Puppy walking on leash

When I take my dog for a walk, should I have him heel the entire time? Or is it ok to let him walk in front of me on occasion?

There’s no one right way to walk your dog — in fact, the only real “rule,” if you will, is that the leash should always have some slack. In other words, your dog shouldn’t be pulling you along, and you shouldn’t be pulling him.

Where your dog should walk — at your side, in front of you, slightly behind, somewhere in between — depends upon a variety of things, including situational factors and your own discretion.

Why Heel is Important

I often work with dog owners who think they need to limit their dog to a heel position because that’s the only way for well-behaved dogs to walk. This rigid adherence to the heel can cause its own problems, though. Preventing a dog from exploring may increase his desire to do so and can cause him to be distractible and unfocused on walks. In other words, asking your dog to heel for the entire walk can actually make it harder for him to heel at all.

It’s important for your dog to have the ability to investigate interesting scents and sights in his environment, and a walk offers a controlled situation in which to do this. Dogs who are always made to walk directly at their owner’s side may miss out on this important engagement. I like to alternate between asking a dog to walk next to me in a heel position and allowing him to walk out on a loose leash.

There are cases, however, where your dog will need to remain immediately next to you. If your dog needs extra management and supervision during walks, he will do best walking directly next to you at all times. In this case, the dog should be given time to explore and be a dog either before or after the walk. This may mean allowing him to to venture out on a longline or within a securely fenced space.

Your dog may also choose to walk close to you. Some dogs will stay in the heel position during a walk out of a personal preference. If your dog wants to be close to you, that’s fine — just be sure you encourage him to stop and smell the roses (or anything else that might be interesting for him to sniff).

When to Ask Your Dog to Heel — and When to Let Him Explore

While it’s important to allow your dog some freedom on his walks, it’s also important to impose some structure. Don’t allow walks to become a free-for-all where your dog jerks and tugs you along like a balloon on a string. For dogs who need extra guidance during walks, management tools like front clip harnesses and head halters can help decrease pulling behavior and provide increased control in a gentle fashion.

No matter what walking tool you use, don’t let your dog drag you along behind him. It’s important that you teach him that only a loose leash, never a tight leash, earns forward movement.

While a loose leash allows your dog to make the most of his walks, it is crucial that he also learn to heel on command. A reliable heel makes it easier for you and your dog to navigate in smaller spaces, like the veterinarian’s waiting room, and it gives you more control over your dog in crowded or high-distraction areas.

Teaching your dog to heel also provides a measure of safety, both for him and for anyone you may encounter on your walks. Ask your dog to heel when you pass another person or dog or encounter a jogger, biker, skateboarder or stroller. Having your dog close to you in this situation allows you to manage interactions and move him away, particularly if he is uncertain, fearful or reactive.

In most cases, you can direct your dog from a loose leash walk into a heel in response to specific distractions or challenges, such as crossing the street or passing another walker. Once the distraction has passed, reward your dog by releasing him to walk on the loose leash again. Additionally, it’s possible to increase your dog’s natural desire to be near you during the loose leash walk by paying attention to and rewarding him when he naturally draws near or checks in with eye contact.

Walk your way to a better outing with your pup by doing what works for you both and interchangeably moving from the loose leash to heel as desired for practice or as needed for the situation. Happy tails and trails to you on your walking journeys together!

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