Advanced Skills: Heel & Off Leash Protocol
Is my dog ready for this advanced skill? Read these questions.
- Does my dog have a consistent, well-practiced “Nose Behind Toes” (NBT) walk (including passing by temptations)? Refer to “The Walk” protocol for developing the NBT walk because it will be crucial for quickly learning the “heel” position. If your NBT walk is in the developing stages, you may find the following information complimentary; however, you must have solved for pulling, yanking, and most temptations before proceeding.
- Is my dog food or treat motivated?
- Do I want my dog to walk tightly at my side, in a focused manner, free of a leash?
If you answered “Yes” to all three, then you’re ready!
We’ll be explaining a traditional left-side heel. While it doesn’t matter to us which side of you your dog walks on, the left side is most common, and choosing a side will help us explain the protocol.
Let’s start building your heel & off leash walk:
Start your walk practice in a low-temptation environment for your dog. We want to avoid competing with distractions as we’re starting off.
- Loop the leash handle over your right wrist. At this stage in your dog’s training, it isn’t pulling or yanking you, and it walks somewhat by your side if not NBT, so you won’t need to grip onto the leash. It’s helpful to have a free hand for this; this is how you get it.
- Take a treat in your left hand, pinch the treat between your fingertips, or clutch it in a closed fist (depending on what works best for your dog), and then put that hand right in front of your dog’s nose so their nose is touching your hand/fingertips, and guide them behind your leg. Keeping the back of your hand on the back of your leg can be helpful.
- Use the treat to keep their attention, allowing you to guide them into the perfect heel position, head close to, nearly touching, the outside of your left leg, with the nose never getting ahead of your body. Make them earn their treat by holding the position for at least a few steps. This is called luring, and it helps your dog understand the correct position. While your dog is getting lured, licking/nibbling on the treat, continue walking and say, “Good heel.”
- Quickly grab another treat, lure your dog (back) into position, and repeat the command, “heel.”
- As your dog learns to perform the “heel” command, increase the time between treats for being in the correct place. With practice, your dog will need less of a lure; you can try having the treat further from the dog’s nose, try hand luring without a treat, or even try the command with minimal luring altogether (eventually phasing it out).
- If your dog begins to drift out of position, correct it appropriately, as discussed with your trainer, then guide/lure him back to the heel position while giving the command itself. Ideally, we want the maintenance of the heel position to be maintained by the dog until released, so correction timing and guidance are the same as the NBT protocol explained in “The Walk” training guide.
- Once the dog has grasped the position, start trying short distances without holding the leash; either lay it across his back or let him drag it. Again, start with a short distance, with a reward for staying NBT, and build into longer distances, with fewer treats. If your dog detours from your “heel,” interrupt/correct and reset them, which may require briefly picking up the leash again.
With practice, you will have accomplished teaching your dog to heel, focus on you, and ignore even strong temptations. Now, you and your dog can enjoy walks without a leash.