By Rhett Kermicle
If the command “Heel” is so basic and simple, you have to wonder why you see so many dogs that won’t walk quietly by their owner’s side. Admittedly, some dogs are easier to train than others, and some seem bent on doing the opposite of whatever you want them to do. The truth is, the same principles that apply to all of you hunting dog commands apply to the heel command. Properly training this command is not difficult, but it does require firmness and, just as importantly, consistency.
The choke chain is the old standby product for teaching heel, and we still use it at our kennel as the starting point. Slip the choke chain over your dog’s head so that the tag end comes out across the top of the dog’s neck. This allows it to tighten immediately when you pull on the lead, but relax quickly when you release the tension. If you put the choke chain on backwards, you should immediately know it because it will not function smoothly.
Take your dog out walking. Each time he tugs or gets beyond the point where the front of his shoulder is aligned with your knee, quickly snatch the lead and bring him back into position. This snatch-release program could take a few sessions, or it could take many, depending on your dog’s character and temperament. However, at this point you are not giving a verbal command. The dog is simply learning from the pressure of the choke chain what you want.
When you can tell your dog understands what you want, you can link the verbal “Heel” with your walks. You can vary your walking speed, turn toward the dog and turn away from him at various intervals. Give him a “Heel” along with the tug on the lead when if he falls out of step. Soon your dog will be looking to you for guidance and anticipating your moves in an effort to stay in good heeling position.
To finish this exercise, you can next introduce an electronic collar to the progression. As with all e-training exercises, a proper introduction to this valuable tool should already be complete. If you need help with this, you can review several earlier articles in our training series on this site. You should start with the lowest leve l of stimulation your dog will respond to. If you need to administer a correction, do so with both the choke chain and the e-collar. After a few sessions you should be able to phase out the choke chain.
Some hunters I speak with don’t put much time into teaching the heel command, because they don’t see much application for it in the field. But there are many times when the ability to quickly bring your dog to heel is valuable. The most obvious is when a hunter is trying to line up his waterfowl dog for a retrieve. And in the uplands, sometimes you want your dog to walk under control as you make your way back to the truck after hunting a piece of cover. There’s no sense in letting him continue to run and use valuable energy if you’ve already hunted out a piece of property.
Take the time to teach this simple but important command and your hunting experiences will be more productive and pleasant.