Clicker Training Heeling

In todays blog, I will try to describe how I train heeling for obedience trials with my puppies. There are many ways to do it, described in books and on websites. What I mostly don’t like about them is that they focus on areas that always come very easy for me, and pretty much ignores the areas that I find harder. My dogs like to to obedience with me, and if they didn’t, I wouldn’t be teaching them to heel. I would be playing tug with them and have them give me attention to get the tugging to start again, I would be doing lots of shaping games, I would be evaluating how well I have taught my dog to enjoy the rewards that I’m using. Getting them to enjoy heeling is not a problem. Having perfect position for a four minute heeling pattern is a much bigger problem. Having a dog that never swings her butt out, charges ahead (even the slightest) or changes the position of her head is the goal of my heelwork training. The clicker recipies for heeling that I have read (in english) has position as it’s least concern. They are more concerned about not having dogs that start to lag or looses focus.

With a puppy or new dog, I am however, going to teach focus and the right attitude before I am concerned about position. That should, however, be done very quickly with a dog that likes training if it hasn’t got any previous bad training in heeling or obedience in general. I also make sure that I work on focus and attitude in a setting that differs from the end goal. To do that, I walk backwards and have the dog follow me in heel position until I absolutely love my dog’s focus, attitude and position.

Pi at 4 months

This is Pi at four months, with perfect focus, attitude and position as I walk backwards

Reasons for walking backwards in the initial stages of training heelwork:

  • It doesn’t look like the end behavior and therefore, I can work on one aspect at a time without concern for reinforcing unwanted behavior (i.e. bad position).
  • The first time my dog ever does “normal” heeling with me walking forwards, her focus, attitude and position will be perfect!
  • It’s much easier for a puppy to follow me with great focus as I walk backwards.
  • It’s much easier for me to see the puppy without having to walk in an akward position, bending towards the dog. I can look just like I do in competition from the first session.
  • It keeps heeling separate from loose leash walking and agility circle work until the dog understands the behavior.
  • I can always go back to walking backwards if I get into a difficult environment where my young dog has a hard time focusing.
  • I use the backwards walking when I teach my dogs stand, sit and down from heel. When I walk backwards, they are free to offer the behavior (but only if that behavior, sit for example, has been reinforced just before I start walking backwards) and I can then get stimulus control while walking backwards.

When I start this training, I have four stages. It is important to not expect everything at once. Since we’re walking backwards, it is ok for the dog to not be perfect when we start. These are the four stages:

  • Focus. First thing I want from the dog is focus. I want the dog to be focused on me when I walk backwards. She does not (and should not, because it is incompatible with perfect position) have to look me in the eyes. All I want is that she is looking at me and not at everything else.
  • Attitude. When the dog gives me attention as soon as she has finished her reward, I start to look at her attitude. I want the dog to lift her head, wag her tail, come close to me, have good rythm when walking etc. Most dogs will need “more” attitude. Some dogs need to have a calmer attitude, where I would select for not jumping, walking calmly, not bumping into me etc.
  • Position. The position I am aiming for is at my left side, straight and with head and/or shoulder next to the seam in my pants. Like Pi in the picture above). This might already be in place because of placement of reinforcement in the earlier stages. I might temporarily loosen criteria for focus and attitude while working on position (should only be for a session or so).
  • Duration. When all three components (focus, attitude and position) has come together and the dog is performing perfect heeling when I walk backwards, I will start to ask for some duration. I think 15-20 steps probably is enough. You want to look for consistency in all three criteria before you turn around and walk forward.

About rewarding
I prefer to not have treats in my hands when I train heeling. I would only do it to proof the dogs understanding of position, and for the first times when I go from backing up to forward walking. There is no need to have treats in your hand when you teach heeling if there isn’t a specific issue that you need to fix by rewarding really fast. I sometimes have treats in my right hand to be able to reward faster (I pass them behind my back and always reward with my left hand). I don’t think you should have rewards in your left hand since that will most likely make the dog too focused on the treats and/or dependent on the food as a lure.

I keep the treats in my pocket (preferably on the left side) and try to walk as much like I would at a competition as possible (not counting the fact that I am walking backwards…). I will not jog or run, but keep a steady pace with long strides. When I mark good behavior, I loosen up, praise the dog and increase speed (at least if the dog needs more attitude). At the same time, I will get a treat from my pocket with my left hand and let the dog drive to the treat at my left side (where I want dog to be, or slightly beyond). The only time I would stop and reward is for the dog who needs to calm down and who has good position allready. With good placement of reward already when working on focus, both attitude and position will often come without much work. Also consider how straight your dog is when you are rewarding. You don’t want the dog to swing his butt out when you are rewarding. If you keep moving, it’s often easier to get the dog straight.

Turning around
When the dog is doing nice heeling for 15-20 steps as you walk backwards, you can start to turn around and get the same behavior with the final cue (you walking forward and looking serious). Only turn around when your dog is doing his very best. Go back to backwards walking after each repetition of turning around in the begining. I prefer to take one step to the right and then walk forward. You can also turn to your right 180 degrees to go from backing to walking forward. Choose what works for you and your dog.

Reward your dog immediatly when he gets into the right position. If he doesn’t, break it off and try again. I don’t care about my puppy’s attitude when I do this, head might come down, but I will still reward perfect position as I turn around. Focus and attitude will come back soon! After many rewards for coming to the right position at your side, you can start to add more steps. Be very aware of the placement of reinforcement. You want the dog to always get rewarded in the correct position, without swinging his butt out. It usually helps if the dog has good rear end awareness and good finishes before you turn around.

There is of course more to heeling than this, but this should get you an idea of how to get started. I will try to make a video of my puppy doing this kind of training. Please make a comment if you have any questions.

  • reply Petra ,

    Very interesting article! I’ve heard about that way of building up heeling, but never read at length about it. Thank you very much for writing that down.
    Have a nice Christmas,
    P.S. Great puppy by the way, congratulations *g*!

    • reply Linda ,

      Have you studied with Dawn Jecs?

      • reply Fanny ,

        Linda: No, I don’t know who that is, sorry

        • reply Elizabeth ,

          Thank you for this post. I haven’t taught heeling this way and definitely will try it. I look forward to the video of you and your puppy training heel. I was a little confused about how much and when you click and treat when training this, so to see you doing it in a video would be great.

          I would love it if you posted more about the methods you use to train your dogs in obedience. Also, how you train your dogs to have so much focus and work with you so well? I wonder if you have a daily training schedule with each of your dogs? What are your walks in the woods with your dogs like? Are they allowed to run free or do they stay close?
          Anyway, love your blog! Wish you posted everyday and also wish I could train with you. I admire your work.
          Thanks and Merry Christmas!

          • reply Fanny ,

            Elizabeth: Thank you for commenting. I will try to make a video of the puppy soon. I will also try to write more about obedience training, as I know that is of great interest to many.

            I can’t really tell why my dogs have excellent focus, maybe it is because I make sure that they love the rewards that I use, because I am focused on them, because training is both rewarding and challenging, because there never is a dead second when we’re training (good mechanical skills) or because of all the self control skills.

            I’m nog as organized as I should be and my dogs don’t have a daily training schedule (and the grown up dogs often only get one session per day of training). My dogs run free in the woods (Shejpa loves to run and sniff and can do so with high intensity for an impessing amount of time. Missy is more interested in looking at me and I have actually taught her to hunt pheasants and squirrel to get her more independent in the woods ūüėÄ She is a very obedient dog and will not chase, just flush).

            • reply Cedarfield ,

              Thanks for posting this interesting entry.
              I’ve never heard of this technique for training heeling but I think it’s brilliant. Whenever I’ve tried to teach my dogs to heel I’ve always struggled with how to break it down. I’m going to try this method and see if I can teach it better. And I’d love to see video of you teaching it to your puppy, too.

              • reply Sare ,

                Interesting I’ve not heard of teaching it this way either, but it makes sense. Will try it and see if we can rework some issues. Also would love to hear more training methods you use. Great blog enjoy reading about your training and trialing with your dogs. As a follow-up to Elizabeth’s post – How long do you walk run your dogs a day? Also do you think that food is as important as daily exercise like the walks in the woods or do you think one trumps the other. In the US so much importance is put on the right food, but many dogs don’t get proper exercise. People blame it all on the food do you see a connection where you are or not? Finally, I saw your videos on You Tube and saw there was an obedience trial in the snow. Wow! that was amazing, are they typically held outdoors in Europe? Thanks again for sharing. If you ever do a seminar in the US please let us know.

                • reply Fanny ,

                  Sare: I think proper exercise is much more important than what you feed them. I do feed my dogs the best I can find (raw, no carbs) anyway of course. I’m not the best at taking long walks, but I try to walk them for an hour every day. Walks are mostly off leash and they really run. I also put a lot of time into conditioning in other ways. Walking on uneven ground, swimming (in the summertime), strenghthening core by balance exercises, bending exercises etc.

                  We do have most obedience trials outdoors in Sweden. Some might be indoors in a riding facility and some are indoors at big dog shows. The trial that was in the snow was in the end of march and no one really expected that kind of wheather.

                  • reply Nancy Tucker ,

                    Thank you so much for this “tutorial!” I’ve been training obedience for just a few years and am on my third competitive obedience pup, Jingle, who is a year old. My previous two were more natural heelers but Jingle tends to sniff more so I’ve started her out with clicking/treat when she’s in proper position. But we’re not making a lot of progress so I will definitely try your method!

                    As someone else mentioned, I would also love to see more of your training methods.

                    Have a wonderful holiday.

                    Nancy Tucker

                    • reply eva marie ,

                      Inspiring! Will try to work Ozz in the same way, thank¬īs for the tip ūüôā
                      Have a great holiday, best wishes em with predators

                      • reply Aubrey ,

                        Thanks so much for the explanation! I was very confused watching your videos before this explanation. It all makes sense now. LOVE IT!

                        My young dog is having trouble with attention and I feel like I am going to screw her up by having her inattentive in “heel” position! What a wonderful way to train that concept!

                        I noticed that in your Competition Obedience videos the dogs are never required to come to “front” position on recalls or retrieves. In the US they do. Do you think all the reinforcement to your left side, with the dog facing you, might confuse them?


                        • reply Shanice Tan ,

                          Thanks Fanny for the great tip. I’ve been having great issues with heel work with my sheltie cos’ she can’t focus on me & look up when she heels. Will try your method as soon as possible. Look forward to more blogs & videos on trainings. Thanks alot.

                          Shanice & Nova

                          • reply Anita ,

                            Will this method work for training/retraining an older dog? I went to a seminar that you put on for Justine Davenport and loved all your ideas but have had a hard time working them out on my own.

                            • reply Linn Ahlbom ,

                              Thank you so much for sharing your heeling methods and thoughts! Very interesting and very clever way of going about it(!) Very inspiring!

                              I have a question about letting your pup running free in the woods — do you ever find that your dog gets distracted by joggers/animals/other dogs? What do you do if your dog runs up to one of these or have your already taught them from a very early age to ignore these distractions always? Do you ever find their behaviours temporarily “breaking down” when they are going through adolescence?

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                                    • reply Liz ,

                                      How do you get the attention when first starting? I can get my dog’s attention and I can get her to walk next to me as I walk backwards, but she won’t do both at once.

                                      • reply Girl Puppy Names ,

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                                          • reply lindsay ,

                                            Sigh. I’ve been teaching my dog to heel.for non-competitive reasons, a.d although she heels on our walks she hates it – the only reward that seems to work is letting her go sniff something she has her eye on. She knows that she sniffs when I say so, not on her own will, but I’ve never had a dog THIS into her nose! (& I’ve worked with scent hounds before!) She also is very inattentive – I have to use to watch command to.get her to look my way. Yet when the trainer picked up her leash (after putting her on a prong collar, while I prefer a head halter) she was in perfect position giving him perfect attention! How discouraging – is there hope for the non-professionals like myself?

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                                              […] when he is in the right spot – before he gets the chance to pass you and walk to far ahead. Re-training the behavior walking backwards can also be a great way to get a new start. Or maybe just reinforcing the correct position when […]

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                                                        […] Clicker Training Heeling | Fanny’s Clicker Dog Blog ‚Äď Clicker Training Heeling 26 22 December Categories: Obedience. In todays blog, I will try to describe how I train heeling for obedience trials with my puppies…. […]

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