02/15/2017: Dog on the right or the left? And heel position…

I was watching a Q&A video from Ruff Beginnings Rehab’s youtube channel (literally my favorite dog training channel on youtube), and one of the questions was “does it matter if the dog is trained to walk on the left or the right?” The standard practice is to have the dog on the left, but why? I found it interesting, and I thought I would share my thoughts and reasoning for having Abe on my left.

The short answer is that it doesn’t really matter if the dog is trained to walk on the left side or the right. Originally, working/hunting dogs were kept on the left because most people are right handed, and having the dog on the left allows the handler to keep their dominant hand free to shoot their gun, open doors, whatever. That’s technically still true in most cases, although most handlers aren’t shooting guns with their dog by their side much anymore. In the show ring, it’s required to have the dog on the left. In everyday life, though, the tradition of keeping the dog on the left has remained, even though there might not be a concrete reason anymore. There’s nothing wrong with keeping the dog on the right, and I know of several people who do that.

Personally, I keep Abe on my left for several reasons. He had some preliminary training while he was in the shelter, and he falls on my left naturally because of habit, so I went with it. Even if he didn’t naturally want to walk on my left, I would have put him there anyway. I walk with my horses on my right, so if I ever want to walk one of my horses along with Abe, I would have the horse on my right and the dog on my left with no chance of Abe getting stepped on accidentally. I haven’t ridden any of my horses since I got Abe because of the crappy winter weather, but when I do, I will insist that Abe hold a heel position on the left side of my horse as well.

That brings me to my next point: heel position. Some trainers’ “heel position” means that the dog is right next to your leg, with only the nose sticking out forward of your leg. The idea is to put the dog in a “follow mode” rather than letting them kind of take the lead. That’s totally fine, but I do it a little differently because of my work with horses.

With horses, you walk between the horse’s head and shoulder. You do this for control; with the horse’s head in front of you, you can watch his ears and keep an eye on whether or not the horse is concerned about anything in its environment (horses are notoriously spooky and tend to get scared of random things). You walk in front of the shoulder so that if the horse spooks and steps sideways toward you, you won’t get stepped on.

Image result for how to lead a horse

Personally, I walk my horses about a half-step forward of where this illustration shows.

This translates to how I want to walk my dog. While some people like to have only their nose in front of their leg, I want his whole head in front of my leg. I want to be able to see him in my peripheral vision while I’m doing other things, so I keep his shoulder right at my leg. Because Abe is so well-behaved in pretty much all circumstances, I can be a little lax in maintaining his heel position. To be honest, as long as some part of his body (not including his tail) is next to my leg, I’m good with that. If he starts drifting too far ahead or behind, I say his name, give the “heel” cue, and bump him lightly with the leash if I need to. Usually the name is enough to bump him back into position.

Questions? Let me know.

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