“Leave it” is one of the most important commands you can teach your dog!
Other than a strong recall, I don’t believe there’s another command as important for your dogs safety as “leave it”. It will also increase your trust in your dog and allow you to go to fun places together!
“Leave it” can apply any time your dog is interested in something but does not have it in their possession. “Drop it” is used when your dog has the item in their mouth and you want them to release it. Don’t confuse the cues! They’re completely separate behaviors, and using them interchangeably will confuse your dog.
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What we will cover in this article:
- Why “leave it” is so important for your dog to learn
- What you’ll need
- Getting started with impulse control and “leave it”
- Advancing the “leave it” skill
Why is “leave it” so important?
Imagine you’re baking brownies and drop a big chunk of dark chocolate on the floor. Before your dog lunges for it you say “leave it” and they disengage from the chocolate and look to you for a reward instead. Chocolate can kill dogs, so you may have just saved their life!
Perhaps you’re out on a walk and your dog spots a fascinating (to them) piece of garbage. Before they can put the disgusting thing in their mouth, you say “leave it” and your dog looks at you instead. Grossness and stomach problems avoided!
Maybe you’re at an off leash field and your dog has fairly good recall. Before you notice it, a bunny runs across the field towards the street. Chasing intriguing objects is instinctual for most dogs! A strongly trained recall is important, but even well trained dogs can have a hard time disengaging & returning to you when they’re in hot pursuit. Recall tells your dog to return, but what you really need is a circuit breaker that tells your dog “leave that thing alone!!”. Using a well trained “leave it” can help the dog disengage enough that their recall command actually works.
“Leave it” can also be critical while teaching your dog to loose leash walk. I believe in positive training methods, so I do not want you tugging your dog away from smells. Instead, if you find yourself in an area with smells that your dog cannot resist you can use “leave it” to bring their attention back to you.
Have I convinced you to teach your dog “leave it” yet??
Perfect! Let’s start training.
What you will require:
Teaching your dog to leave it will require a few items:
- Two kinds of treats: one lower and one higher value option. I usually suggest using your dogs kibble as the lower value treat.
- A clicker or marker word that your dog understands
- Treat bag
- Collar or harness
- 6 foot leash
- Small container with a lid (once your dog has progressed to the higher difficulty of “leave it”)
How to teach your dog “leave it” when the food is in your hand:
We want to start by building basic impulse control and word recognition with your dog. It’s also important that your dog does not quickly grab the treat before you can stop them! I suggest practicing with the treat in your hand at first to prevent mistakes.
- Choose your location and treats. Start in a quiet room without distractions. Sit with your dog facing you. Have a low value treat in your right hand, and a higher value treat in your left hand behind your back.
- Start teaching your dog impulse control. With an open palm, show your dog the low value treat. Your dog will likely think “yay!!” and go for the kibble. Immediately close your hand into a fist to prevent them from grabbing it. Say nothing.
- Teach your dog that great things happen when they disengage. Let your dog paw, lick, and nose your hand trying to get the treat. Make sure you stay silent. Depending on your dogs level of impulse control it may take them a few seconds or a few minutes for them to disengage from the kibble. As soon as they do for even a half second, mark “Yes!” and give them the higher value treat from your left hand.
- Practice, practice, practice. Repeat steps 1-3 until your dog quickly disengages from the kibble. Now you’ll want to add the cue “Leave it”. Repeat steps 1-3 while saying “Leave it” just as you show your dog the kibble. Practice until you can leave the kibble in your open palm without your dog moving for it.
Increasing the difficulty of “leave it”
Your dog now understands to leave objects in your hand alone and check in with you, but we want to make the skill useful for real life. It’s time to increase the difficulty by putting the treat on the floor!
- Teach your dog that “leave it” applies to things on the ground as well. Place a piece of kibble on the floor closer to you than your dog and say “leave it”. One of two things may happen. 1) Your dog may lunge for it, so make sure you’re ready to quickly cover it with your hand. We don’t want them to self-reward ignoring the “Leave it” cue! 2) Your dog doesn’t move for the kibble. Amazing! Reward & praise lavishly! This is exactly what we want. If option 2 occurred, you’re ready to progress the difficulty.
- Slowly make it harder. In tiny incremental steps, move the treat closer to the dog while following the rules of step 1. Remember, we do not want your dog to grab the food and self reward, so take this slowly!! You’ll likely need to progress the difficulty over a few days. Repeat until you can put the treat directly at your dogs paws without them trying to grab it.
- Add movement. Dogs are naturally drawn to movement (think of that bunny jumping out of the bushes). It’s important to proof “leave it” for movement as well so that you can get their attention back from moving items/animals. We’ll repeat step 2, but instead of placing the kibble down on the ground you will throw it. Show your dog the kibble in your hand, then say “leave it” as you drop it to the ground. Reward your dog with a higher value treat if they don’t try to grab it. (Again, make sure you cover the kibble if they do try to grab it! We don’t want them to self-reward ignoring “leave it”). Slowly start tossing the kibble closer and closer to your dog. Eventually you should be able to drop the kibble right in front of your dog, say leave it, and they don’t move for it!
Progressing to real-life scenarios:
One of the places you’ll use “leave it” the most is on walks. There will be items you don’t want your dog to eat, animals you don’t want your dog to chase, or cars/dogs/people that you want your dog to ignore. It’s an incredibly useful, versatile skill! “Leave it” tells your dog to stop engaging with the thing they’re interested in and instead get a reward from you.
There are lots of ways to make your dogs “leave it” super strength. These are just a few ideas, but get creative! Remember that you are asking your dog to ignore/leave something that they’re truly interested in. Successfully listening deserves a big reward!! Try high value dog treats, chicken, cheese, or even hot dogs. You always want your dog to know that if they leave “the thing” they’ll get something even better.
- Poke air holes into a lid. Fill the container with dog treats (or something even more smelly) and close the lid. Place it on your floor or out in the yard. Walk your dog past it on leash, and when they notice & engage towards the container (before they reach it!) say “leave it” and walk the other way. They should follow you and look up at you for their reward. Make it harder by letting them reach & sniff the container before asking them to leave it.
- If your dog is overly excited or pulls when other dogs are approaching, practice using “leave it” to centre them back on you. Start when the other dog is a fair distance away. Wait for your dog to notice it, then say “leave it”. Your dog should look up at you for their reward! Practice and slowly decrease the distance until your dog has mastered “leave it” when the other dog is close by.
- Use the environment to practice “leave it”! Many distractions will occur while you’re out on walks: squirrels running up trees, loud vehicles, bags blowing in the wind. Take these opportunities to practice “leave it” with both enticing & moving things!
Training a bomb-proof “leave it” with your dog requires time and patience, but it’s so worth it. It’s an incredibly important safety cue and will also build an incredible amount of trust between you & your pooch.
Take the time to master this skill!
Happy training 🙂
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