Learning to “Heal”: Training Your Dog to Heel

By Karen Scheiner
Harlequin Dachshunds

Bailey Jumping

Bailey in Open Obedience

There’s a dog that comes along once in your lifetime, that is so special in so many ways, you know there will never be another one quite like her. I knew when she was a puppy, that Bailey was that dog for me.  She had qualities unlike any other dachshund that I had owned.  Not only was she was a strikingly beautiful chocolate dapple, but even more amazing than her beauty was her temperament, her drive, and her eagerness to work with me. Bailey earned her breed championship with me as her owner/handler, and when I started training her in agility, she surpassed all expectations, making it to the top five dachshunds in the country and getting that coveted invitation to participate in the AKC Agility Invitational.  When we worked in obedience, she won a first place at a specialty and took two other placements in all-breed trials, easily earning her CD. Around the time when I started to train for her CDX, a well-meaning, more experienced trainer recommended that I should concentrate on agility, and save obedience for later, when she was older. Regrettably I listened. Although we forged ahead in agility, the obedience competition that I had aspired to do with her was never realized as I lost Bailey at the young age of just seven.  At the time, I thought, this is the end. The end of having such energy and enthusiasm in the ring. The end of having a spirited and wonderfully trained dachshund to show and to love.  Fortunately, I was wrong.

I knew that I needed an outlet to heal from the emotional pain after losing Bailey.  She had been my closest companion, my dearest friend; my feelings for her were as close as for any family member. I was reeling inside from the pain that was raw and deep. Nevertheless, I soon realized that I was amazingly lucky in having kept two puppies from different litters that Bailey had whelped in her younger years.  Although I didn’t know it then, the loss of Bailey was not the end. Rather, it was just the beginning.  It is important to share how I healed from her untimely loss.  Teaching obedience to Bailey’s daughters, Abby and Cherry, changed my life and theirs.  Instead of sitting on the sidelines while their mother competed, it suddenly became their turn to shine.  Here is the road to follow in obedience training.

The beginning.
Focus is definitely the basic ingredient to training in obedience. Without focus, you have no one at your side! To earn a CD (Companion Dog) title, you are required to heel on-lead with your dog, and then, after a stand-for-exam exercise, the rest of the event is off-lead. For all advanced levels of obedience, there is no lead allowed at all! To make things even more challenging, you cannot talk to your dog through the exercises, and no food is allowed! So how do you get your dachshund to heel with you without a lead?

Start by playing games. There are a number of focus games to play with your dog. My favorite game is “touch” because no food is required. You merely need to extend your hand out, say “touch” and when the dog’s nose hits your hand, get crazy excited – they love it! After a while, the dog will purposely bounce his nose off your hand, just to get your response. You can then use the “touch” game to teach the dog to heal on your left side. Just lower your left hand and when the dog comes around your left side, and hits your palm with his nose, he gets overwhelming praises from you! Try it with a puppy – if a dog could laugh, this game will get close.

To teach other skills, use either tiny bits of chicken or a soft treat your dog loves. Make sure your treat is really small, because hopefully, you will be giving out a lot of them! Start with your dog facing you. Let her see the treat. Say her name. Then stay quiet. When she looks into your eyes, she gets a treat. Do this a few more times with success, before moving on. The next part of this exercise is to hold one treat in each hand, with your arms extended to the side. When you say the dog’s name, she should look into your eyes – and not at your hands holding the treats. The goal here is for the focus to be in your eyes, the dog looking at your face. Practice this exercise a few times a week. The dog will get the idea of focusing on YOU and not so much on the treats.

Remember to play games randomly and frequently with your doxie – particularly in-between teaching different exercises. Make it a fun time; no stress translates to no sniffing.

Heeling would be the next skill to teach. For this exercise, I would suggest using string cheese. Strip the cheese the long way, so that you have about ten long strands to work with.

Start heeling with cheese at your side

Start heeling with cheese at your side

In training, particularly in the beginning, always use a lead. The preferred size of the lead should be lightweight and no more than three- feet long. (I’ve had people come into my classes with a heavy 6-foot lead, like they are going to pull around a German Shepherd!! I tell them, they either have to get a larger dog, or a smaller lead!) Also, you don’t want to be rolling up bunches of the lead in your hands while you are working. A lead that is left too long may cause the dog to wander away from you.

To start heeling, the dog should be sitting at your side. Her head should at the seam of your pants, and she should be looking up at you. (See photos) With the lead in your left hand, let a strand of cheese also dangle from that same hand. You then should do a series of very short heeling exercises; I call them “come-up sits” or “come-ups,” for short. With your dog in heel position, take three steps (left, right and halt), and end up with her sitting in heel position. Extend the cheese strip down your leg with your left hand, and let the dog get it. You can try to do come-ups all the way around the ring, with the dog heeling a few steps, then immediately sitting. This exercise may seem repetitive, but in the beginning, your dog needs a lot of repetition so that he can understand what you want him to do. If the dog starts to forge, in a happy voice say, “Let’s try that again!” Avoid the word “no” in training; it does not belong in your vocabulary, as it could shut down a new dog.

Once your dog understands come-ups, you can move onto stretches of longer heeling exercises. Try doing change of pace (“fast” and “slow”), and occasionally at the end, instead of going into a “normal” gait, throw a piece of food or a toy, so that the dog gives chase. Do it when she doesn’t expect it, so it’s a surprise, and the dog gets to run around. Dachshunds, in particular, tend to lag in heeling. That’s why you definitely need some surprises, especially in training the “fast” gait. Instead of thinking, I hope my dog isn’t lagging, your dog should be thinking, “I’m not going to let my owner get away from me.”

A few problems that dachshund owners tend to experience are heeling too wide and sniffing. Both of these problems should and can be corrected by using techniques described above. On the issue of heeling too wide, I can’t stress enough, be careful not to step on your dog! If you are clumsy or have big feet, your dachshund will know it. He will never want to get too close to you!! If you have stepped on him, then you need to correct this by heeling with more treats and not stepping on him again. As for the dog’s sniffing, do not excuse this behavior. People tell me that their dog is “naturally” hunting for a mouse, or for food. Let’s just say that this is not acceptable in the obedience ring. You will lose the dog in the exercise and not recover. If you allow the dog to sniff the floor in training, it will only be worse in competition. It is a feature of stress and not so much that they are wildly hunting anything except a piece of lint on the floor. Therefore, if the dog is happy in training, then he won’t be sniffing. If you are getting a lot of sniffing, then you need to figure out why this is happening, so that you can correct it.

Fronts can, and should be, taught very early on.Sadie - front 2013 Puppies can learn fronts easily. Whether on a recall, or just learning to sit in front of you, your dog should sit squarely, with his head looking at you. His front legs should be at your toes, and his hind legs straight behind him. Dachshunds have a tendency of sitting on one side or the other, rather than straight. This is a function of either laziness, or never having been taught the correct way to sit. Do not allow your dog to sit on his haunches when he is called to front. Straight sits are also healthier for a long back. Practice doing fronts by turning in a circle, 90 degrees at a time. Tell the dog “front!”, and let her find the straight front herself. Soon you should be able to rotate a full circle, with your dog finding the “front” position.

Dumbbell. To make fronts interesting, you might want to present the dumbbell to your dog while he is sitting in front of you. Say “take it” and “release.” Of course the dumbbell retrieve is an Open exercise, but it is never too early to introduce this to your dog. At the end of your training period, you might also let her chase it and retrieve it in play, so she gets used to holding it and having it in her mouth. Always have her bring it back to you in a “front” sit position. Let the dog thinks this is her reward for an hour well done.

Still, the beginning.
As I said, this is just the beginning. There are so many components to training obedience, particularly for a dachshund. I plan on discussing more skills, exploring ways to make them exciting to your dog, and addressing common problems in future columns. For me, I still have a long road to go with Cherry is now working in Utility; her older sister, Abby, is retired after having earned her CDX. I do know that Bailey would be so proud of her daughters, who have been able to carry the torch and succeed in everything that she had been working with me to accomplish.

I would love to hear from you with your personal training experiences.  Please feel free to share your thoughts in this blog!

8 thoughts on “Learning to “Heal”: Training Your Dog to Heel

  1. Karen is an awesome trainer. I bought two puppies from her and she inspired me to train them in obedience (see Sadie’s photo above). I am now working on my CDX with my 2nd doxie, Colby. I found that it’s really worth it to train my dogs. It’s a thrill to be successful at an obedience trial! Not only do my dogs love the attention and the training, but it also forges a strong bond between us.

  2. This is a great article about obedience. I had to laugh when you said, “I can’t stress enough, be careful not to step on your dog!” I have done that with my dog and it has taken her a long time to trust my big feet.
    The one thing that I observed Karen, is that you are very upbeat with your dogs while training and in the ring. I don’t think that your dogs think it is work but having fun and wanting to please you.
    By the way, should the color of your shoes and pants match the color of the dog in the ring?

  3. I have very much enjoyed your obedience blog as we have CDs and CDX in the past; only 2 were with our Dachsies who have passed away from old age..
    I found your methods very encouraging and am eager to try again with the passing of time. My daughter in WI does agility and showed me the touch system which she uses too.
    Hopefully you will consider us future Harlequin owners. Sincerely, Hannelore Damrow

  4. Hannelore – Thank you for your comments. I hope we can talk about training more! Please tell me more about the touch system in agility training, as I am unfamiliar with that. I would love for you to begin to train one of our puppies!

  5. Hi Karen,
    I just wanted to tell you how much I am enjoying your articles and your website. I was initially drawn here because of the beauty of your dogs, but more importantly their versatility! I just lost my best friend last month and while I still have two senior dogs whom I love completely, the hole in my life is threatening to swallow me. He was special and there won’t be another to take his place. I cried for your Bailey because I understand that loss far too well. I actually have my dog’s half sister but she sadly is nothing like him, and at almost 15 with her fair share of health issues, I will feel her loss far too soon. I am glad that you had Cherry and Abby to find focus and hope.

    I am so impressed with your approach to these wonderful dogs and your obvious love. We are kindred spirits in our doggie approach. I have mad respect and admiration for you and what you are doing!

  6. It looks like it has been awhile since anyone has commented on this post, but it resonates with me even years after it was written. My heart was completely stolen by a little dachshund we rescued when he was age 8 and loved until he death at age 19. The rescue was my husband’s doing — he arrived home with him, and I did not want the dog. But he was wonderful and soon wormed his way in to my heart so deeply that I have not been ready for another dachsie for 25 years. He loved everyone, lived with a bunch of other dogs and got along with them all, raised two kids who were NOT in the picture when he showed up, sat up in the begging position so long he would fall asleep and fall over backwards. He set the barre pretty high. This post reminds me that hearts do heal, and while the next generation cannot replace the last, there is hope for loads of fun ahead.

  7. Love your writing! I can feel your passion for the pups and the training!
    I am getting a pup soon since I learned to love the breed after my teenager boy begged for one 10 years ago!!
    Our “Marley” is soooo smart and mischievous at times haha.

    Thank you ?

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