If you've read any dog training book, you know that your dog should walk on your left -- but why? The specific purpose of the walk dictates where he needs to be, but otherwise you're free to choose the best side for you and your pup.
The best explanation for why the assumed heeling position is on the left is tradition. It’s simply how those before us have done it, and so it has continued to be done. It has roots stemming from when man and hound began hunting together. While owners took their dogs hunting on foot, the dog was led in the left hand to allow the master to carry a gun in the right. If you find yourself on a relaxing hike without a weapon in hand, though, you're probably safe to leave tradition behind and lead Sparky on whichever side he prefers.
Following suit of the tradition for hunter and dog, police officers of K9 units lead their canine partners according to the side in which they carry their firearm. If the officer is right-handed, the dog is on the left; if the officer is left-handed he is on the right. This is imperative to the safety of both handler and dog, allowing each to do their respective jobs while remaining attuned to each other.
Also trained to remain at the left hand are guide dogs. With the exception of an injury to the handler’s left arm, the leading dog will consistently go to the left side of the owner. For the blind handler, it is crucial to always know where to expect his four-legged companion. As the pair learns from one another, their bond grows through subtle movements and triggers that this specific position allows.
The show ring requires both person and pooch to work together in harmony, and communication is key. For some events – obedience and rally – the traditional left side is used to execute commands, whereas agility and freestyle necessitate the dog to listen to the handler from both sides. Two commands bring the dog next to the cue-giver. “Heel” indicates the dog is to be attentive on the left side, while “close” asks him to come to the handler either on the left or right, according to the accompanying hand gesture. Whether on the right side or the left, the dog is expected to be responsive to all commands.
Raised in rural Illinois, Susan Russell has been around animals of all kinds her entire life. She began training horses at a young age and went on to receive a B.S. in animal science from Southern Illinois University, where she specialized in equine science.