Off-Lead Heeling

From Katie Herbers, (

First thing: it takes just as long to teach a dog to heel off lead as it does on lead. Before you start off-lead work, do a test: can the dog heel with a 6 foot lead thrown over the handler's shoulder without significant mistakes? In other words, no-hands heeling? If a dog can't maintain reasonable heel position (voice/leg pats sufficiant to bring dog back in position) thru-out a full heel pattern (turns, halts, pace changes and all!) without the handler having to grab the lead, the dog is NOT ready to go off lead! Also many dogs need a transition from lead to off- lead. For this, use a "magic" string. This is a string about 3 feet long with a loop tied on either end. Make one loop large enough to pass a belt thru and the other, your thumb. To start, you thread the string thru the collar and hold both loops with the thumb and finger of your left hand. The leash is ALSO attached to the collar. Heel for awhile, getting tricky so the dog really has to pay attention. Then casually remove the lead, leaving the string in place. Start heeling. If the dog makes a mistake, viola! you correct with the string! Since the dog can't feel the string, they are *very* surprised that you can still correct them! Praise like crazy and put the lead back on. Repeat many, many, many times.

The next step is to quietly let go of one loop, pulling the string out of the collar while heeling. Viola! you are off lead and the dog does NOT realise that you can no longer correct him. You only begin THIS step when the dog is no longer making significant mistakes on the string.

The NEXT step is to attach the small loop to the collar like you do a rubber band, passing the larger loop thru your belt. The dog now has an "umbilical cord". Use this when the dog is at the stage where you will quietly reach for the dog's collar to bring him back into position, further weaning off the string. Eventually, most dogs will try to avoid this, thus the string, which prevents them from taking off. The string is also wonderful for retrieve training and pivots for gloves, etc.

Also, be very aware of what YOU do when you go off lead. It is not unusual for a novice handler to "choke-up" when they start off-lead work. They stiffen up, moving slower and more tentative than normal. And all because the leash is off! You have to trust in your hard work and move out just like you know the dog is going to be with you, and if you've done the groundwork, they WILL be! You MUST work with confidence in yourself and your dog!

From Carolyn Rankin, (

It takes at least two years to train a dog to heel well. A few other tips that might be used when you feel your dog is ready to go off lead:

  1. Most dogs lose heel position right after the command is given and the handler moves forward. It's not necessarily apparent to onlookers, but the handler who has worked with the dog should be able to tell the instant the dog isn't with you. So, start off lead stuff with a lot of on lead starts. Make sure that you always give the command and then step forward. Try saying "Rover, HEEL step" and lead off with your left foot on the step part. At the same time, as you step forward with your left foot, give the dog a little automatic tug forward. The idea is that he needs to be getting up and moving the instant you say HEEL so that he's with you as you step forward. Then stop and praise and treat or play or whatever, so he knows he's just done the greatest thing in the world. Repeat this about 5 times and then go to something else. Then return to it later in the training session for another 5 times. Try to get about 15-20 repeats per training session. Gradually work up to a few more steps before the praise.
  2. When the dog is really with you during any part of the heeling, start to do off lead stuff. This you do with a 25 # test fish line, so the dog isn't really completely off lead. The fish line is on all the time but the regular lead is snapped on and off at random through the various training repetitions until the dog is thoroughly mixed up as to when it's on and when it's off. Should he make a mistake while it's "off", use the fish line to give the tug and pretty soon he'll start thinking you have a magic leash that works whether or not it's attached!!
  3. Finally, when the dog is pretty close to show ready (after about 2 years of training), go to a system of really off lead (no fish line). If the dog screws up, stop, lead goes on, go back to the place he goofed and give an automatic tug. Then back to the same place again with lead off. If he doesn't do it right with this reminder, you're not ready for step 3 and it's back to step 2 for awhile.

From Cheryl May, (

Heeling is one of the most difficult excercises to teach. When done correctly, it is like dancing with your dog. This perfect harmony of heeling is hard to reach and hard to keep. Keep in mind that it can take 2 years to teach a dog to heel!

With a dog that plays "tag" when off-lead, put the lead back on for training purposes. When he ducks away, he is telling you that he either 1) doesn't understand what you want him to do; or 2) doesn't care. Either way, this is not where you want to be in your training.

There are times when you need to let the dog know that doing the exercise is not optional. Here is where it helps to be able to read your dog so you know what he is telling you. Always give the dog the benefit of the doubt. if it is a young dog, he probably doesn't understand.

So, assuming that he doesn't know where heel position is and that you want him to stay there until you tell him otherwise, start again back on lead and lure him into heel position. Line up the dog's ears with your left hip -- not your leg, or heel position will be always moving.

When he reaches perfect position, click (with a tongue cluck or a clicker) and treat. Take one step. If he is still in heel position, click and treat. Move up to two steps, three steps, etc. This type of positive approach is very effective with most dogs.

If you think he does know what you want, use a different approach. Start heeling. When he goes left, you turn right. The lead will administer the correction. Keep walking and when he goes off in one direction, you head the other way. Praise heartily and treat when he returns to heel position. This is based on Koehler, and this works very well with most dogs.



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