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The Ultimate Guide to Heel: How To Teach It and When To Use It

March 25th, 2024

Filed under Training

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Heel training can be an essential skill for many dogs and pup parents, but it is not a skill all pup parents find necessary to master.

In this comprehensive guide, we'll delve into the difference between heel and loose-leash walking and when to use it so you can decide if it is an important skill for you - as well as step-by-step instructions on how to teach it!

Table of Contents:

  1. When and When Not To Use Heel
  2. Heel Vs. Loose-Leash Walking
  3. How To Teach Heel Step By Step

When and When Not To Use Heel

Before delving into the intricacies of heel training, it's essential to understand the contexts in which the heel cue should and should not be utilized.

While heel is a valuable skill for maintaining control and focus in certain situations, there are instances where employing this cue may not be appropriate or necessary.

In this section, we'll explore when to use heel and when alternative approaches may be more suitable.

When to Use Heel

A photo of a border collie walking in a heel across the street

Heel training serves as a valuable tool in various scenarios where maintaining close proximity and control over your dog is essential. Here are some situations where using heel is beneficial:

Walking in Busy or Crowded Areas

In bustling environments such as city streets, parks, or crowded events, heel allows you to navigate through distractions while keeping your dog focused and by your side.

Obedience Training and Competitions

Heel is a fundamental component of obedience training and is often showcased in competitions or shows to demonstrate your dog's discipline and responsiveness to cue.

Passing Other Dogs or People

When passing by other dogs, people, or obstacles during walks, heel ensures that your dog remains calm, controlled, and safely by your side, minimizing potential conflicts or distractions.

Crossing Streets or Negotiating Traffic

In situations involving street crossings or navigating through traffic, heel provides an extra layer of safety by keeping your dog close to your side, reducing the risk of accidents or unwanted behavior.

When Not to Use Heel

A photo of a newfoundland walking on a loose leash

While heel is a valuable skill in many situations, there are instances where it may not be appropriate or necessary. Understanding when to forgo heel and opt for alternative approaches ensures effective communication and a positive experience for both you and your dog.

Here are some scenarios where heel may not be suitable:

Relaxing Walks in Low-Traffic Areas

On your daily walk around the neighborhood or park, allowing your dog more freedom to explore and sniff their surroundings through loose leash walking may be more enjoyable and mentally stimulating for them.

For even mental enrichment on daily walks, opt for a long lead! This allows your dog to sniff and explore at their own pace while remaining safe.

Off-Leash Play and Exercise

In off-leash environments such as dog parks or fenced-in areas, allowing your dog the freedom to run, play, and socialize without the constraints of heel fosters physical activity and socialization opportunities.

Times of Physical Discomfort or Distress

If your dog is experiencing physical discomfort, illness, or distress, enforcing strict a heel may exacerbate their stress levels or discomfort. In such cases, prioritizing their well-being and providing comfort and support takes precedence over strict obedience.

Training for Specific Tasks or Activities

Certain activities or tasks may require alternative training techniques tailored to their specific requirements. For instance, scent detection or agility training may prioritize different cues or behaviors over traditional heel training.

By recognizing the appropriate contexts for using heel and understanding when alternative approaches may be more suitable, you can effectively communicate with your dog and create positive, rewarding experiences during walks and training sessions.

Tailoring your approach to accommodate your dog's needs and preferences fosters a strong bond built on trust, respect, and mutual understanding.

Heel Vs. Loose-Leash Walking

While heel and loose leash walking share similarities, they serve different purposes and have varying training approaches.


Heel is a stricter cue that involves your dog walking directly beside you in a specific position - the dog’s shoulder aligned with your leg. It requires close attention and concentration from both you and your dog.

Loose Leash Walking

On the other hand, loose leash walking allows your dog more freedom to explore their surroundings while maintaining a relaxed leash. While still requiring your dog to walk without pulling you, it allows for slight deviations in position and a looser leash.

Understanding the distinctions between heel and loose leash walking is crucial for effectively communicating your expectations to your dog during training sessions and walks.

How to Teach Heel Step By Step

Now that we've covered what heel is and its distinctions from loose leash walking, let's explore a step-by-step approach to teaching your dog to heel:

Start In A Low Distraction Environment

When you start teaching heel, begin inside your home or in your backyard, somewhere with minimal distractions so your dog’s focus is solely on you

Reinforce The Position

Have your dog on a leash and hold a treat in your hand. Hold the treat to the dog’s nose where you want them to be - on your left or right side with their shoulder aligned with your feet. Lure your dog to stay in this position as you move by offering a high rate of reinforcement.

Our Freeze Dried Training Treats are the perfect high-value treat for training this skill!

Add In Sit

While not always necessary, with a formal heel, it is helpful to teach your dog to sit by your side every time you stop walking. This helps your dog to more effectively and effortlessly move with you.

Ideally, your dog should already know a Sit cue before adding in this step.

Start walking with your dog, if needed you can still lure them with a treat to stay in the desired position at your side. As soon as you stop walking, use your verbal cue or hand cue that your dog already knows to tell them to sit. Mark the behavior and reinforce.

Repeat until you can eventually phase out the verbal cue or hand signal for sit, and your dog will learn that you stop stopping is now the cue to sit.

Add In The Cue Word

Once your dog can reliably stay in the correct position without the food lure, you are ready to add in the cue word.

As you can begin walking with your dog in position, say “Heel” and start walking. You can also add in a hand signal if you would like, such as patting the side of your leg.

How To Address Mistakes

If your dog walks in front of you or breaks the heel position, you do not need to scold or correct them - just reset and try again!

I like to reset my dog by stopping and turning around in a circle to get them back on my side and try again. We want our dogs to learn that good things happen when they stay in that position, not that they will be punished for breaking that position.

Avoid using the leash to hold your dog in place or pull them back into position. The leash should remain relaxed, not tense while walking.

Practice, Practice, Practice!

This is not a skill that will come overnight and needs lots and lots of practice. Keep in mind that you and your dog will also need to practice this skill in various environments and with varying distractions - It is totally normal to see setbacks when working in new situations.

By following these step-by-step guidelines and remaining patient and consistent, you can teach your dog to heel effectively and enjoy stress-free walks together.

The Ultimate Guide to Heel Recap

Mastering the heel cue is a beneficial skill for many dogs and pup parents - but it is not necessary for everyone!

By understanding when to use heel, distinguishing it from loose leash walking, and following a systematic training approach, you can equip your dog with the skills needed to navigate various environments with confidence and control.

So, grab your leash, some treats, and embark on the exciting adventure of heel training with your canine companion!

Looking for help with loose leash walking? Check out our free 14-Day Essentials Training Course!


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