Advancing Your Heeling


    The other day I posted a video showcasing how my service dog's heeling has come along as I'm very proud of how well Tzapo is doing there. I was asked to discuss how I got Tzapo to such a nice public heel so I'll do my best to break this down. Heeling can be difficult because when you stop and think about it, you're asking for a lot of little pieces. You're asking a dog to stay focused on you instead of a distracting environment, match your changing pace, stay in a specific spot, match your direction changes, stop moving when you do, and potentially sit when you stop moving if that is something you want. That's a pretty complex behavior when you think about it. So it's not surprising that it's a behavior that can take a bit of time and shaping to fully get right.

    For service work, I have chosen not to do a showline heel. Showline heels ask the dog to have their head up and/or constantly look at you as they heel. I chose to avoid this because that doesn't seem good for a dog's neck long-term with as much heeling that I would be in need of. Additionally, I chose not to have Tzapo sit upon stopping because I didn't see a point to that as often I will move on fairly soon. If I need him to sit I just ask him to.
    I won't break down every part of teaching a heel here just because I want to keep this post as a "how to get to the next level" since so many guides for teaching your dog to walk at a specific spot on your left side already exist. I also will not explicitly mention mark and reward all the time in this write up just for ease of readability and length. So please assume frequent marking and rewarding. So that all said...
The cues and skills you will need for taking your dog's heeling to the level you want for Public Access are:
  • engage/disengage
  • nose to hand target
  • wait cue (or sit if you want your dog to sit when you stop)
  • focus/watch cue or equivalent
    Once your dog has learned that "heel" is to stay in about a specific position while you walk, you will want to teach either sit when stop or wait when stop. "Wait" for me is like stay, but it's not a long stop. It's a way to tell your dog that they just need to stay in place for a moment. Once you have those components, the next piece is to begin working on keeping your dog interested and focused on you while keeping in this spot. Just because a dog is staying in a heel position doesn't mean they're automatically focusing on you and your movements. Before jumping to trying to have your dog keep track of all your movements, teaching your dog to pay attention to you and your body movements is key. For most dogs, a nose to hand target is really helpful. I started refining Tzapo's heel by asking him for "touch" as we walked along, aka asking him to keep track of my hand and boop it on cue. This taught him to pay attention to my body and how it moves. It also taught him to focus on my hand for cues as we walked such as Sit or Center or switching sides. I also used a focus (aka watch or look at me) cue here in tandem with touch. Both will help your dog learn to focus in on your changes in motion, which is important for not just heeling but also for a wide variety of tasks as it can show your dog signs of an oncoming episode!
    Engage/disengage is another skill to practice here as it will redirect your dog from distractions in a positive way. Squirrel? Engage disengage. Exciting dog or person? Engage disengage. Any number of other interesting but not over-stimulating things? Engage disengage. Altogether these skills will teach your dog to pay closer attention to you.
    Once your dog becomes more reliable at checking in on you as you walk together, the next step is to begin working on direction changes or pacing. For direction changes, I would have Tzapo focus in on me using either a target or focus cue, and then do a turn while he was watching me. This way he was fully paying attention to me while I turned and he could learn to see the signs that indicated a turn was coming and which direction. In time, I began to phase out asking for his attention when I turned. As I phased out asking for his focus, I ensured that my movements were really slow and deliberate so I wouldn't accidentally hurt him while I changed direction and he would have more chances to see me turn. When he was successful in this I gave extra big rewards to encourage paying attention for changes in direction.
    In time, as he got more skilled at this, I began playing a game of having him follow me through a location with lots of opportunities to turn, like the clothing section at Target or the hand tool section at Lowe's. When I first played these games, I would begin by asking for his focus so that I set him up for success that I was going to ask him for a lot of paying attention to me. I wanted to cue him in ahead of time. After the first several direction changes, I would stop asking for his focus before each turn and do the more deliberate slow changes. Big reward for following. In time and repetitions of this game, I would phase out the focus request entirely and have my turning speed become a normal walking pace as he grew more and more confident in this skill.
    The last piece is pacing changes. For this, I would start similarly to changing direction. I'd ask for focus and then proceed to either slow down or speed up. Then in time, I'd slowly take that piece out and throw reward parties for him keeping pace without me having to ask him to pay attention first. Once he was good at that, I began playing a game similar to red light/green light. I know Penny Beeman calls her version of the game "Quick, Quick, Stop." Basically, it's a game where you change your pace from walking to faster to suddenly stopping. You can assist your dog here by asking for wait or sit, whichever you use and slowly phase that out as they get better. This is a really fun and engaging game to teach a dog to keep your pace. You can also start out fast and slow it way down but not stop. In time you throw in direction changes too and well, eventually you have shaped a wonderfully in-tune heel by building up your dog's skills from foundations to more refined behaviors.
    Here's some videos showcasing a little bit of the red light green light game and one showing the results of shaping a heel this way: