Heel work is why I fell in love with competition obedience. It's beautiful: dog and handler moving in sweet tandem, adjusting and responding to the slightest of cues, utterly absorbed in each other in a ballet-like dance. Heeling done right is as much work for the handle as it is for the dog. I'll be the first to admit that my heel work isn't always pretty. My dance style is also more reminiscent of "drunk monkey" than "graceful swan." Nevertheless, I think heeling is a valuable exercise because it reinforces that most important of themes: impulse control. Heeling, at its core, is just attention on the move. And I've written before about how important attention is.
My favorite way to teach heel is through shaping. Actually, my favorite way to teach many exercises is through shaping. Shaping gives a dog room to figure things out for themselves. As a result, shaping creates some of the strongest behaviors. I start to teach heel though a game called "choose to heel." The dog and I go into a boring room – I usually start with my living room, but any uninteresting (to the dog!) room with space to move is fine. I let the dog wander around and check stuff out to her little heart's desire, but as soon as she glances at me or acknowledges me in any way – click! I toss her a treat. It may take a while, particularly if the room in question is particularly interesting or my treats are particularly boring, but remember: dogs repeat what you reward. Before long, the dog is focusing on me more than on the environment. I wander the room and mark the dog for getting closer and closer to heel position: on my left side, moving with me, and preferably looking at me. I have a picture in my mind of what "heel" looks like, and I mark each successive approximation to that picture – usually over several training sessions. Short and sweet is the way to go, especially when you're doing something that exercises your dog's mind.
Once the dog comes right to heel when we start the game and she seems to understand where heel position is, then I start messing with her (I love messing with my dogs . . . you may have noticed this . . . ). I throw in sharper turns, pace changes, new environments, and other more challenging activities until the dog can heel anywhere with any distractions (well, in theory anyway; in practice, heeling is one of those things like recalls and stays – it can always be better).
I do not do choose-to-heel with Rubi very often. We do it every once in a while, but Rubi doesn't handle shaping well. It's frustrating for her, and she tends to get stuck easily, so I spare us both the headache. There are some exercises I made sure to teach through shaping – her auto watches, for example, or the mat work – things that I really want that strong, solid behavioral responses for. But I find other methods to use for activities as non-essential to Rubi's health and well-being as heeling.
With Rubi, I start by luring her into heel position at my side. That can be hard enough for some dogs whom are used to getting rewarded for sitting in front of people. Once she was comfortable at my side, then I took a step – just one! – and marked/rewarded her for staying with me. She doesn't have to look at me, she doesn't have to sit when I stop; she just has to move with me when I move. I mark her before she gets out of position, and I feed her at my left side. It's important to feed her in heel position because if I feed her somewhere else – say, in front of me – then that's where she'll want to be. Rubi goes where the food is, that's for sure! Once she gets her food, I set her up again, and we take another step. Lather, rinse, repeat about half a dozen times. Then, instead of just taking one step, we take two. After she has two steps, I start varying the number of steps we go before I mark/reward. It's hard to pick random numbers of steps, so I tend pick a number combination and follow that schedule. For example, if I choose my phone number, I mark every two steps, then one, then eight, and so forth.
If - okay, when - Rubi moves out of heel position, I stop moving, just like with loose-leash walking. Rubi gets out of position because she has found something she wants. If she moves out of position, I make sure she doesn't get it. However, if I see something she wants, and she fights that first impulse to go launching after it even for a second, chances are very good that I will let her go check it out. Being in heel position is more rewarding than being out of heel position.
Once Rubi can go twenty-five steps without being marked, then I start adding other variables: the paces changes, turns, automatic sits. Sitting when you stop isn't actually "heel" behavior in the strictest sense. Heel is being in a position at my left side with the area from her ear to her shoulder in line with my pants' seam. Automatic sits are gravy (although they are pretty awesome, tasty gravy). Personally, I think people tend to place too much value on heel, and that makes it a lot less fun. It's hard for a dog to maintain its undivided attention on just one thing for any length of time. Dog sports understand this; there isn't a single dog sport that requires your dog to heel for more than two minutes. Work on heel too much, and it becomes a chore. Do it right, and it's beautiful.