Next in our series of basic bird dog obedience commands is the all important "heel" command. To our dog, the command simply means "walk right beside until I tell you otherwise". The usefulness of this command is that it is a good way to teach the dog his lead manners or as a way to take the dog to or from an area while hunting without having to leash the dog, like through a landowner's pasture-full of livestock . Our goal of course is to have the dog obey this command off lead for those times when our hands are full or we have no lead with us.
Learning this command also is useful as a way to help train and reinforce the other two essential bird dog commands; "come", which we covered last month, and "whoa", which will be covered in later issues.
The "heel!" command is not the hardest thing to teach your pup, and it is definitely not something that you need to have a masters in project management in order to achieve your goals. All you need is a lead and a few minutes of your time! Once you have completed this simple training your dog will listen to you and stop on command and you will feel like you have just earned a Masters in Communication. You and your pup will now be well on your way to becoming that perfect birding team! You can teach your dog the meaning of this command in five minutes if you follow these simple instructions. 1) Snap the dog's collar to an eight or ten foot lead and put the dog at your side. Normally, we teach the dog to heel and walk on only one side of us. It is best to teach the dog to heel on the opposite side from which we mount our shotgun to shoot. We normally carry the weapon on that same side and for obvious safety concerns, the dog should heel on the other side.
I will give the rest of the procedure for training this command as if the trainer were a right-handed shooter,
First, with the dog on an eight or ten foot lead, take the lead in both hands. Your left hand is your "loose hold" and your right hand is your "solid hold". Loop about 4 or 5 feet of lead in your "loose hold" or left hand and get a very solid grip of the very end of the lead in your right hand.
Smack your left thigh loudly two times, give the dog two light pops on the lead and command in a medium voice, "heel!". Make your voice sound as though you are just giving the dog friendly advice, not really forcing her to do something. Step off smartly with your left leg first, the dog should follow for at least a few steps and then lunge out front or off to one side or the other within a few yards. When this happens, say NOTHING, simply release the coiled lead in your left hand and spin to the left on your right heel in the best military "about face" you can muster so that you are now facing the direction you came from. Raise your right hand,which is holding the end of the lead, to the top of your shoulder, so that the lead now plays out over your right shoulder. The dog will now be behind you, going on his merry way without about 5 feet of loose lead between you and him. Still saying nothing, step off smartly in the direction you came from, the dog will still be going in the general direction you started in. Within about 1 step the dog will hit the end of that lead, get dumped and look up and see you going the opposite way. He will now run to catch up to your side, when he gets there, do not react negatively. Simply, command "heel" in your best, "friendly advice" voice. You must keep walking off and make the dog catch up to you for this to work well. Pop him lightly twice and continue in your new direction. Praise the dog highly has he obeys.
Now, go off a dozen or so steps and then repeat all of step #2 a few times. If you do it right, soon the dog will be staying glued to your side and anticipating your every move, in his desire to not end up at the end of the lead going the wrong way. Remember to always praise the dog when he is obeying. Don't get on the dog too much verbally after you pop him, remember, we want the dog to think being at your side is the safest place to be once the command is given. Let the dog punish himself and the praise him for figuring out the way to avoid hitting the end of that lead going full bore in the wrong direction. As the trainer, you must observe closely and react quickly if at any time in this training process, the dog gets even the slightest bit distracted and therefore "out of shape". The dog should walk with his head at your knee. The moment he strays, within one step you should be heading off in a new direction. You have to be quick. You must be consistent.
After just one quick session, you will have taught the dog the meaning of this command. What you must do over the next few days is to repeat the lesson in quick sessions several times a day over the next week to teach the dog the this is a command he must always obey.
In a future issue we'll cover advanced off-lead heel training, which is really the goal of all of this. Next month we delve into the biggie, the training of the all-important "whoa" command. In the meantime, if you missed it , check out the description of training for the come command below.