There are few things more satisfying than owning a dog or gundog that you have trained yourself. The good heelwork is one of the first things that you will notice about a well-trained dog; they will be under control, alert and aware of their trainer, even if there are distractions. If they are off the leash, since they are close there is a much greater element of control than at a distance and you can generally relax even in the shooting field where your concentration may not always be on the dog.
Where Should Your Dog Walk?
The traditional position of a working gundog when not actively working is at heel, generally for a gundog on the left side, away from the gun ‘at trail’. Interestingly, for a working falconer’s dog the position is on the right, the bird sitting on the left fist, and the right hand free for access to sword or dagger (the tradition of mixing falconry and dogs in the UK dates back some way!). The dog’s head should be near the trainer’s knee, unless the dog or the trainer is an unusal size, but you get the idea.
For a dog used for deer-work, the heel position is a little more relaxed, allowing the dog some leeway to move ahead of the stalker. Depending on the size of the dog, the head should be a yard or two in front of the stalker. The main reason for this is to allow the dog to give some indication of deer ahead, and to prevent your scent interfering with the quarry’s scent. If you are working a pointer, the dog can then point the animal before it is disturbed, allowing you to commence the stalk, leaving the dog in the ‘Down’ position.
Unfortunately, the ideal position for a deer dog to walk is what most dogs seem to consider the correct place to walk to heel! This is where the stretched arms of the big-dog walker originate.
For these instructions, I assume that the dog is being trained to walk on the left, and will leave it to you to reverse the instructions if you are doing otherwise.
So How Do You Prevent Bad Heelwork?
The best way to ensure that your right arm is not stretched by your over-enthusiastic mutt is to teach good heel-work from the beginning. When you feel that the time is right to start training, choose a quiet time in the house when there are few distractions, preferably just before a meal when the dog is not dozey and is peckish.
There are two traditional types of leashes/leads in use. The one most often used for pet dogs consists of a collar and separate lead, but for working dogs collars represent a snagging risk and are usually abandoned in favour of a single slip leash; a flexible thin rope or leather strip with a metallic loop on the end through which the rope is passed; much like a noose. The other end of the loop consists of a fixed loop which the hand passes through.
If you are working with a collar, attach the lead. If you are working the puppy on a slip lead, place the loop over the dog’s head with the metallic loop end passing under the dog’s throat. This is very important, as the leash can act as a noose if the metallic loop end passes over the back of the dog’s neck, the reason being that when there is no pull on the leash the loop can drop down if put on correctly, but will stay tight if the other way around. Try it and see (gently!).
Hold the loop in your right hand, with the bulk of the leash across your front to the dog.
Now if this is the first time that the dog has had a lead on, chances are good that she will go mad and try to get the thing off. The best plan is to distract the puppy by talking to it, clicking the fingers, bending over towards it, offering a small treat (very small, you don’t want to ruin the appetite or end up with an overweight dog), or any other distraction you can think of.
Once her mind is off of the lead, give the command ‘Heel!’, a gentle tug on the lead and then walk off, still keeping the puppy distracted and in approximately the correct position. Praise her up, keep her mind off of the lead and the puppy in the correct place. Don’t overdo this, as boredom (your’s or the dog’s) is the worst enemy of training.
Once she has accepted the lead, which shouldn’t take long, practice little and often, saying ‘heel’ when moving off, ‘close’ when turning right, or ‘back’ when turning left (the latter two swapped if you are training the dog to walk on the right hand). If you have any preference for using different commands do it from the beginning (some people may prefer to use ‘back’ to send the dog away).
The ‘Secret’ Commands.
The aim of your training is to end up with a dog that will walk to heel either on or off the lead. When you are walking a dog where quarry may be stalked, there is an advantage to giving quiet commands; and there are some silent commands that can be used. Incorporate these in your training right from the start and alongside your normal command!
The first of these is the ‘heel’ command. There are two means of giving this command quietly, and both of these should be used alongside the spoken ‘heel’ right from the start. With the dog sat at your side, give a tug on the lead (held across your body with the loop in your right hand) and lead off with the foot nearest the dog. Both the tug and leading with the closer foot give signals. With the dog off the lead (or with it wrapped loosely around it’s neck) lead off with the opposite foot, giving the dog a ‘Sit!’ command as you leave. The lack of tug on the lead, and the use of the other foot, will encourage the dog to stay (eventually!). After some weeks of practising this occassionally, you will be able to walk past the dog in the sit and either pick her up or not depending on which foot you place next to her as you pass.
The ‘Close’ command is passed silently through a steady pull on the leash across the body, and an exaggerated turn of the foot. This turn of the foot is accomplished by forming a ‘T’ with the two feet, the right foot pointing forwards and the left turning away from the dog at right angles.
The ‘Back’ command is indicated by a pull back on the leash (using the left hand to pull the dog back, holding the loop in the right hand still) and an exaggerated turn of the foot towards the dog.
When the dog pulls forward, an appropriate technique to control the situation is to stop and insist (via the lead and vocal ‘Heel’) on the dog coming back into position. Turns when she creeps ahead are also useful to ensure the correct positioning.
Anyway, the important thing is to take things at a pace she can cope with, do not overdo the exercise or she will be bored, and keep in mind the end result, it will be worth it. Enjoy!