2. Find Heel Position & Walk Nicely

Exercise 2.1 - Teach a Hand Target

In this first exercise of Section 2 we take a look at how we want the dog to walk on a lead and highlight the most common mistakes people make which results in the dog learning to pull hard on the lead.


Dogs have a strong natural instinct to pull against anything restraining them, it’s called an opposition reflex and it allows them to free themselves if they get caught up in something like brambles for example.  This is one factor that helps explain why dogs learn to pull so readily but really it is poor handling technique and there are two things most people do:

  • Let the dog walk out in front and hold the lead in a way that keeps tension on the lead allowing the dog to pull the handler forwards.  
  • Follow the dog on this tight lead and let the dog dictate the pace and direction of the walk.

Together with the opposition reflex this almost guarantees the dog will learn to pull hard on the lead and once the dog gets bigger, stronger and more independent this will become a difficult issue.


Instead, we want to teach our dogs how to walk nicely on a completely loose lead and let us walk at a comfortable pace and in any direction we choose.  


What pups learn first they tend to learn best so once the habit of pulling becomes established it can be very challenging to correct later on so follow Section 2 carefully which explains step-by-step in a series of progressive exercises how to use the ‘Broken Arm’ technique to teach your dog to walk perfectly!


Note: if you have an older rescue dog this technique is still appropriate but just be aware that how a dog behaves on the lead is often a reflection of their emotional and mental state as well.  Dogs that are nervous of their environment or over excited will often pull as a consequence and in these cases much patience and gentle exposure to the outside world is needed so they can relax and feel safe.  Exercise 1.1 is particularly useful in this context – you can stop and practice the ‘Up and Down Game’ for a while to regain the dogs attention and sniffing for treats with ‘Find It’ is itself rewarding and relaxing as the dog gets to use its nose – sniffing is very calming.


The very first step in the process shown in the second half of the video below is to teach the dog to move towards our open hand.  Trainers call this hand targeting.  It’s very simple, we’re teaching the dog to touch his/her nose to our open hand.

  • Hold a treat under your thumb and present your hand in front of your dogs nose, when his nose touches your hand let him eat the treat and then toss another treat on the floor to reset.
  • Practice on both sides and once you’ve done 10 or so repetitions just present your open hand without the treat and when your dog moves towards your hand and touches it reward with a treat delivered by the other hand.
  • Practice three times a day for 2-3 days before moving on to Exercise 2.2

Note: Exercises in Section 2 are possibly the most valuable in the whole foundation course judging by the amount of enquiries I receive asking for help with pulling on the lead!  Having said that, do realise that all the sections of this course work together to help create the skills we want our pups to learn.  For example, to walk nicely we need the positional awareness taught in section 2 but we also need the attention from section 1, the self control taught by the stay exercises and Sit and Down on cue.


This is why this course is structured as it is.  It is split into 8 logical sections and within each section there are the progressive exercises and I am introducing the exercises from different sections to you in the order I have found over the years to be most effective.  At a any one time we will be working on exercises from 3-5 sections during a given week as we bring the various elements and building blocks together into more complex behaviours and skills as the course progresses.


It is very tempting, but a mistake therefore to say ‘ah, the issue I have is my dog pulls on the lead so I’ll watch out for Section 2 exercises and do those ones’ or to jump into the course at different points. 


Exercise 2.2 - Find Heel Position

In this exercise we move our hand target behaviour that we taught in Exercise 2.1 on a little further by using it to help the dog move into a nice heel position right beside us which is where we want them to be when we’re walking.  

  • First we warm up our hand target behaviour just as we learned in Exercise 2.1.
  • In this video I’m working Jim on my left hand side but do teach this on both sides.
  • Progress your hand touch behaviour by moving your left hand and left leg back about a foot or so and reward your dog when he moves to your hand behind you.
  • Then step forward bringing your left leg and left hand forward and reward your dog again when they follow your hand and end up beside you with his/her shoulder next to your leg.  This is what we call ‘heel’ position and exactly where we want them to be when we’re out walking.
  • Once in this position reward with several treats – don’t be stingy here, we want the dog to really like being in this position so we keep them here for a few seconds and reward with several treats fed one-by-one.  There’s a dog trainer saying that goes ‘you get what you reward’ and it’s very true.


Be a little bit careful at this stage because you're feeding a lot of food from the hand, if you pup gets a little bit grabby or jumpy for the food, feed the treats on the floor and you may also want to do this exercise kneeling down at first which dramatically reduces the chance of jumping up.


Notice that as I bring Jim forward I will actually shuffle a little bit closer to him so I'm actually rewarding him exactly where I want him to be when we're walking.  This is called ‘feeding for position’ another dog training saying that goes hand-in-hand with ‘you get what you reward!’.


Exercise 2.3 - Sit in Heel Position & Watch Me

In this exercise we’re going to bring together three different exercises so it’s important that you have already worked through the following:

  • Exercise 2.2 Find Heel Position with a Hand Target, 
  • Exercise 5.2 Sit to a Hand Gesture,
  • Exercise 1.3 Sit & Watch Me.

If you’ve nailed all these then we’re good to go!


This exercise definitely falls into the Walk Nicely section but the good news is it’s one of the most valuable exercises for Improving Attention as well!


I can’t emphasise enough that attention from your dog is crucial.  Without it, he will learn very little.  It’s not difficult to be the centre of your dog's world when he is tiny and dependent on you for everything but as he grows up and becomes more confident and independent things may well change drastically!


One of the keys to an attentive dog is making ignoring you very unrewarding and sadly although we usually mean well it is very easy to reward inattention in our dogs and these uncontrolled rewards are a very bad thing as they feed the lack of attention constantly and sabotage our best training efforts.


Every time you so much as step forward with a dog on a lead before he looks at you, you are inadvertently rewarding inattention in a big way. 


This is why Exercise 2.3 is so valuable.  It will help you now set a new standard for your dog and that standard says that he must look directly at your face and hold that look for a few seconds before you set off with him for a walk.


Here’s the exercise I want you to practice in your easiest place first and then in all the rooms of your house and finally in your garden before we take it on the road.

  1. Move your dog into heel position with a hand target
  2. Ask your dog to sit beside you with a very clear and deliberate hand gesture (no verbal cue)
  3. Once sitting, practice Sit & Watch me using the counting method to count from 1, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3-4-5-6.
  4. Then release to find a treat before having another go.