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Teach Your Dog to Heel with the 123 Pattern Game

Author: Cathy Madson, MA, FDM, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

Published: September 25, 2023

Updated: May 21, 2024

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dog practicing 123 pattern game for leash walkingIn the world of dog training, finding innovative and engaging ways to teach new behaviors is key to progress. It keeps training fun and engaging, for both people and their dogs. And if training isn't fun, then it's hard to keep up with practice, and without practice, your dog can't make progress.

One training technique that has gained popularity recently is the 123 Pattern Game. This training game is my absolute favorite way to practice heeling and loose leash walking, as it's much less regimented and frustrating than other techniques.

This pattern game is fun and easy to incorporate into everyday walks with your dog. It's literally as easy as counting to three! The 123 Pattern Game was developed as part of Leslie McDevitt's Control Unleashed program and provides an effective and fun training tool for dogs of all ages and skill levels. 

Teaching Your Dog to Heel with the123 Pattern Game

This pattern game is taught slightly differently by various trainers, but the aim is the same — create a predictable pattern for your dog. When they hear the number 3, a treat will happen in a particular position (typically right next to the handler's leg in a heel position). This game teaches them that 1 precedes 2, and 2 precedes 3. So after some practice, when your dog hears the number 1, they start hurrying to get into the anticipated position by the time they hear 3.

Some dog trainers teach the dog that they must sit after the number 3, while others simply teach the dog that 3 simply means the treat is by the leg but they keep moving. I prefer to teach the latter, staying in motion while delivering the treat because this leads to more fluid loose leash walks.

In the example videos further below, you'll see a variety of these game details, but it is completely up to you which you prefer, as long as you are consistent!

What You'll Need:

yorkie leash training with 123 pattern gameTraining Steps for the 123 Pattern Game

Step One: Introduce "3!"

  • Start in a quiet, distraction-free environment, such as indoors. If in a safe and secure place, practice this game off-leash.
  • Begin by standing near your dog. Keep your hands up and neutral, not dangling in front of your dog.
  • Say "Three!" and immediately give the treat to your dog next to your leg on the side you'd like your dog to walk on. Don't worry if it takes them a second at first to see there is a treat there – give them a chance to figure it out.
  • Repeat.

Step Two: Add "2 ..."

  • When your dog is perking up and moving quickly to your side when they hear the number 3, then move on to the next step.
  • Stand near your dog.
  • Count "Two, Three!" On three, present the treat for your dog as you've been doing. 
  • Repeat.

Step Three: Add "1 ..."

  • When your dog is perking up at 2 and starting to move to their position by the count of 3, move on to the next step.
  • Count "One, Two, Three!" On three, present the treat in position.
  • Repeat.

When you're seeing an obvious response from your dog when they hear you start counting, then it's time to take the pattern game into more distracting environments. Start easy, such as in your backyard or on leash in your driveway. Keep up the practice until your dog is able to respond to the pattern when walking by distractions, such as other dogs or even a squirrel! This level of distraction training takes time, so make sure you're being consistent and not asking too much from your dog too early in the process.

Some dog trainers also simply just start teaching this game by counting 1, 2, 3 = treat. I prefer to create some value in the number 3 before teaching the dog what predicts 3 is about to happen. Again, as long as you're consistent in whichever process you choose, it's hard to mess this up.

Video Examples of Teaching Heel with the 123 Pattern Game

Watch this video to see how to introduce the 123 Pattern Game to your dog indoors:



If you're looking to specifically teach your dog to heel with the 123 Pattern Game, check out this video of a puppy practicing the heel position with 123:



Here's another example of introducing the 123 Pattern Game, with counting to three from the beginning:



In this last video, you'll see a different variation of teaching the pattern game with a focus on heeling, but then having the dog automatically sit at your side:


When to Use the 123 Pattern Game with Your Dog

The 123 Pattern Game can be used in various training scenarios and everyday situations, including:

Heeling and Loose Leash Walking: Play the game during your leash training walks to help your dog focus on you, ignore distractions, and practice a casual heel position.

Counterconditioning: Use the game to distract and redirect your dog's attention when faced with triggers that provoke reactivity or anxiety, such as walking by a home or yard where there is another dog barking. The 123 pattern is a great tool to use for dogs working on leash reactivity.

Alternative to Recall: Using the 123 pattern can be a great way to get your dog to come to you if they don't yet know how to come when called.

Interrupting Undesired Behaviors: If your dog is engaging in behavior you don't want, such as jumping, digging, or barking, you can use the 123 Pattern Game to interrupt and redirect your dog.

The Benefits of Pattern Games for Dogs

Dogs love predictability and patterns! So teaching them specific patterns to listen for can go a long way in helping your training. The 123 Pattern Game is a versatile training tool that can be used to achieve various training goals. By engaging your dog's mind and body, this game helps build focus, confidence, and self-control. It also helps to redirect undesirable behaviors, making training sessions more enjoyable for both you and your dog.

Let us know in the comments below if you've tried the 123 Pattern Game with your dog!

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About the author

Profile picture for Cathy Madson

Cathy Madson, MA, FDM, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

As Preventive Vet's dog behavior expert and lead trainer at Pupstanding Academy, Cathy focuses on helping humans and their pets build a strong relationship based on trust, clear communication, and the use of positive reinforcement and force-free methods. With over 13 years of experience, she has had the opportunity to work with hundreds of dogs on a wide variety of training and behavior issues. Beyond her one-on-one consultations through Pupstanding Academy, she also teaches group dog training classes at Seattle Humane. Her specialties include dog aggression, resource guarding, separation anxiety, and puppy socialization.

Cathy is a certified Family Dog Mediator, and certified through the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers, holding both the CPDT-KA and CBCC-KA designations. Cathy is a Fear Free Certified Certified Professional, a member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, the Pet Professional Guild, and the Dog Writer's Association of America. She has also completed the Aggression in Dogs Master Course.

When she's not geeking out about dogs, you can find her reading, hiking with her two Cardigan Welsh Corgis, or paddleboarding.