The Myth of the Militant Dog Walk

IMG_4575_1024For anyone who has been “in dogs” for more than a handful of years remembers being taught that your dog MUST walk next to you on your left side with their collar in line with the seam of your pants. The leash shall make a letter J to show how loose the connection is to the dog. Ideally the dog is looking up at you with riveted attention. We all just did as we were told, because that is why you pay for a class, to learn from a person more experienced that you.

Back in the day (as recently as 10 years ago) most dog training classes were being conducted by your local American Kennel Club (AKC) obedience club. These clubs' sole purpose was to train you and your dog to compete in AKC obedience competitions, even if you “just wanted a nice pet”. These clubs were staffed by volunteers, who had little to no formal training in behavior and were teaching classes because they had put an obedience title on at least one dog. Many of these volunteers taught because they loved dogs, loved the sport of competition obedience and wanted to share their love with new people.

Why were they teaching the left side heeling? They taught what is required in the sport of competition obedience. How did that become the requirement of the sport? Competition obedience is mainly based on hunting dog skills.

So, when it comes to heeling this is why they choose left side heeling. (many, many years ago):

1) Most people are right handed. So if you are holding your shot gun while walking the stock would be “under” your right armpit and the barrel in your right hand.

2) If you gun is on your right side then you are not hitting your dog in the head with it while you walk.

3) If you go to raise your gun to shoot, you want your dominant hand on the trigger and your other hand steading the barrel. Your left hand becomes that steady hand. You don’t want your dog in front of you because once again you will hit it with the gun.

4) You want your dog next to the seam of your pants so when you raise the gun to shoot and actually shoot, you don’t shoot your dog.

5) You want your dog paying great attention to you to listen for when to be sent for a downed bird.

I do not walk my dogs while carrying a shot gun.

I do not hunt with my dogs.

I live in suburbia.

I walk my dogs on sidewalks, streets, and marked trails.

I do teach my dogs “competition style” heeling.

I do not require my dogs to heel while on walks.

My dogs can be ahead or behind me while walking.

My dogs do not pull me.

My dogs are taught to walk on both sides of me.

My dogs stop and sniff.

My dogs have choices on walks.

I teach my dogs how to heel, because sometimes I like to participate in competition obedience sports. I teach a group class that only teaches competition heeling because I find when people training these behaviors it helps their general leash walking skills. Once taught these skills do not need to be used with military precision! Competition heeling is a behavior I ask for in certain contexts, for a short duration of time. These skills can be used in real life situations like walking in a crowded outdoor market, or crossing a busy street. I do not suggest, recommend, or even encourage duration heeling on your daily walk.

For most of our clients we teach Polite Leash Manners, instead of traditional heeling. Why, because it is easier to teach the team, it is a more natural way for the dog to walk, and more pleasurable for the team. For me Polite Leash Manners is just that, be polite. I ask the dog not to pull me around. I ask the dog not to trip me. I ask the dog to be able to respond to simple directional cues, when needed. I ask the dog not to lose its mind when people, dogs, bikes, etc pass us. All of the above are separate skills that I teach my dog and put into my leash walking. Most of these skills take a long time to master in a variety of situations. For all of these skills I reward (pay) my dog an appropriate paycheck, because none of these skills come naturally to most dogs.

So is it time to reevaluate your leash walking requirements to more fit your lifestyle? I know over the years I have, and both me and my dogs are happier for it.


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  • Neil Mosher

    She set up a phony argument and then brilliantly defeated it. No one is out there teaching dog training to hunting standards unless they are training a hunting dog. Creating easy targets has become a very popular method of winning converts when it's not even needed. Lighten up.

  • Cynthia Stevenson

    Good points and in reality that is how dogs have been trained for years...however --I taught my dog that as long she was within 6 feet of me or when I said heel that mean my leg was between her nose and hip that was good unless I said "be close" that meant her shoulder or ribs should be touching my leg/pants...it was great to watch her come close when someone approached. If she was on the 'passing' side I knew she didn't like the person or dog and was 'guarding'....it could have been a stroller that she thought was 'dangerous'....she just watched....

  • J Wildberry

    Being on my left side, unless otherwise indicated, is something I train my dogs to do from puppyhood. Not because of obedience or hunting or anything like that, but for safety reasons. I walk on trafficked roads with no sidewalks most of the time, and I want my dog to be towards the ditch, and me between her and traffic (when I'm walking on the correct side, which is always). The times when I need to position my dog on my right is not a problem either, but dogs are creatures of habit, and I want her favorite walking position to be on the safe side, so to speak.
    If I lived in a country where cars drive on the left side, I would teach my dogs to walk on the right side of me.

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