Every gun dog has to be taught to heel and sit in order to properly continue with his more advanced hunting skills training. In most training methods, professional or amateur, it’s the first skill we teach our trainees — It’s the foundation for all the other gundog skills to be taught. Unfortunately, many novice trainers do not take the heeling and sit drill to a degree that is high enough to make their dogs understand that they must perform on command — hopefully, the following description will change that.
The tools needed to teach this heeling drill are: choke chain and a six foot leash, along with a Whiffle bat or a heeling stick. I will assume that you have introduced your trainee to the leash by taking him on long walks to solidify his acceptance of the choke chain and leash. It’s important that you understand that this drill will transfer the responsibility of properly heeling from you to your dog. This will be accomplished by waking the pup with a loose leash.
When the little fellow moves too far ahead, small jerks on the leash will begin the transfer of responsibility from you to him. When you hold a tight leash while heeling your pup, you are accepting the responsibility for his actions, conversely, when you allow slack in the leash and make him pay the penalty for not properly heeling by jerking the leash you transfer the responsibility to him — got it?
All the tips and techniques will be taught with the dog heeling on the left side of the handler, because most hunters are right handed and shoulder their guns on their right shoulder.
Here’s how I start teaching the pup awareness of my body position and its introduction to building a wordless rapport under the excitement of hunting conditions. First, every time you turn to the right tap your leg; either hand will do. Every time you turn to the left snap your fingers on he left hand one time. Even if you don’t plan to take your trainee to the handling stage where these skills are widely used, these cues still add valuable communication language between you and your dog that will last his lifetime. In hunting situations where silence is sometimes needed, these cues can be used as a non-verbal interaction.
This method is not your super-market parking lot variety of heel and sit, where the handler does most of the turning and the dog simply follows — that type of training is OK for a pet, but not a gundog. A hunting dog needs to learn to perform verbal cues as well as physical cues, which puts pressure on him to learn more than to just mindlessly follow his handler.
After your pup is walking nicely at your side on leash, and following your body language a bit, we move onto the right hand turn because it’s the simplest and easiest for your dog to understand and perform. Keep in mind that you are a teacher and your dog’s performance may be shaky in the beginning; so, don’t get frustrated. These are military type turns, so plant your left foot and pivot 90° to the right as you pat your leg. Give the verbal “heel” command and jerk lightly on the leash. It’s important that your dog not only properly perform these right hand turns but he must also cultivate and accept a disciplined mentality that tells you he knows he must meet your standard — that part may be difficult for some to understand. It will probably take the better part of two weeks before your trainee even begins to understand the complexities of this drill you are teaching, but during that time we will also be starting the 180° and 360° turns.
Once your pup has a grasp of the right turn, then begin teaching the more difficult left turn by first giving the dog a verbal “sit” command as you continue to walk ahead. You can be sure he’s going to attempt to follow as you move, so, be patient. Here’s where the heeling stick comes in. Use it to intimidate the youngster as you move away. Then when you reach the end of the length of the leash, turn and face the dog. After a few seconds snap your fingers and encourage the little fellow to come to the proper heel position without going around your body; he must come straight to your left side. After a few of these he’s ready to start the left turns.
The procedure for left hand turns is the same as the right turns, except for the snap of the finger instead of patting the leg. Plant your left foot while snapping the finger and pivot to your left using your heeling stick to guide the pup into compliance.
There you have it fellow trainers; after two months or so, these intense workouts will educate your dog to the point that he will completely understand how to properly heel and sit. More important, he will begin to respond to your movements and enjoy the attention that will begin a respectful relationship with you
Have fun training!
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Grady Istre’s articles appear every other week in WON and he can be reached at reibar.com