Sit At Heel

I shall base my advice on how I should start a completely untrained young dog between ten and eighteen months old — a dog which is neither timid nor shy, and which is free from bad habits. If you have brought him up on the lines I have been recommending, you will find these exercises much easier, and, of course, if you have allowed him to develop any bad habits, you will find them much more difficult.

Before starting any lessons, the dog must know you, be friendly towards you, and be used to a collar and lead. At one time the first exercise I always taught was heel work. Experience, however, has forced me to change my mind on this. For the keen, headstrong young dog, especially if he has had no previous training, I still regard heel work as the best foundation on which to start. But the naturally obedient type that already follows to heel of its own accord can be (I believe often is) completely soured of all training by jerking about on the end of the lead. That heel work is not essential to obedience is proved by the hundreds of good working sheepdogs which have never had a collar on their necks. It is, however, essential in obedience competitions. Moreover, the sort of dog which is likely to do some good in competitions will either require some heel work lessons or will at least take to them willingly. We shall therefore start off with this exercise.


The explanatory notes for Obedience Classes are as follows:

1. Heel on lead

The dog should be sitting straight at the handler’s side. On command the handler should walk briskly forward in a straight line with the dog at heel. The dog should be approximately level with and reasonably close to the handler’s leg at all times when the handler is walking. The lead must be slack at all times. On the command ‘Left turn or Right turn’ the handler should turn smartly at a right angle in the appropriate direction and the dog should keep its position at the handler’s side. Unless otherwise directed, at the command ‘About turn’ the handler should turn about smartly on the spot through an angle of 18o degrees to the right and walk in the opposite direction, the dog maintaining its position at the handler’s side. On the command ‘Halt’ the handler should halt immediately and the dog should sit straight at the handler’s side. Throughout this test the handler may not touch the dog or make use of the lead without penalty.

2. Heel free

This test should be carried out in a similar manner as for Heel on lead except that the dog must be off the lead throughout the test.

In addition to the above the obedience regulations for Test C Heel Work state that: The dog shall be required to walk at heel free, and shall also be tested at fast and slow pace. At some time during this exercise, at the discretion of the Judge, the dog shall be required, whilst walking to heel at normal pace, to be left at the Stand, Sit and Down (the order to be the same for each dog) as and when directed by the Judge. The handler shall continue forward alone, without hesitation, and continue as directed by the Judge until he reaches his dog when both shall continue forward together until halted. Heel work may include left about turns and figure of eight at normal and/or slow pace.

In the Working Trial Regulations we are given the following information: On the handler’s command ‘Heel’, the dog should follow as closely as possible to the left knee of the handler, who should walk smartly in his normal and natural manner. Any tightening or jerking of the leash, or any act, signal or command which in the opinion of the Judges gives the dog unnecessary or unfair assistance, shall be penalized. The exercise shall consist of ‘left turns’, ‘right turns’ ,` about turns’, and marching in the ‘figure of eight’ at normal walking pace between objects or people two yards apart. The Judge may, at his discretion, test also at a fast or very slow pace.

On top of that the Kennel Club Explanatory Notes for Obedience Classes start by saying that ‘In all classes the dog should work in a happy, natural manner’ — Having this emphasized in both Obedience and Trials Regulations renews one’s hope that there is still a chance of dogs and handlers behaving naturally in the ring — and winning — a sight which has become more and more rare. When I competed in obedience most judges penalized heavily the dog which turned its head round the handler’s knee. Today this seems to be the general practice and one sees top winning dogs with their heads screwed round to the right, staring up into their handler’s eyes like half-witted idiots. This is not only unnatural to the working man and to the general public it is absolutely ridiculous. Who ever saw a shepherd, a gamekeeper, or a policeman on the beat with a dog behaving like that? A dog which lags slightly behind is of much more practical value and certainly less of a nuisance than one which keeps pushing against one’s left knee.

Now that it is clearly stated in the rules we can only hope that there are still some judges around who recognize natural behaviour when they see it. Judges who will not penalize a dog for being ‘approximately level with and reasonably close to the handler’s leg and who will give ‘prime consideration’ to the dog working in a ‘happy natural manner’.

Everyone knows the advantage of a dog that walks properly to heel — or at least the disadvantages of one that does not. What is not so often realized is that this exercise, being the first, is that in which one gets the dog’s mind to co-ordinate with the trainer’s actions and tone of voice. Once that is done, the other exercises become much easier.

As with all exercises, start in a place familiar to the dog where there are unlikely to be any distractions. If you are using a chain slip collar use one of the watch-chain type, and be sure you put it on the right way. To do so, face the dog and, with the ring to which the lead is attached held in the left hand, slip the chain noose over the dog’s head. This means that the ring through which the chain slips comes under the dog’s neck. When the dog is on your left side you can then jerk the chain up quickly. Just as important, it will instantly fall slack when you slacken the lead. If you put it on the wrong way round the ring will come over the dog’s neck and tend to stay there when you slacken the lead. The next essential is a strong, pliable lead at least three feet long. Attach this to the collar which should fit comfortably with the ring under the dog’s neck. Now stand facing in the same direction as the dog, with him on your left side. Hold the lead in your right hand with your elbow bent at a right angle. Allow the lead to be long enough for the loop, where it bends, to hang about halfway between the dog’s neck and the ground. Always keep in mind that the right hand is the correcting hand and the left hand the rewarding one.

Now move off quickly, saying the dog’s name, followed by a sharp ‘heel’. It is unlikely that the dog will move as quickly, and you will automatically jerk him with the right hand. This should bring him up to you, when you must immediately reward him by caressing and fussing with the left hand. This is easy with a big dog whose head is just about level with your left hand, but not nearly so easy with a little one.

If the dog is a ‘puller’ and rushes forward on the lead, let him go and, at the exact instant when he is about to reach the end, turn sharp right, give a sharp ‘Heel’, and at the same time jerk with the right hand so that you have his own strength combined with yours in the jerk. Keep on turning right, both at right angles and right about, jerking him around, but never forgetting to praise and encourage with the left hand. Pat your thigh, caress his cheek with your fingers, or in fact do anything that you find will get him closer to you. In obstinate cases you can occasionally turn left and ‘crash into the dog, but too much of this will tend to keep him away from you rather than bring him closer.

Make all your movements quick and ‘alive’. Keep turning in different directions so that the dog does not know which way you will turn next. Never work to a set plan, and remember that, as well as getting the dog to keep close to you, you are trying to make him concentrate on your actions. This he should do when he realizes that every time his mind wanders he receives a sharp jerk, but that he will be praised and fussed when he pays attention. If you are unfortunate enough to have a dog that lags, you will have to do much more rewarding than correcting, and give very short spells of training.

The degree of jerking, of course, varies considerably from dog to dog. If I were to give a terrific jerk on a chain slip collar to a thin-skinned, sensitive dog like a Greyhound, it would amount to downright cruelty and the dog would probably crumple up and go to pieces on me. On the other hand, if I gave a little jerk, to which a Greyhound would respond, to a big powerful young Alsatian, which had been pulling its owner all over the place since it was three months old, it would not feel it at all. With a big strong dog a good deal of physical strength is necessary in the initial stages, and that is one reason why many owners, particularly ladies, put in a tremendous amount of hard work with absolutely no result.

In this exercise I have found that rewarding with food does no permanent good, and may even do harm. It will get a dog to keep up with you so long as you have food in your hand, but that is not allowed in competitions, and one cannot go around constantly offering pieces of meat. It also encourages a dog to walk slightly ahead of the handler looking upwards and backwards for its reward. And that can end up as the abominable habit to which I have already referred.

You may now have your dog doing heel work very nicely on the lead, he is keeping right up alongside your left leg to receive that little encouragement from your left hand, and turning sharply to the right when you turn, in order to avoid that sharp jerk on the lead. If he does these things — but not unless — then you can try a bit of ‘Heel free’. Here you are likely to find out whether or not you have been training in the right way. If you have, and if you have the right dog, he will do his heel work just the same off the lead as on. If, on the other hand, you have been jerking at him in a mechanical and lifeless sort of way, without rewarding him at the right time, he will in all probability follow you in some sort of way, either well behind or away to your left. In this case slip on the lead and start again, trying to get him to respond to the left hand, and using the right one only when that fails. Remember that when you take the lead off you still have your left hand for encouragement, but your right (correcting) hand is gone.

Quite a number of the ‘naughty’ type of dog, when the lead is removed, make a dash for freedom even if they have been doing heel on lead quite well. Fortunately they almost invariably rush ahead, and the best and quickest way I have found to stop their rush is as follows: Halt as usual with the dog sitting to heel on the lead; remove the lead and hold both ends in the right hand so that the lead hangs in a loop by your side, where the dog cannot see it. Now start off smartly in exactly the same way and with the same commands as you have been using. Try to keep him to your left side by encouragement with the hand but, if he is the sort of dog I have in mind, he will walk a few steps and then, with hardly any warning, go off like a shot from a gun. As he does so, not before or after, give him a ‘stinger’ on the hindquarters with the lead. He should, and almost invariably will, stop dead and rush back to you for protection, whereupon you must praise him very well indeed. No dog, even the very boldest, likes to be hit by something out of the blue.

Although this method sounds very easy it has its snags. First of all, you have only a split second in which to act, and it will test your powers of concentration and ability to anticipate what the dog is going to do. Secondly, it will test your ability to praise your dog instantly when he does the right thing. If you do it properly, it is unlikely that you will ever have to do it again. If you miss him and he does not notice that you tried to hit him, you will have done neither good nor harm, and can try again. I must warn you, however, that if he sees you make a wild swipe at him and you miss, you will be a lot further back than before you started. It is up to you, and do not forget to give a sharp ‘Heel’ as you go to hit him, so that the next time you say ‘Heel’ as he decides to go, he will associate it with that sudden smack which ‘descended upon him from Heaven’. Instead of running away he should come closer to you.

Don’t keep on saying ‘heel, heel, heel’. Don’t ever give a command unless you are in a position to see that it is obeyed. This is straightforward association of ideas. The object is to make the dog associate ‘heel’ with correction (a jerk), in anticipation of which he will respond to the sound. You add to this by getting him to associate coming close to you with reward, in anticipation of which he should want to come of his own accord. Whether he responds more to the correction or reward depends chiefly on the dog. Most dogs respond in some degree to both, but remember that, provided he has done something to deserve it, you cannot over-reward a dog. A sensitive dog can, however, be completely upset by over-correction.

Leave a Comment