers, I think, is remembering not to let their dogs pull the leash through their hands when they’re not walking, which reinforces pulling in general. I’ll stop in my tracks if a dog starts to pull toward me when I approach, and find myself invariably having to remind owners “Ack! Don’t let him pull toward me” as they just relax their grip so Bongo can close the distance between us, invariably jumping & self-reinforcing pulling.

    And let us all agree that the extendo-leads were perversely designed to teach pulling. I don’t allow them in classes, or in my private training, and urge clients to “put them in the same drawer you keep The Clapper, and Salad Shooter, and never open it again.

  11. I agree, for the most part, loose leash walking is really what folks want, but a few also want, or think, that they need heel, and a fee do need it, but not many. I offer to teach it, but do so after a discussion of what their goal really us & why. I also discuss the dog’s needs and purpose of the walk…that simulation & exercise is more than moving feet forward. People walk & enjoy the sights, sounds of nature, music on an iPod, etc.,, but dogs also get stimulation from sniffing & investigating, etc. I ask who the walk is for. Like you said, having a dog know that getting into a position at your side is sometimes best for them, as you said with Bohdi, usually gives us a good compromise for loose leash walking and heeling, where the dog can do both as needed. I also take into consideration the locale, traffic, etc.

    So, the short answer to your question is yes, it has a place, but not a very big one and I think a modification is usually sufficient. Especially when the average pet guardian wants the most result for the least effort.

  12. I teach both to my own dogs as well as client dogs. Training is not just about the basics – it’s about real life training. The more “tricks” you have in your magic bag the better equipt you are to handle surprise situations.

  13. Lucille says:

    I live in an apartment in the middle of town therefore I appreciate the heel command; although I always leash my dog as a caution, it is nice to have him stick to my side without having to yank on the leash when we are negotiating traffic crossings and various foot traffic. The heel gives a level of attention to my immediate movements which is necessary especially in the summer when stepping ahead of me could in the worst case result in being hit.

  14. Nancy Chase says:

    Just discovered Wilde About Dogs and I LOVE it? Wish I had found this site sooner. Am so glad that just because I let my dogs walk, sniff and check p-mail I’m not giving over the “keys to the kingdom”. I can still be boss and let my fur kids have fun on their walks. Thanks for the fresh perspective!

  15. jamanda says:

    Heh… I have beagles. Loose leash only occurs when they have tired of sniffing everything and anything, attempted to eat everything and anything – OR – if I have a treat in my hand. The first half hour of a walk is an awesome workout for my core and arm muscles. 🙂 The walk is for them to stimulate their minds as well as exercise their bodies, and for a beagle, sniffing is what they like to do to stimulate their minds.

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