Why I DON’T Train My Clients’ Dogs to Heel

In the basic obedience classes I teach as a dog trainer, I don’t spend hours training the dogs to heel. I don’t even spend much time on loose-leash walking as a trained behavior. I simply direct my students to the smorgasbord of anti-pull gear at the local pet store (front-clip harnesses and head halters), and move on to other items on the curriculum, like safety recalls, jumping up, and leave-it.

Why I DON'T Train My Client's Dogs to Heel

It’s not that training dogs to heel isn’t fun–it certainly can be, if we toss the out-moded leash-pop and use a modern training plan. But few of my students actually care about their dog’s ability to heel. What they want is a dog who won’t send them to the hospital with a shoulder injury.

And when I have explored the desire-to-heel phenomenon with the few students who do push for it, it seems to be a stand-in for control. Their large, young dogs are unruly, mouthing everyone, barking at the window, and jumping on the table; embarrassing, and even a bit scary. The image of the dog trotting subserviently just behind them provides some longed-for if imaginary relief. I’ve had young and boisterous dogs, too, so I get it.

Loose-leash walking on cue is certainly handy for many dogs in many scenarios, so a lot of trainers rightfully decide that it is worth a bigger piece of their class curriculum pie. However, for my basic classes in the semi-rural area I teach, I always come clean with my students: I have an agenda. I want their dog not to heel. I want walks to be about enrichment of the most delightful, nose-to-the-grass scent-filled way possible. I want walks to be sniffaris.

Walks as Enrichment

Humans tend to walk slowly compared to their dog’s normal, unleashed, gait. So although a leash walk might be reasonable exercise for elderly or small dogs, the adolescent goobers in my classes need separate and athletic exercise to tire out their bodies. Leash walks are instead a great way to tire out their minds. On a leash walk, a dog is checking out his world, drinking it all in through a miasma of odors: who went by? When? Which way? Oh, was there a squirrel there? There was. What else? What else? What else? When your dog has nose to the ground or is …’depositing’ his own smell, you can imagine that he is enjoying himself in the same way that you enjoy catching up with old friends on Facebook. Or, you know, watching kitten videos: no shame.

Enrichment has been a hot topic among dog owners and professionals recently, and for good reason. It’s simply humane to provide enrichment for dogs, like toys, chews, games, and more. But not unimportantly, enrichment can help to tire out your dog, and prevent them from enriching themselves‒with your stair rails, your laundry, or your favorite shoes.

So, join the sniffari movement with your dog. Next time you head out on a walk, let them sniff to their heart’s content. Plan your route to include new and exciting scents, or to the extent possible and safe, give them the option to lead you around. Cue up an audiobook or a new album and feel free to linger with your dog when they pause for a few extra sniffs at the local fire hydrant. They might just need a bit of time to like another dog’s post.

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Kristi BensonKristi Benson

Kristi Benson is an honours graduate of the prestigious Academy for Dog Trainers, where she earned her Certificate in Training and Counseling (CTC).  She lives and works in the Parkland Region of central Manitoba Canada, where she teaches dog obedience classes and helps dog owners in private consultations – both in-person and via video chat – for a full range of dog problems, from basic obedience to aggressive behaviour. Kristi is on staff at the Academy for Dog Trainers, helping to shape the next generation of canine professionals. Kristi’s dogs are rescue sled dogs, and for fun she runs them with a dog-powered scooter and on skis. Contact her through her website, and check out her blog, Facebook page, or Twitter for training tips, articles about dogs and training, and more.

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5 Responses to Why I DON’T Train My Clients’ Dogs to Heel

  1. Marnie says:

    The article does make a good point however I still want my dog to learn to loose leash walk? Why? First for her own safety. I don’t want her to pull to run across a busy road. Secondly for my safety. I don’t want to be pulled to the ground when she sees another dog or something she finds exciting. It would be nice to return home from the walk without red marks on my hands from holding her back on the leash. So I am going to still work on loose leash training. I have tried walking harnesses, they just don’t help. It would be really nice to have.a peaceful walk and not have to worry about about pulling. It is not about wanting to control her or be the alpha, it is about security and peace. Can she still sniff and explore? You bet, the command for that is “GO Smell”.

  2. Absolutely agree and teach the same!

  3. Erin Parker says:

    I only have a concern about you promoting head halters as they are called. I read an article on a study about the effects of said head halters and learned that these should only be used as a last resort and only for very aggressive dogs who are basically untrainable. It stated that when used in training on dogs who were friendly and outgoing and playful for pulling or other similar things that thier whole personality changed for the worse. It made them I would say depressed! Thier demeanor went from tail wagging & friendly to almost afraid. It broke my heart that they found this out on a dog who was a silly, loving, want to make friend kinds kinds of dogs and ended up with a traumatized depressed dog who no longer wagged thier tails or felt comfortable approaching thier owners. If this is the case I would certainly hope that trainers would cease to use these devices! Honestly I wouldn’t even use them on my aggressive dog if I ever had one again. Im such a dog lover, that my last dog who was aggressive and we never knew why he became that way, and we never could find a solution. So I did a lot of research and came across that article/study, and couldn’t bring myself to go get one! I couldn’t be mad at a dog for being a dog! Everyone told me to get rid of him, put him down! Which made my stomach turn! I mean we have issues, the dog had issues so in my mind we belonged together! Don’t laugh! Yes he ended up getting me good too…9 stitches! Yet I still wouldn’t give up on him, how could I! But when he saw me he’d growl and yes it made me nervous, so I needed a solution. Something where we could live together without me being bitten. I read and read, never finding anything. So we just used a muzzle for a bit. Unfortunately he got someone else and my husband got fined, and animal control moved in on the situation and took him. My heart is broken and I miss the little arse hole! But I have to say if I’m ever in a situation like that again, I pray I’m not but after reading that I couldn’t ever break a dogs spirit the way a head halter would. I’m hoping noone else could either! All I’m asking is that maybe you won’t be so quick to promote them please, of course you can look up and find out about them too. I’m sure you are a great trainer and wouldn’t ever intentionally or purposely promote something that isn’t good for dogs. And I’m in no way trying to offend you or say anything to negatively affect your business. I just want more positive solutions that benefit both dog and owner. Thanks, EP

  4. Gabby says:

    If they are properly introduced to head halters ,such as Gentle Leader halite,who give u a DVD to watch 1st to train dog to accept it well

  5. Joe Reaves says:

    This is a really unfamiliar approach to me. I teach a perfect heel during the evaluation, takes about 45 mins.

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