Why Hand Targeting is the Secret to Teaching Your Dog to Heel While On Leash
Dogs need lots of good exercise just like us humans. Walks (or "walkies" in my house) can be an excellent activity that both you and your canine best friend can enjoy together.
The majority of your walks with your dog should be carefree, with your dog walking on a loose leash at the pace they feel most comfortable, sniffing—and yes, peeing on—whatever catches their fancy. This is your dog's idea of heaven.
But it can be really beneficial, for both you and your pooch, if your dog understands a heel cue to keep them close when you cross traffic or walk past lots of people. The dog trainer's secret to teaching a dog to heel? Hand targeting. It makes this skill a lot easier (and more fun) to learn.
Teaching a dog to walk on leash, especially in heel position, takes lots of patience, practice, and positive reinforcement. Use this quick guide to learn how to teach your dog to heel on leash with a super handy (bah dum tsshh) hand target.
What Does it Mean to Heel on Leash?
Just because your dog is walking on a leash without pulling doesn't mean they are heeling (and that is OK!). To "heel" means to walk directly next to you, traditionally on your left side, versus walking in front of you or pulling forward.
Most of the time when you take your furry buddy for a jaunt he doesn't need to walk in "heel position." In fact, you really shouldn't expect him to. Dogs need the opportunity to really stretch out (a harness helps with this!) and use their nose to sniff all kinds of things. However, there are times when walking in heel position on a leash is a safety measure, like when you are walking through a restaurant patio, navigating in a busy crowd, or need to move quickly past something that could be harmful.
Before You Get Started Teaching Your Dog to Heel
Have Lots of Treats Ready
No matter what skill you are teaching your dog you will need lots of great reinforcers on hand to ensure you are using positive reinforcement effectively. A reinforcer is something your dog loves, is small, and is easy to provide. Pieces of human food, like cut-up hot dogs or low-sodium lunch meat work great, as do many types of store-bought dog treats made with dog-friendly ingredients.
Get Ready to Mark a Behavior
A marker (or bridging stimulus) is a signal that literally marks the exact moment your dog did something that earned them a reinforcer (the treat). A clicker is a great example of a marker. If you don't have a clicker you can use a consistent word like "yes" but be sure to pick one word and stick to it. In this guide, we will use a clicker and wherever we say "click" you will use your marker.
Click (or mark) the very second you see the behavior you want to reinforce.
Teach a Nose-to-Hand Target
A hand target is a very useful tool, especially when teaching a dog to walk on a leash. It can act as a guide without pushing, pulling, or tugging your dog and can also be used to redirect them away from hazards. Nose-to-hand targeting is when your dog touches their nose (or muzzle) to your hand (the target).
Stand next or sit in front of your dog. Stick your arm out towards them and offer your hand, holding it sideways, with your palm open and fingers flat about 6 inches from your dog's face (at eye/nose height). Make sure you aren't pushing your hand into their face as no dog likes that!
Leave your hand out in front of them so that they must move forward a bit to touch it. If your dog sniffs it or boops it with their nose, immediately click and treat. Make sure the second your dog touches their nose to your hand you click, treat, and then remove your hand, placing it behind your back or at your side so that when you offer your hand again it appears novel. Otherwise your dog will think your hand is always just out there and it quickly becomes uninteresting.
Ideally, your dog should touch your hand with their nose pretty much the moment you offer it for them to earn a click and treat but for some dogs it takes a few repetitions before they understand the concept. If your dog is a little slower to boop your hand you can initially just click and treat for coming close to the hand, or approaching it, and then gradually raise the criteria until they actually touch it with their nose.
Once your dog is easily and intentionally touching their nose to your hand, begin holding it a bit further away and at your side. You can also add a verbal cue, like "touch" or "nose," right before you stick out your hand, and then click and treat the second their nose makes contact with your hand.
4 Easy Steps to Teach Your Dog to Heel on Leash
1. Click and Treat Your Dog for Attention
Heeling requires your dog to pay attention to you while they walk close, so you need to begin to reinforce your dog for moments when they offer their attention (your dog gives you attention without you saying or doing anything). Doing this helps your dog learn that when they offer up their attention, they will get access to some of their favorite things. This is crucial when you are walking your dog outside because the world is full of distractions.
It's best to begin practicing walking on a leash inside! This helps keep distractions low, making it easier to keep their attention. With your dog on leash, stand in front of them but don't ask them to do anything. Click and treat when they look at you while they remain in a standing position. After a few clicks and treats, begin to only click and treat when they stand to your side (in heel position), either your right or your left.
2. Click and Treat for Hand Targeting
With your dog attached to the leash and standing to your side, begin to take only one or two steps and then offer your hand to target, always making sure your dog can easily see it and reach it, then click and treat. Repeat. If you find that your dog gets ahead of you, or doesn't touch your hand, try walking a step or two backwards and click and treat the second they begin to follow you. Then, turn and walk forward (a pivot) and as they step into heel position, click and treat.
Pro Trainer's Tip: This takes practice and patience! Work up to keeping your hand closer and closer to your body (on your heel side) so that eventually your dog targets your hand right at your hip.
3. Increase Steps Between Hand Targets
Begin to gradually increase the distance you walk with your dog close to you on leash before you ask for a hand target. Don't focus too much on the exact number of steps—your dog may be able to do five steps, or only two steps, in heel position and then decide they need to sniff a nearby bush. If this happens, just stop and wait for their attention. Click and treat the moment they look up at you, then take a step or two, and click and treat the moment they return to heel position.
Pro Trainer's Tip: Be sure to click and treat while your dog is walking. It takes practice but try to deliver the treat to your dog's mouth as they move. This ensures you are reinforcing the walking in heel position.
4. Fade the Hand Target
Now you want to start walking on leash while your dog is in heel position, only using the hand target when you really need it—like when you need to redirect your dog away from something you'd rather they didn't smell or when you need to keep them close and attentive as you cross the street. Focus on clicking and treating for more steps in heel position, eventually clicking and treating only a few times over the distance of a few houses on your street.
Pro Trainer's Tip: Don't expect your dog to remain in heel position for very long! Walking that close to you for an entire walk is not natural for dogs and heeling for the entire walk takes the fun out of walkies.
Heeling is a tricky skill that takes good marking and treating mechanics—and lots and lots of positive reinforcement. Unless you are participating in obedience competitions, it's only needed for very short distances or as a safety tool. Remember that walks are not for you but for your dog and should be focused on your dog getting quality enrichment and exercise!