In this post, I actually want to talk about one small element of the heel command that I’m asked about frequently: why do we teach dogs to heel on the left-hand side?
I’ve been teaching dogs to heel on the left for twenty years, and if a dog is trained on the right I get awkward. I always joke that you get used to putting your pants on with the same leg first every single day. Try doing it the other way tomorrow! It feels weird. For me, that’s the same feeling I get when a dog heels to the right side.
So why do we do it? A lot of people believe that heeling on the left is better and easier for the dog. It’s actually not. Here’s a story I’ve been telling for years: heeling on the left originated in hunting. The hunter shot the bird, the shell casing ejected on the right, and the dog heeled on the left to avoid being hit by hot shells. That’s the old-school story, and it’s what I’ve been telling people for all these years. Let me know if you know another story behind this tradition.
This begs the question of whether we should continue this tradition today, even if we’re not shooting birds with your dog at your side. I still think that there is. A lot of people want to heel their dogs with their dominant, stronger right hand. That’s exactly the reason why you shouldn’t heel on the right. People whose dogs pull tend to think that they need a lot of strength to manage it, whereas when you teach a dog to heel properly you don’t need to use a lot of force. Most people are right-handed, so if the dog is on your left it allows you to do things like grabbing your cell phone or weapon during a dangerous situation. It’s also more convenient. If your dog is on your left, you have your right hand free to jot down a note or shake someone’s hand. So I like to train dogs to heel on the left and reserve the right hand for other things.
I don’t want this to sound macabre, but when I’m walking down the street I always stay to the sidewalk on the right. That puts the dog between me and the street. In the case of a car jumping the curb, having something between me and the car is better. I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who’d say that they would rather be hit than their dog. I love my dogs like part of my family, but part of their job is protector.
With all that said and done, you son’t have to heel your dog on the left. If you’re going to compete with your dog, most competitions do require you to keep the dog to the left. But for a dog who’s a companion or a pet, it doesn’t really matter. There might be some benefits to training on the left side, but they’re not huge. It’s not a requirement or a necessity.