A dog that is going to do therapy dog work must walk at his owner’s side on a loose lead. Commonly termed heeling, I often find this to be the hardest command for dogs to master.
When I teach a beginners therapy dog training class, I stress the importance of the Basic Six: Sit, Down, Stay, Come, Leave It, and Heel. When visiting, the handler may want his dog to Sit next to a patient; or go into a Down while the handler talks with a staff member. The Leave It command could save your dog from eating medication accidentally dropped on the floor, or from devouring a plate of food that has not yet been removed from a patient’s room. Your dog should always Come to you when asked to do so… 99% of the time you are visiting with your dog in a facility she will be on leash which you will have held in your hand. But, a situation might occur where you need to drop the lead for a moment, ask your dog to go into a Sit, Stay or a Down, Stay, then ask your dog to Come when called. The handler needs to have complete control over his dog when visiting.
A well behaved, well trained therapy dog walks into a facility on a loose lead. Of the basic six, this is the most necessary. A therapy dog simply can’t head into a facility ahead of her handler at the end of a six foot lead (add on another two feet when the handler’s arm is extended full length as the dog is tugging on the lead). If your dog doesn’t walk at your side on a loose lead going into a facility and while you are visiting within the facility, this is a sign that your dog really isn’t ready to be making therapy dog visits.
Training a dog to Heel requires perseverance and consistency. Some dogs catch on quickly – within a couple of weeks of practice. Others require much more time and repetition. I have had both kinds of dogs, myself.
Currently, Annie is the dog I’ve been training to walk on a loose lead by my side… and it has been a challenging process! In fact, we’ve been concentrating on this command since January! Suddenly, June was the magic month… Voila! She had it! All the little tips and techniques our trainer had told us to try have finally clicked. It’s pure joy to take a walk with Annie now. Looking back over the past six months, because we had a severe winter, walks outside on the snowy, icy roads were limited. Training took place in our Barn – a place with no distractions. In this space she excelled. But, when springtime came, walks outside meant freshly uncovered ground which had been blanketed by several feet of snow throughout the winter. Annie has a powerful nose. Everything was smelling very good to this Sporting dog girl. She could have cared less about listening to me. We were back to square one! Once we had good weather though, all walks were outside and took place every single day. Consistency really makes a difference – and perseverance. Just don’t give up until things click. Then, of course, keep practicing!