Heeling a Dog off Horseback

By Jim & Phyllis Dobbs and Alice Woodyard

When working a dog off horseback, there are two ways to keep him from hunting before you get to the bird field: Use a checkcord as if roading, or teach him to "heel" with the horse.

It is really very easy to teach your dog to "heel" to your side when you are on horseback. If you have previously taught him to "heel" while you are on foot and have also taught him not to chase horses he is well prepared.

Start by Teaching the Dog to "Come."

To begin, work the dog on foot in the yard, showing him how to turn toward you to turn off low level electrical stimulation. Start with the dog on a checkcord, call him to you when his attention is on something other than you, and he is moving or facing away from you. Whenever he doesn't obey your first command to "come," reinforce your second command.

Be consistent; always reinforce your second command.

Release the button on your transmitter thus turning off the stimulation the moment you see him turn and head toward you. At first, it may be necessary to guide him with the checkcord to help him turn toward you.

Repeat this procedure of calling the dog away from distractions until you no longer need to use the checkcord to guide him toward you. Pretty soon you should see him turn smartly on the first command and start toward you without your having to give a second command.

Now, with the dog still in the yard, train him to come all the way to you reliably on the first command. After he has started toward you in response to your command, watch him. If he stops coming or veers off, reinforce another command with your collar. Praise him when he gets to you and let him know he's great.

Teach the Dog to Stay with You Until Released

If he leaves without being told, "All right," immediately reinforce another command to "come." He'll learn to stay with you until he's actually released.

Now he's ready to learn to "heel" with you. Since he has already learned to stay with you when you stand still, it's easy for him to learn that the "heel" command means stay with you as you move (first walking, then on horseback).

When we start a bird dog heeling off lead, we use the "invisible circle" method. In that method, the dog learns to stay within a certain distance as we travel. By doing so, he keeps the collar turned off.

After calling the dog to you, say, "Heel" and start walking. Picture that you are traveling in the center off an invisible circle that is about eight feet across. Any time the dog gets outside of this circle (so he is more than about four feet away from you in any direction), say "Heel" as you simultaneously use low-level stimulation. Keep walking, watching the dog, and release the button when he gets back inside that circle. If the dog gets more than 10 feet from you, stop walking and say, "Here." Release the button as soon as he turns toward you. Keep repeating this procedure until the dog gets the picture, and you see that he recognizes that the "heel" command means to go with you.

Plan on several sessions in the yard before practicing this in the field. After a couple of sessions, if you want him to stay on one side of you when heeling, just wiggle the transmitter antenna in front of his face when he gets on the wrong side of you. He'll form the habit of choosing the other side.

Heeling Practice in the Field

Now take him out of the yard and introduce heeling in the field. The best way we've found to introduce heeling in the field without interfering with a dog's hunting independence is to introduce heeling after the dog has hunted and you've picked him up. He knows he's heading back to the truck, he's tired, and he knows the hunt is over; he's willing to "heel" without a lot of corrections.

After several sessions of heeling on the way back to the truck, he'll be prepared to "heel" on the way out to start hunting. Remember to use your invisible circle correction with the collar if he gets more than four feet away from you.

Horseback Heeling in the Field

The key to having a dog "heel" to you on horseback is to first thoroughly prepare him while on foot, using the method described in this article. Also, the dog should be prepared for work around horses as we described in our last column. That way, the dog won't be nervous around the horse and won't try to chase one!

When you first introduce the dog to heeling to the horse, just ask for a few paces before you "whoa" the dog. So mount up, walk the horse away from the dog, and tell the dog, "Heel." Go a few more paces, then "whoa" the dog and the horse.

Repeat this procedure a few times, increasing the distance until you can see the dog is comfortable and not trying to take off until he's released to hunt. Use the same correction for the dog leaving the invisible circle as you used when you were on foot in the yard.

If you work your dog from an ATV, you can use this same procedure to train him to heel to your ATV.

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