NewDogOwnerFilter: Is it worth the fight?
July 6, 2010 6:46 AM   Subscribe

I adopted an awesome dog from the local Humane Society. The dog is a one year old German Shepherd who is very well behaved (doesn't chew, rarely barks, never steals even when freshly cooked cheeseburgers are left unattended, etc) and already knows basic commands like "sit" and "come" and "heel." The only problem is the "heel" - he was obviously trained to heel to the left and I really want him to heel to my right. The question: is it worth the effort to retrain him and if so how do I accomplish this? More details and some photos below the fold.

Edward Cantor Dean Lewin aka Eddie

I have no doubt that I won the doggy lottery with Eddie and I have been surprised on a daily basis by how well behaved and obedient he is but he insists on walking on my left. I know from various training resources that "heel" is traditionally taught to the human's left but I really want him to walk on my right. I live in the Virgin Islands, cars here drive on the left and we have very few sidewalks so I am used to walking on the right so I am facing the oncoming traffic and would very much like to be between the cars and my dog. This is compounded by the fact that I know someone here whose dog was hit by a car while it was on leash because the dog was walking on the outside. Eddie however also wants to be on the outside and the struggle is turning what would otherwise be very enjoyable walks into something stressful for both of us.

When I am not trying to steer him to my right right he walks with a very slack lease (so much so I have to make sure he doesn't trip over it) and we can walk straight past human and dog strangers without any pulling. The trouble is only when I try and get him on the right hand side he is constantly trying to cut in front of me to get back on the left so we end up walking into each other. If he pauses to sniff and I am ready to keep going I say "heel" and he immediately starts up walking again but on the left. So far what I have been doing is steering him to the right with the leash and praising him extensively whenever he is walking on the right but it does not seem like he's getting it. Am I doing harm correcting a behavior which it seems he previously learned one way? Every time he heels left and I tell him "no" and steer him right it seems like he is confused and distressed.

I'm sure part of the reason I'm beanplating this is he's my first dog and I've done a lot of reading much of it contradictory. It seems to me that one school of thought is that the trainer needs to always be the leader and should insist on the behavior being performed correctly and the other school of thought is that the dog and trainer should work together and if the dog is unwilling the issue should not be forced.

Bonus question: why is heel traditionally taught to the left? Everything I've read agrees that left is correct but has never offered a reason.
posted by Bango Skank to Pets & Animals (14 answers total)
I'd probably come up with a different word than 'heel' to mean 'heel to the right.' That way he's just learning a new command, instead of trying to re-learn an existing one.
Bonus answer: probably because hunter's hold their guns with their right hand.
posted by duckstab at 6:52 AM on July 6, 2010 [7 favorites]

So you can use your right hand to do other stuff? For example, when you open a door, it would be easier to "block" the dog (say for training purposes) if it's on your left side.

Just my two cents (from experience). No scientific proof at all.
posted by jstarlee at 6:55 AM on July 6, 2010

Duckstab is right about coming to heel at the left, according to a gunsports enthusiast pal that I just asked.

And I also agree with the advice. You've got a really great dog there, by the sounds of it. Trying to re-train him means telling him he's getting something wrong, when he really, really wants to get it right for you, just like he was shown by someone else.

So try giving it a new name and teach him treating it as something new, instead. You're not undermining his current success in doing as he's told, and you're also giving him the opportunity to learn something new and impress you, which he'll enjoy. Over time you can help him gradually adapt to walking on your preferred side.

But you need to treat this sympathetically, despite your sound reasons for wanting to change his habits.
posted by dowcrag at 6:58 AM on July 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Heel is taught to the left because a) most people are righties and want their dominant hand free, especially if it's being used to carry a weapon (hunters, cops, etc.), and b) the AKC requires it for show dogs. For the latter, the handler's legs clue the dog in as to whether heeling is expected; moving the left leg forward means follow me at a heel, while moving the right leg means "Stay."

Stop associating the new behavior you want (walk on right) with the command ("Heel") your dog already knows and associates with behavior you don't want. When you say "heel," he complies and goes to the left and is then confused that you're not happy. Pick a new word and make the desired behavior slightly different, not just a mirror image of what Eddie associates with "Heel." Your behavior should be different too (e.g., switch leash hands) to give him more clues. You can then still ask him to "heel" when you want him on the left, which may be convenient at times.
posted by carmicha at 7:05 AM on July 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wow! You really did win the doggy lottery! He is beautiful.

I will second duckstab's comment. Add a new command for right side heeling.
Lessening the confusion will benefit Eddie and he will be a dog that knows his right from his left. Win-win.
posted by Drasher at 7:08 AM on July 6, 2010

What a beauty Eddie is. And I agree with everyone else: teach him a new walk-with-me-on-my-right trick, call it "toe" or "Achilles" or something, and if you don't want him to walk on your left, just never give the "heel" command.
posted by mgar at 7:18 AM on July 6, 2010

Once the dog understands teh concept of heeling, it shouldn't be hard to switch it up. Any idea what methodology was used to train the heel?

I'll bet since he's a shepherd, he stares at your left hand while he's heeling---usually people use the treat-in-the-hand-clicker trick w/ shepherds. That, or a zappy collar and/or choker w/ insta-correct, but in this day and age, I'd bet the former over the latter.

My dogs have 2 heels, FUSS RECHTS and FUSS LINKS. (Yea, we do the german thing, only because I feel like the german commands are clearer sounding, and they're less likely to hear those words elsewhere in training.)

I would utilize a hand full of treats as the key-ing object, w/ no command initially, just get him to follow you on the right side, eager for that handfull of yums. Every time his shoulder comes in line w/ hour leg, you click and treat. Do this in, say, 5 minute increments. After the first couple increments (no more than 3-5 a day), add a command for it. Whatever you want. (One of the dogs I used to work with had a handler who thought it would be funny to use mule commands, so GEE and HAW were left and right.) Rinse repeat till you've got the behavior down.

(Sidebar: a clicker trained shepherd is a machine. You can teach him anything. I mean anything. The sky is the limit.)
posted by TomMelee at 7:44 AM on July 6, 2010

My brother's dog knows "place" on the left and "side" on the right. She learned both as a puppy, but I'll bet you could teach a smart, awesome adult dog like Eddie!
posted by nosila at 7:45 AM on July 6, 2010

I have Eddie's sister! Got her from the Humane Society on the other side of the hemisphere, but your story could be mine.

I totally agree to just give the command a different name. Then he won't get confused. GSDs are so smart, it really only takes a few tries to get my dog to learn something new. Give him lots of praise and he'll do whatever you want. The bonus of giving the command a new name is that you may need him to heel to the left at some point, then you can just give him the old command and there won't be a struggle. (I've found that some times I need my GSD to heel to both sides, when I'm on my bike I need her to be on the right so she doesn't clothesline the other people on the bike path. When we're in the neighborhood I like her on the left so that she's doing her business on the grass strip between the street and the sidewalk so she doesn't walk all over other people's lawns and it's easier to clean up there.)
posted by TooFewShoes at 9:16 AM on July 6, 2010

Edward Cantor Dean Lewin aka Eddie

Well, obviously the problem is he's a freakin' junkie! Check back sometime around book five.

Seriously, though, I agree with everyone else: teach him a different command and he'll learn to heel on the right. It'll take a lot less effort. There may be times when you'll want him to heel on the left (for instance, if you vacation somewhere where they drive on the right), too, so you might regret it if you decide to change his current behavior rather than simply adding a new command.
posted by vorfeed at 1:09 PM on July 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Fantastic name! And it seems to suit him as well.

But I also came in to suggest a new command instead of replacing the old one. Good luck!
posted by firei at 3:44 PM on July 6, 2010

Thanks everyone for the great answers (or rather answer in the singular since the solution seems to be pretty unanimous.) I'm actually a bit surprised that I missed an answer that is, in hindsight, so glaringly obvious. I cry your pardon. Like I said I'm new at this.

I started with the new command "side" last night and this morning and so far it seems to be going much better than trying to correct "heel" which as far as Eddie is concerned he was already doing correctly. Eddie still seems to want to walk on my left if given the option but I'm sure we can develop new habits.

Also for those of whom are interested I think I might have jinxed myself by bragging about how he doesn't chew. Yesterday we were gone from the house for a little longer than he's used to and casualties included an entire box of Kleenex and a beaded lampshade.
posted by Bango Skank at 5:58 AM on July 7, 2010

My dog hates it when we leave. I think it's because she's so protective that it stresses her when she can't see us. She doesn't seem to care when my husband goes somewhere, but when the kids go to school she gets mildly upset and if I leave she gets really upset. If we all leave and let her have the run of the house she'll get into the garbage and make a huge mess.

So we shut her in our bedroom when we leave and we don't have a problem. You might really consider crate training. Also, when my girl doesn't get enough exercise she'll get into trouble. Think of it like a kid with ADD getting bored. If you don't give him enough to keep his mind and body engaged he'll find his own way of making fun and that could be destructive.

But really, consider a crate.
posted by TooFewShoes at 9:06 AM on July 10, 2010

Thanks for the suggestion TooFewShoes but aside for the incident above and another minor incident the next day we have been all good leaving him home with free reign of the house. knock wood, cross fingers We figured out that he only chews when he loses a toy under or behind something and can not get to it - out of frustration he tends to chew something in the general area of where the toy went missing. We solved this by doing a better job puppy-proofing the house and providing more toys so that if one gets lost there are still alternates. He also gets plenty of exercise with two walks daily totaling at least 3 miles and usually more like 4+ miles and plenty of play/training at home in the evening. With that being the case we're probably going to hold off on the crate at least for now because start-up costs of dog-ownership have already been higher than we expected.

Training him on the right side with the command "side" has worked well. He doesn't snap to "side" the way he does with "heel" but he understands that is where he is supposed to be when we're walking so I rarely need to ask for it. Yesterday I took him to the local shopping center and walked with him around a bunch of people and while obviously interested in everything that was going on he did a really good job of sticking with me. He's such a good dog!

Also according to the vet (who Eddie seems to adore!?) Eddie is younger than we thought probably only 7-9 months so now I'm starting to wonder how huge he's going to get.
posted by Bango Skank at 1:27 PM on July 19, 2010

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