So far, you’ve been teaching your dog to respect and pay attention to you and your leash. If you’ve done all the exercises, your dog should be walking pretty nicely by your left side with slack in the leash. Based on the theory that dogs will move away from discomfort and toward comfort, walking nicely by your side pays off. You give him attention or access to things he likes when he does, and you act like a lunatic when he doesn’t, turning and walking away at the slightest tug on the leash. If you live in the city, or want to do competition obedience, you’ll want to more precisely define where your dog should be in relation to you, and add an automatic sit when you halt.
Heeling or Loose-leash Walking?
Heeling, by competition standards, means that the dog maintains a position next to the handler’s left side in which the area between the dog’s nose and shoulders stays in line with the seam of the handler’s left pants leg, as close as possible to without interfering with the handler’s movement. The dog must maintain this position regardless of pace or turns, and must sit when his handler stops, neither forging ahead nor lagging behind. Heeling is necessary for competition dogs, but most pet dog owners are happy with dogs that don’t pull, trip them, or cut them off, constantly weaving back and forth in front of them.
If you do want to teach your dog to heel precisely, great! It takes lots of practice, but done well, it has a ballet-like precision that is both beautiful to watch and a demonstration of amazing teamwork. It really helps to work with an instructor who has done competition obedience, but you can start by making sure you CR/treat your dog for being in the right place.
If your dog has a tendency to swing in front of you to sit, it’s probably because you’ve rewarded her in that position a lot. Teach her that sitting by your side in heel position is just as good as sitting in front of you by working with your dog between you and a wall, with just enough room for your dog to move freely. Move forward a step or two at a time, heeling and stopping, CR/treating for every sit by your side.
Competition-style heeling isn’t really practical for real life, but there’s no reason that you can’t have the best of heeling and loose-leash walking. You can even do both; just teach and use separate commands, depending on the situation. If you want your dog to sit automatically when you stop walking, then practice it. When you stop walking, put a little tension straight up on the leash until your dog sits. Immediately release the tension and praise before moving out again. Repeat until it’s habit for your dog.
Teach Your Dog to Take Up the Heel Position
The easiest way to teach your dog to take up the heel position is by luring. Start with your dog in a sit and face him. Hold the leash handle in your right hand, with the leash going from your dog’s collar, past your left side and behind your legs. With a food lure in your left hand, start at your dog’s nose and move your hand and your left foot back at the same time, moving at the speed he’s following. Your hand should lead him in a little circle to his left and almost behind you. When he’s turning toward you, step back up with your left foot. When his head is by your left side, lift the treat just high enough to lure him to sit, and immediately CR/treat. To start, reward every effort, and worry about perfect positioning later. As he gains confidence in his new trick, take the foot movement out, and put the behavior on verbal cue or hand signal. Once he knows what’s getting rewarded, raise the criteria for reward until his positioning is perfect, and move it to a variable schedule of reinforcement.