Every once in a while, I find a space that’s safe enough to let my personal dogs off-leash for a structured walk. I put away the leashes and walk through trails or parks or beaches, with my dogs still in a heel at my side or slightly behind me. It’s usually very relaxing, and lets me keep my dogs close with or without a leash, and release or recall them with a verbal cue at a moment’s notice.
This is what most online dog training spaces will call the “leash-free heel” or “e-collar heel,” where the dog is reliable enough to walk in the heel position with or without a leash. A dog can “e-collar heel” when they will maintain a heel position on command with or without a leash, resulting in a structured walk that uses no leash pressure and no longer relies on food to maintain. At this point, the heel is truly “proofed.”
The reason this is called the e-collar heel is because it’s common for trainers and owners to have their dog on a quality e-collar or remote collar while off-leash as something of an “insurance policy.” When you get to this point, however, the dog usually does not need remote collar feedback, either. It’s just for safety under emergency, typically, to be able to follow through by having a remote collar on your dog.
The e-collar heel is awesome. It’s empowering to the human, lets the dog access so much more freedom, and opens up a world of possibility for activities that the dog and the owner can do together. I love using the e-collar to open up those possibilities.
But let’s be very clear: the remote collar does not teach heel.
Can You Teach Off-Leash Heel with an E-Collar?
A lot of dog owners come to me looking to get to off-leash work with the remote collar. And that’s totally do-able, but the remote collar alone simply doesn’t teach heel.
Fact of the matter is, the e-collar really doesn’t teach anything, at least in terms of new behaviors. A high-quality remote collar is an awesome tool and can help in a wide range of things, but the fact of the matter is that new behaviors are taught with reward.
Think about it this way: if dog owners could push the button on a remote over and over until the dog figured out what they wanted them to do, I just wouldn’t have a job. Not to mention that trying to teach new things using negative reinforcement (making something undesirable stop in order to increase a behavior) alone is sloppy at best, and harmful at worst.
The point is, there is a constructive way to use the remote collar, and there are ways that I simply can’t endorse. It’s not that e-collars are bad (they are not, and I have a lot of resources here on the Lugaru K9 Training blog explaining how and why), but they are not tools to introduce new behaviors.
How Do You Teach Off-Leash Heel?
If you want your dog to get to an e-collar heel from nothing, you need to start with positive reinforcement, just like every other new skill, trick, or behavior. Get your dog on a leash for security, get something that motivates your dog (food is usually a good one) and lure that new behavior.
Get your dog practicing being in heel. Reward it over and over again. Refine it with more reward. Try it in new environments, under new distractions.
Then you can start adding light corrections to polish it up even further, once your dog really understands through repetition and reward. Leash pressure is awesome for polishing up a heel with correction.
After your dog is super reliable on leash, that’s a great time to start opening up into e-collar heel.
Keep it on the leash, but use the e-collar for small corrections instead of the leash itself. When your dog is consistent there in a lot of different environments, move on into dropping the leash. After enough practice and with reliable enough behavior, the leash can finally be put away.
Corrections become fewer and farther between until they are rarely needed at all. Once the behavior is practiced and consistent, when e-collar corrections do happen they will be slightly higher due to how critical compliance is off-leash.
Even so, those corrections are incredibly rare, because verbal cues are often enough.
That is how I get all my dogs to off-leash heel, and that is the way that training progresses in my programs for all other advanced behaviors.
Establish the behavior with positive reinforcement. Generalize with reward. Start adding corrections to proof and reinforce compliance.
The remote collar is an amazing tool. It’s great for reinforcing practiced, known commands, stop bad behaviors, and take obedience to the next level. It’s also an amazing tool for giving dogs access to the world with or without the leash.