Gundog training: Refocusing on heel work

A yellow Labrador walking to heel with its trainer

Heelwork is important in gundog training to achieve steadiness - Credit: Archant

While many of us have owned and trained a number of dogs, Howard Kirby believes it is always important to revisit heelwork training to ensure our dog is as steady as he can be

Over the last few Sundays, I’ve made it my business to take a note pad and pencil and quietly make my way around our Mullenscote Gundog classes. We have been running and teaching this particular type of six-week gundog course for a little over 20 years now. Fundamentally, we’re running the same courses as the ones we started in the late nineties. Puppy, Foundation, Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum means there are six levels each with their own progressive aims and objectives, which, much like the course names, haven’t changed.  

The fully-trained dog that we produced in the nineties offered pretty much the same behaviours as its current descendants and is therefore pretty much the same dog? I’ve deliberately made that last sentence into a question. What are your thoughts? Most of you are probably not old enough to have been training dogs that long ago, but even if you weren’t, you might like to think about the ideals, methods and techniques that were used to produce gundogs. Take my word for it, things have changed, significantly.  

Although I’ve digressed a bit I’m hoping that as I get back to my opening paragraph that all will make sense…. Armed with notepad and pencil, I was observing and doing what we call ‘off-steading!’ By taking the time to watch the classes, my aim is to run a non biased eye over the way that we deliver our courses. Classroom choice, teaching styles, techniques, quality of the teaching and a general overview of how we are doing. Almost always, I enjoy this exercise as it’s a   great opportunity for me to observe the fantastic team of teachers that make up the team here at Mullenscote. Teaching really is an art, and watching other teachers can be so informative.  

Using a place board to teach a puppy to heel

Food, target broards and hoops are used to school young dogs to heel - Credit: rebecca green

Heelwork  
To cut a long story short,  I came away thinking ‘we need to review the way we teach heelwork’. Heelwork has of course been successfully taught to dogs and handlers for generations. As behaviours go, teaching a dog to consistently walk to heel and not pull on a lead is something that owners really struggle with and would be listed as a significant behaviour problem on many dog owner’s lists.

For some while now, we have encouraged handlers to school their young dogs to walk to heel using food rewards and targets, hoops or place boards. The handler uses a food reward to lure the dog into the ‘at heel’ position at which point a reward is given. Carefully and slowly now, allow the dog to work at getting the food whilst moving forward, always ensuring that the youngster is maintaining the correct heel work position. Progression comes in the form 
of increasing distances whilst the dog continues to offer the behaviour for less frequent food rewards.   

Check list for successful heelwork:

  1. A small , benign, distraction-free classroom. Indoors is great.  
  2. A hungry dog that has been taught to look to you for a food reward.  
  3. Food rewards that are really high value to the specific dog that’s being trained. (Most influenced by ensuring that the dog is hungry. Also the dog has been schooled using food reward to a high standard before attempting this exercise. These two things are extremely important and handlers consistently overlook the importance of this.) 
  4. The trainer has a thorough understanding and the practical skills to deliver a training session that encourages and keeps the dog totally focused on the handler and the rewards they offer whilst consistently maintaining a sit , stand or walking at heel position.  
Two men taking a black Labrador for a walk in a field by some woodland

Manage your dog's lifestyle so it is encouraged to look to you for reward, whether it is on or off the lead... rather than to pull towards everything apart from you! - Credit: Archant

Training the trainer 
My Ofsted-style observations and subsequent reflection prompted me into firstly chatting through my thoughts with the team of Mullenscote Trainers and then setting out to record and implement our thoughts into the teaching we deliver.  

Owners and handlers continue to fail miserably at teaching dogs to walk on a loose lead and at heel for a number of reasons:  

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  1. Regular sessions on a lead where a puppy is allowed or encouraged to pull. 
  2. Regular on-lead walks and training sessions in an environment that offers the pup an endless array of exciting distractions. To expect an untrained dog to focus on its handler in this kind of an environment is at best futile.  
  3. Most of the on and off lead ‘training sessions’ that owners encourage their dogs to participate in, actively encourage the dog to TARGET and PULL TOWARDS just about everything in the world but the handler. From the dog’s point of view, the most popular of all these targets is the field or park, where you regularly slip your dog off the lead and encourage it to clear off and have the time of its life. And so begins a lifetime of doggie behavioural problems.  

So the advice is to manage your dog’s daily lifestyle in such a way that, whether it’s on or off a lead, it is being encouraged to look to you for reward. Companionship, sitting on your lap or in its bed near you, sleeping or resting quietly in your house, the crate or its bed. Hunting, playing or offering behaviours to the handler to gain a toy or food reward would start to give us something to hang our training hats too. 

A young puppy sitting in front of its trainer on a loose lead

'Target' the next time the dog stops and sits at heel, which is the moment that the dog receives the food reward - Credit: Archant

Conclusions and action list 
In conclusion, our revised advice on how to teach our human students to teach their dogs to walk to heel is to ensure that humans and dogs are ‘targeting’ the next time they stop and sit the dog at heel, which is the moment that the dog receives the food reward, for sitting closely at heel and looking up towards the handler’s face. 

In lesson 1, the handler starts with the dog sat in the heel position with a food treat luring the dog to reach up towards the handler’s hip. The puppy will probably be trying to nibble at the food. Whilst keeping the pup’s full commitment to the food, move three small steps forward and stop. Ensure the food hand encourages the puppy into a Sit and allow it to take the reward.  

Quickly offer a second food reward in the same manner as before, now turn 90 degrees inwards towards the puppy and move a further three small steps, before stopping and repeating the reward process. Do this twice more and now you will have completed a 4x3 step square. The puppy should have remained totally focused on you for the whole exercise. If you’re good at maths, you will have walked 12 paces with a first time puppy walking perfectly at heel. Perfect, nothing less than this will be acceptable. If you have followed all of the advice listed in the check list for successful heelwork, this new behaviour should be fairly straightforward to encourage.  

Development comes in the form of taking extra steps before stopping to reward. Being slightly less reliant on the food needing to be on the puppy’s nose. And of course the environment, (classroom) in which you choose to train in will be important changes that you make to each training session. As your square gets bigger, so the length of time that the youngster focuses on you will grow. When drawn into the heel position, your puppies target should be that they hope you stop walking so that they can sit, look up and get their reward. Not that they are targeting the next hoop, placeboard, lamp post, dog or park.  

Nothing in this article is new, rocket science or revolutionary – for which I make no apology. Teaching a dog to walk to heel with as little correction as possible requires very well-planned and well-delivered training sessions, ensuring that your day to day management does not include regular pulling on the lead walkies.  

I hope you find this useful. As always, enjoy your dogs and Keeeep Training!