It's a key part of dog training
Q: My three-year-old Labrador is causing me great frustration. She will not walk at heel properly but keeps drifting off in front and as we only go out shooting a few times each year I cannot practise often on the shoot. My last dog was a collie, which I used on the farm, and when she was not herding cattle she was glued to my side. How can I get my Labrador to do the same?
Walk at heel training advice
A: Labradors and collies have evolved over many decades to undertake completely different functions; the former uses its nose to find game to retrieve, while the latter uses its eyes to focus on the livestock it herds. Therefore, your Lab has such a powerful sense of smell that it will have its concentration broken quite easily when it is not working but by your side. Nagging it to stay close, or continually tugging on the lead, will just make matters worse and the dog will soon switch off to any sounds you are making and put up with any correction applied with a lead and still will not walk willingly at heel.
Practise away from the shooting field during the dog’s normal day-to-day routine and to build her attention, carry some treats to help keep her focused on you when she is close. Every time she looks up, give her a treat and some praise, then gradually extend the time between her looking and giving the treat; this delay will make her want to earn the reward. Carry out this retraining in a distraction-free environment — that means not just distraction you can see but also away from ground where game is likely to visit. With patience you can soon build a new close relationship with her and she will look to you more for guidance at heel.
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Walk at heel – eight key steps
- If the dog is pulling on the lead then his attention is not focused on you. You must develop eye contact with the dog so that he looks to you for instruction rather than trying to make him do things.
- Treats can be invaluable for developing eye contact.
- Teach the dog to sit using your voice and a hand signal. Lure his head with a treat concealed in your hand, and when he is looking at the hand, which should be positioned in line with his eyes and yours, then give him the treat.
- Practice this until the dog is focusing on your hand, then delay the treat and his eyes should be set on yours.
- Once he has become focused, you do not need to treat him every time, but make him earn it.
- Sit him at your side with a slack lead, move your right foot forward, tell him to stay and use the hand signal as before.
- Slap your left leg as you move it forward and give the heel command, luring him to your side with a treat in the hand and giving it to him as he looks up at you.
- That is the first step to heelwork. Gradually progress to teaching two steps, then three, then four, until he will follow by your side, focused on you and with no pulling.