How to Train Your Dog to Heel Without a Leash

Back when I taught obedience classes, the heel command was one of my favorite behaviors to teach. If there are communication problems between dog and owner, training this command will make them obvious.

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Teaching your dog to heel without a leash is key to creating a reliable behavior that can be used in very distracting environments. 

While that doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, it really is a good thing. Communication issues during training can lead to a lot of frustration for you and your pooch. Knowing that those issues exist is the first step in overcoming them. And, with a behavior as complex as the heel command, you can’t succeed without first resolving your communication problems.

>>>Looking for another complex behavior to teach your dog? Try the place command.

Once you’ve done that, you’ll come out the other side not just with a useful behavior you can show off, but with a better relationship with your dog. For me, that is the most rewarding thing to get to witness.


What Does a Heel Look Like

A heel isn’t just walking on a loose leash or even walking with your dog next to you. So what is it?

A heel is when your dog stays glued to your leg, whether you are walking, jogging, or turning in circles. Another important aspect of the heel is that your dog sits whenever you stop. They also start the behavior in a sit, which brings up another important piece of the heel puzzle.

Before you teach your dog to walk in a heel, you must teach them to get into a proper heel position. The proper starting position is when your dog is sitting next to your leg. You will need to be able to call your dog into a heel position no matter where they are or what they are doing.

>>>You can also teach your dog to get into heel position using target training.

Now, unless you are teaching heel for the show ring, it really doesn’t matter if your dog is on the left side. You just need to be consistent about which side you train them to. If you have two dogs, you may even want to teach each one to heel on opposite sides so you can heel them together if needed.

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Being able to trust your dog to walk with you while off leash is great, but it takes a lot of work before you can use your off-leash heel in a distracting environment.

Teaching your dog to heel without the use of a leash is the best way to approach this behavior. Not only does it give you a finished behavior that you can show off to all your friends, but it forces you to be honest. Without a leash, you have to communicate effectively with your dog. You can’t just yank them into position if they do something wrong. You have to figure out how to ask them to do the right thing.

In the end, this leashless method of training heel will give you a more reliable behavior and help your dog understand what you want of them much quicker. And, as an added bonus, it makes you and your dog look like a professional team. So feel free to show off a little!

When is a Heel Useful

An off-leash heel is super fun to flaunt, but it also serves a purpose in many situations.

The more distracting a situation is, the better suited it is for a heel. This is because heel requires your dog to be in a very specific position while focused completely on you. A well formed loose leash walk is great for getting around town, but your dog is likely to break if they have to walk past a table of tasty food or a crowd full of other excited dogs. In a heel, they have very little room to wander without immediately falling out of position which means they’ll be farther from distractions and paying closer attention to you.

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Heeling is a priceless behavior to have in your toolbelt if you need to maneuver through crowds with your dog, especially if there are other dogs around to distract them. 

Heel is also great to use anyplace where your dog needs to stay safe by your side. This might be walking down the trail past an aggressive pup or wildlife. Or it might be walking through the living room past a broken vase.

>>>Bears aren’t the only wildlife your dog should be afraid of. Moose can be just as dangerous for your dog to meet on the trail.

Anytime you are on the move with your dog and need them under tight control, heel should be your go-to whether your dog is off leash or on.

How to Train Your Dog to Heel

As always when training a complex behavior, make sure to work at your dog’s pace. Training sessions should last 10 to 20 minutes and always end on a positive note. If your dog is struggling or uninterested, play a game instead and return to training at a later time.

Training should always be fun and exciting. If you are getting frustrated, that’s another good sign that it’s time for a break.

>>>Heel is a useful command, but remember that sniffing on walks is an important behavior that you need to let your dog indulge in as well.

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Your dog should know how to sit on command and readily offer a sit for food or petting before you start teaching the heel command. 

What you need to get started

You will need a large room with few distractions to train this behavior. It’s best to train inside the house where your dog isn’t likely to get preoccupied with new smells and sounds. You’ll start by walking in straight lines only, so a large space is very helpful.

You’ll also need super-yummy treats and a treat pouch. If your dog is clicker trained, you can use that in place of praise, but it does add to how much you need to carry. So it may be easiest to use a positive verbal marker, like “good dog” instead.

In the steps below, I will explain how to teach the standard left-side heel. If you would rather teach a right-side heel, just replace “left hand” and “left leg” with “right” in each step.

>>>If you take your training seriously, you’ll want to see our recommendations for must have training equipment.

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In the show ring, a heel is always done on the left side with the dog slightly behind the handler. As long as you train on the same side every time and your dog is near your leg, the details are less important for a companion pooch. 

Step 1: Get your dog to move into position by luring

Before you can start walking with your dog, you need to be able to get them into the correct starting position. You want your dog to start by sitting next to your left leg, facing the same direction as you.

To train this, start with your dog in front of you. They can be sitting or standing. Take a treat in your left hand and hold it in front of their nose. “Pull” them forward by moving your hand in a wide sweeping arch out away from your left side, then in a large circle back toward your left leg. (Check out the video in step 2 to see how this looks).

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Before you can teach your dog to walk nicely by your side, you have to train them to sit next to your leg so you can begin your heel in the correct position.

Move slowly enough that your dog follows your hand, but not so slow that they can get the treat.

Your dog should follow the treat in a circle and end up standing next to your left leg facing the same direction as you. Once they hit this position, move your hand up slightly to get them to offer a sit. Once they sit, give them the praise and treat them.

Tip: If your dog does not offer a sit, ask them to sit with a verbal command. As they start to understand the behavior, stop using the verbal cue and see if they will offer the sit on their own. By the time you get to step 4, they should be able to sit by your side without you using the extra verbal cue.

You can either release your dog and get them back in front of you, or just leave them in a sit and walk in front of them to repeat the above sequence. Continue luring your dog around in a circle to sit next to your leg until they are moving seamlessly into position.

Tip: If your dog moves out of position while you are trying to lure them or while you are waiting for the sit, just get the treat back in front of them and lure them back to your side to complete the behavior.

>>>Looking for more useful commands? Try training the versatile wait behavior.

Step 2: Reduce lure and introduce the command

Once your dog appears to understand what you are asking of them, you can begin to reduce how much you are luring them.

Start by simply moving your hand more quickly as you lure your dog around. As your dog moves in a circle, there will be more space between their nose and the treat than there was in the previous step. Keep your hand by your leg until your dog stands next to you, then move it up to get them to offer the sit. Praise and treat with each successful rep.

Continue to hasten your lure and make the circle less and less exaggerated until you can make just a quick swiping motion and have your dog turn in a circle and stand by your side. Work to remove the lure to get the sit at the end by moving your hand up to the center of your chest faster and faster with each repetition.

Once your dog is able to move in a circle and sit by your leg with only the quick swiping hand gesture, you are ready to give this behavior a name. We will call this “heel” as it is just one piece of the larger heel behavior.

Now, as you give the swiping hand gesture also say “heel.” Continue to repeat this process at least 20 times so your dog understands that the word “heel” and the behavior are related.

This video shows the process of luring your dog into the heel position, then getting rid of your lure and replacing it with a command and hand signal.

Step 3: Add in your first step with luring

Once you can get your dog into position with the heel command, you are ready to start moving.

Ask your dog to heel. Once they are seated by your side, hold a treat in front of their nose with your left hand, say “heel” again and take one step forward with your hand still in front of your dog. Your dog should take one step alongside you. Stop, and pull your hand up slightly to get them to offer a sit next to your side. Praise and treat them.

Repeat this process a dozen or so times until your dog starts to offer the sit when you stop.

Step 4: Build distance with luring up to ten steps

Once your dog has mastered taking one step and then sitting, it’s time to add more distance.

Get your dog into heel position as you did before. Put a treat in front of your dog’s nose. Then, say “heel” and take two steps with your hand still in front of their nose. If your dog doesn’t offer a sit when you stop, move your hand up as you did before.

Add a step with each successful repetition until you can go about 10 steps or the length of the room.

Tip: Pay attention to your dog as you walk. If you see them about to move out of position (like to sniff a something on the ground) drop your hand even closer to their face and pull them back into position with the treat. Do not repeat the heel command, simply complete the behavior and praise and treat them at the end.

See the video in step 6 for a visual on how this should look.

>>>Wondering why we don’t recommend traditional corrections? Get the scoop on why it’s best to avoid punishment based training.

Step 5: Reduce luring

Once your dog has successfully walked about ten steps in a heel without breaking multiple times, it’s time to start reducing the amount of luring you are doing.

With your dog in the heel position and your hand in front of their nose with a treat, give the command and step forward. As you step forward, move your hand up to the center of your stomach and hold it there. Take two steps and as you stop, lower your hand back in front of your dog’s nose then pull up slightly to get them to sit.

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Big dogs aren’t the only dogs that can learn how to heel! You can train your small dog to heel with these same steps, but you may need a spatula with peanut butter on it so you aren’t bending down constantly. 

The idea is to increase the number of steps you can take with your hand at your stomach instead of your dog’s nose.

>>>Do you enjoy working with your dog or is it a frustrating fiasco? Either way, these must-have dog training books are for you.

Repeat the above sequence and add an additional step each time. Once you reach five or so steps, you may need to drop your hand down halfway through the distance to keep your dog in position. You will also need to do this anytime they are about to stray out of position.

Continue working until you can take 10 steps without luring while walking. Then continue to work to get rid of the lure at the end to get your dog to sit. Do this by dropping and pulling up your hand less and less each time until your dog will sit without any hand motions.

Tip: If you have a large enough room, there is no reason to reset your dog at the beginning of each rep, you can simply start with them still in the sit position they ended the last rep in. If your room is not that large, simply move in front of your dog so you are facing them and then give them the heel command to move them back into position by your side and set off in the opposite direction.

Step 6: Add speed variations

Once your dog will walk about 10 steps by your side and sit when you stop without the need to lure, you are ready to add speed variations in preparation for adding turns.

With your dog in position, set off in a heel, after a few steps, quicken your pace. As you step into the quicker pace drop your hand with a treat in front of your dog’s nose and encourage them to pick up the pace by saying something like “let’s go, let’s go!”

It’s important to drop that lure hand before you step into the quicker pace so you don’t leave your dog behind.

Move quickly for a couple of steps, then return to a normal pace for a couple of steps, then stop. Praise and treat your dog once they sit by your side.

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Repeat this multiple times until your dog has no problem keeping up with you with little encouragement.

Tip: If your dog is really struggling to keep in position as you move faster, you can reward them the moment they move back into position. If your dog falls behind as you speed up, use your lure hand to encourage them to catch back up, the second they are back by your side, give them the treat and slow back to a normal pace. Take a couple more steps and then praise and treat them again after they sit.

Once your dog has mastered going quicker, it’s time to teach them to stay in position as you move more slowly. Start out as we did before, but this time slow your pace after a couple of steps. Drop your lure hand right before you slow down and use it to keep your dog from going past you. Use a calm verbal command like “sloooow, sloooow” to encourage them to slow their speed. After a couple of steps, return to a normal pace then stop and praise and treat your dog once they sit. Repeat this multiple times until your dog easily slows and stays with you.

This video shows the process of removing the lure after your dog learns to stay by your side for longer distances, then training them to keep up with you no matter what speed you are going.

Step 7: Add turns with luring

Heeling isn’t just about walking in a straight line. It’s important to teach your dog to stay by your side even as your turn and pivot.

First, we will teach our dog to take an outside turn. If your dog is on your left side, you will turn to the right. Because your dog is on the outside, they will have to speed up in order to stay in position.

Start in normal heel position, give your command and take a couple of steps forward, then pivot and turn 180 degrees. As we did when teaching our dog to speed up, you’ll want to drop your lure hand right before the turn and pull your dog quickly around with you while saying “let’s go!” Give your dog the treat after they complete the turn, then take a few more steps and end in a sit with more praise and treats.

Do keep in mind, your dog will need to move faster, but you need to move at a normal pace through the turn. If you move too fast your dog won’t be able to keep up!

Tip: If your dog falls behind, you may need to lure your dog slightly ahead of you before you begin to turn, this will get them in the right position to stay with you through the whole turn.

Continue practicing outside turns until your dog can easily stay in position through the turn.

Next, we will do inside turns. If your dog is on your left side, you will need to turn to the left. Your dog will need to slow down in order to stay in position.

Give your heel command and take a few steps. Then turn to your left 180 degrees. Drop your lure hand right before you begin the turn and use it to slow your dog down. Keep the lure in front of your dog as you turn into them. Once they complete the turn, given them the treat. Then take a few steps after the turn and end in a sit. Praise and treat again.

Repeat this until your dog can easily turn with you without getting ahead of you or in your way.

Step 8: Reduce luring during turns

You need to continue working through your turns until you can complete them without luring your dog. You will use the same sequence to remove the lure from both inside and outside turns.

Start in a normal heel and move into your turn. Drop your hand at the beginning as you were before, but this time, as your dog moves into the turn in position, bring your hand back to position on your stomach. If your dog moves out of position at any point, drop your hand and get them back into position. Keep using your verbal cues to encourage your dog through the turns even as you remove the lure.

Once your dog can move through the turn without luring, start removing the initial lure before the turn. A step before you move into the turn give your verbal cue (“let’s go” or “slooow”) and then drop your hand slightly, but not as low as before

Continue working on both inside and outside turns until you can remove the lure altogether and use minimal verbal cues to keep your dog with you.

This video shows how to teach your dog to stay with you through turns using a lure and verbal cues. Then, how to remove the lure and cues and with your dog still in position.

Step 9: Add distance and intermittent rewards

Once your dog can stay with you through turns of various degrees in all directions, you’ll have the opportunity to add more distance between each sit.

Start with your dog in the heel position. Give your command and move forward without a lure. After about five or six feet, give your dog a treat, but continue walking another five or six feet, then stop and praise and treat them after they sit. Starting from that same position, give the heel command again and move forward. Turn as needed so you can keep increasing overall distance.

Continue treating your dog every five or six feet and add a couple more feet total with each successful rep. So, if you’ve worked up to 20 feet total, you will be treating around three times while walking before stopping and giving the final reward.

Continue practicing until you can do a few laps around the room with your dog getting rewarded every five or six feet. Then begin working at that same distance but start treating less frequently, every eight feet, then every ten feet.

>>>Are you and your pooch sick of the same old walk routine? Here are some new and fun ways to get Fido some exercise.

Step 10: Remove treats until the final reward

Continue working until your dog can go a few laps around the room or about thirty steps without any treats.

If your dog falls out of position or gets distracted, lure them back into position and return to offering intermittent rewards. You can also lower the distance between each sit at first, with the treats only coming after the dog successfully heels with you and then sits at the end. Gradually increase the distance again until your dog can easily heel for about thirty feet without any treats until after the end sit.

Once your dog can do that, begin working in variable distances between sits and only offer a treat after every other sit, then every few sits. Dogs respond better to variable rewards than those on a schedule, so mix it up, offering a treat on the first sit, the third sit, the fourth sit, the seventh sit, the ninth sit and so on.

Eventually, your dog should be able to successfully heal through multiple sits without getting a treat until the final praise, treat, and release.

This video shows how to introduce intermittent rewards and work until you are able to reward on a variable schedule only. 

Step 11: Increase distractions in a controlled environment

Once your dog has mastered the heel in a calm, boring environment, you’re going to add distractions. Start by dropping a couple of low-value toys on the ground in your training space. Work as you were in the last step, but be aware that you may need to revert to luring to get your dog past these distractions. Work with the same distractions until your dog will easily move around them without needing to be lured.

Then, add higher-value distractions like a tennis ball or favorite stuffie. Once your dog can work just fine around these, try even higher distraction objects like treats sprinkled on the ground or chew bones.

Tip: It’s important that your dog not “reward themselves” by getting a hold of one of these distractions. We want the only rewards to come from successfully completing a heel. If you are having trouble getting your dog back into position before they grab a toy or treat, you may need to put a leash on your dog. Remember, this is only a safety line to stop your dog from getting to the distractions and should not be used to pull them back into position.

>>>If heeling past distractions is the least of your worries, you may want to read about how to stop common behavior problems.

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If you do have to put your dog on a leash to keep them from edible distractions, make sure you don’t pull on the leash or use it to cue your dog. Keep the leash loose at all times and still rely on your lure and verbal cues to keep your dog under control.

Step 12: Switch to a new environment

Once your dog can handle all matter of constructed distractions in their normal training space, it’s time to move to a naturally distracting environment.

Start with someplace that is only minimally distracting, like your backyard. Start at step 3 and move through step 10 again. Your dog will need to “relearn” the behavior in this new environment, so it’s important you start at the beginning again. They should move through the steps much faster this time, but it will take some time for them to ignore distractions and pay attention to you.

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Make sure to only take your dog off leash in a new environment if you are confident their heel is strong. And only if they have reliable recall, just in case. 

You may need to use even higher value treats than you were in the initial training.

Once they have mastered the mildly distracting environment, move to somewhere slightly more distracting like the sidewalk in front of your house. If you aren’t in a safe, fenced space, you should put your dog on a leash. Remember, this is only a safety line, not a tool to help in training. Again, start at step 3.

Continue moving to more and more distracting environments each time your dog masters the previous one.

>>>Does your dog get anxious in new places? The right calming treats might help.

It’s All About Practice

The more places you work with your dog on this behavior, the more solid it will be. Some great places you can work with them are parks, festivals, home supply stores that allow dogs, pet supply stores, and anywhere else there are likely to be people and other dogs.

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A dog with a reliable heel command will be able to navigate crowds and distractions with ease and will earn more freedom to walk off leash in less distracting situations.

Just remember, your dog will need some refreshers on what to do each time you add more distractions. Expect to need to add lures, verbal encouragement, and extra special treats back into the training program each time you change environments.

Once your dog has mastered the highly distracting places, you’ll have the ability to put your heel into real life use wherever and whenever you might need it.

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