Some Leash Training Helps a German Shepherd Puppy Learn to Heel

By: David Codr

Published Date: November 8, 2016


Max is a nine-month-old German Shepherd who lives in Bennington, Nebraska. His guardians set up a puppy obedience training session with me to address multiple issues; not consistently listening at times, getting excited at the front door and stop pulling on the leash.

Max was excited when I arrived for the session, but not overly so. He did charge the door a bit when he heard me speaking outside of the home. I wanted to wait to fix that problem until later in the session as a news crew was going to drop by and film part of the session.

I sat down with the guardians to discuss what they wanted to accomplish in the session. In the course of that conversation I learned that Max needed some basic obedience training as he liked to rush up and down the stairs ahead of his family members.

For dogs, whoever is in front is considered the leader and whoever is behind is considered the follower. Additionally, this can obviously be dangerous if the dog gets in our way on the stairs. I spent a couple of minutes showing his guardians how to teach him to wait on the stairs.

Because Max seems to be a intelligent dog, it shouldn’t take a lot of practice before he learns that he needs to sit and wait for his humans to pass first.

Right as we were wrapping up the stair waiting exercise, I got a call from the news crew letting us know that they were outside the front door ready to come in.

The news crew was coming to the session so that they could film me as I taught Max and his guardians how to keep him away from the door. Of course, as soon as the news crew showed up, Max decided not to engage in the same overexcited behavior that he normally does. Isn’t that always the case?

Once the film crew got good footage from outside of the home, they stepped inside so that I could go over the steps that they will need to practice in order to help the dog learn to stay calm and away from the door when guests knock.

I have to admit, the news crew threw me off my normal game a bit. I generally talk directly to my clients or to the camera so that they can watch the video afterwards. But in this case the reporter wanted me to look at her instead of the camera which I kept forgetting to do.

Once the news crew wrapped up filming and hit the road, we were ready to address a couple of Max’s other issues.

First up was Max’s behavior when out on walks with his family. He pulled on the leash and wanted to be out in front. I took a few minutes to go over how to teach a puppy to heel.

This sort of puppy training works so well because it features positive reinforcement and small steps. Many people move too far, too fast which results in the dog not fully understanding the exercise or having poor form or technique. Practicing things in small steps over and over until the dog has it down pat before moving to the next one is the best way to teach a dog.

After showing Max the basics, I had the guardians take their turn running through this exercise as it is something that they will need to practice frequently in order to generate the results they are looking for.

Because the guardian is so tall, he had some trouble keeping the treat in the right position. Ideally, you want to hold it so it is positioned on the seam (side) of your pant leg. This keeps the dog’s nose parallel to the human’s midsection and in the heel position.

However, the guardian was positioning the treat on the front of his thigh which caused the dog to reach over in front of whoever is walking him and will cause problems down the road. It’s easy to point this out in the video after the fact, but while you’re the one holding the leash, it’s a little bit uncomfortable at first and takes some getting used to.

If the guardian can get into a habit of holding the treat in this position on the side of his leg rather than in front, it should help keep Max from consistently trying to get too far in front.

As the dog and handler get more proficient and practiced at this exercise, the guardian should be able to walk around the room and deliver the treats without stopping each time. Once this is the case, the next step will be adding an extra step (starting with 2, then going to 3, 4, 5 and so on) before treating the dog and saying the word “heel.”

I had the family’s mother take her turn next as I wanted to make sure that everyone in the house was using the proper form and technique.

The family’s mother will need to make sure that she does not put any tension on the leash during this exercise. In the above video you can see there were times where she started to pull the leash behind her back to pull the dog into position.

Dogs have something called an Opposition Reflex. They will automatically pull against a tense leash. For this reason, we want to use the treat to position the dog and not use the leash. In some cases, it’s actually easier to practice this exercise without a leash at all. If the dog follows along and doesn’t get distracted, this may be a variation that Max’s guardians use in the future.

I have found that many people do not fully develop a dog’s ability to walk at a heel. They make some progress and stop practicing and end up with a dog who “kinda heels.” Mastering this skill takes more practice repetitions then other exercises. However, having a dog that walks at a heel next to you without pulling on the leash or needing any corrections is one of the most beneficial (and enjoyable) commands you can teach your dog.

I notice this difference myself when walking my six-month-old Dalmatian puppy Quest who needs rewarding and practice to stay in position. But when I walk the other dogs, I can tuck the end of the leash into my back pocket and pay the dogs no mind as they know what to do on their own. I look forward to the day that I get a report from Max’s guardians that they can do the same.

As a puppy, Max had a tendency to get distracted on the leash whenever he sees another dog. This is a fairly common problem, with an equally easy solution; training the puppy to give us it’s attention on command. I help dogs learn to do this by practicing a Focus exercise.

By practicing the Focus exercise inside in a quiet setting and then gradually increasing the distractions once Max gets good at it, his guardians will put him in a position to succeed when they encounter dogs on future walks. They will be able to simply give the Focus command and have him look up at them as they continue walking.

By the end of the session, Max was already starting to walk in the heel position, was snapping to attention anytime he heard the focus command and was waiting for his guardians to go up the stairs. Its going to take some practice at the various exercises we introduced. But because they are pretty easy and his guardians so motivated, it shouldn’t take long before Max’s days of being a rambunctious puppy are just a fond memory.

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This post was written by: David Codr

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