Dogs are opportunistic – you may have heard this before. When a dog sees or smells something interesting, they put it in their mouth first and ask questions later. We humans often put dogs in environments where we don’t want them to do this, and it can cause heartbreak when they eat something that’s not safe, or behavioral challenges when we find ourselves pulling items out of their mouths that they really, really, really didn’t want to let go of. “Great, I got it out of Fluffy’s mouth, crisis averted!” we might think, but simultaneously Fido’s perspective may be, “Great, now I know I can’t trust this human when I find something really good that I want!”
Leave It is an invaluable skill to teach any dog – whether they’ve already demonstrated a propensity to grab things or not. Here are three methods of teaching Leave It: one that starts with food items, and two that can start with either food items or toys.
What you need to teach Leave It:
- A relatively low-value food item or toy item that your dog likes but isn’t their very favorite thing. A good option for most dogs is their kibble – something they eat every day, rather than something that’s novel or especially delicious. Don’t start with the stinky chicken chunks when teaching Leave It! With toys, if your dog’s favorite thing is Tug, start with a different kind of toy like a ball, whereas if their favorite thing is Fetch, definitely don’t start with a ball!
- A clicker: While you don’t absolutely have to use a clicker to teach your dog to Leave It, it is a very helpful tool for making sure you’re communicating clearly to your dog what exact behavior is getting them the best results. If you’re not using a clicker and you’re having trouble, try again with the clicker.
- A dog who either has no history of resource guarding with food (if you’re using food) or toys (if you’re using toys); or a science-based trainer to help you proceed safely. Resource guarding CAN be helped – and teaching a strong Leave It is key to this! However, if you have any concern at all about whether your dog might snap or bite when you’re interacting with them around food or toys, make sure you get professional help before going any further.
Ok, you’ve got your treats, your clicker, and your dog. Start in a quiet place with minimal distractions to set up yourself and your pooch for success, regardless of which method you start with.
Method One: Using a closed/open hand to signal unavailability of the item.
- Making sure your dog can see what you’re doing, place a low-value treat item in your hand and close your fist around it. Hold your clicker in your other hand in a relaxed way, but with your thumb ready to make that Click!
- Offer your closed hand for your dog to sniff. Your dog may sniff, mouth, chew on, and paw your hand to see if they can get you to release the treat. They are trying behaviors to see what works. (If you are concerned that your dog will actually hurt you in this process, consider the next method instead, and consider contacting a science-based trainer to help you.)
- As soon as your dog looks away from your hand or moves away from you, click + open your hand so they can eat the treat. Alternatively, click + offer a different (preferably higher-value) treat.
- Practice steps 1-3! Consistency and practice will teach your dog that looking away from that tasty thing in your hand is the best way to get either that item or an even better item. Keep these practice sessions short and sweet; you can fit a lot of repetitions into 3-5 minutes.
- When you see that your dog is reliably turning their head away, backing up, or otherwise avoiding your hand with the treat, start adding a cue to the behavior. When you offer your hand, say, “Leave It.” Consistently saying the cue right before the behavior will attach the cue to the behavior with practice.
- Up the game a little by opening your hand so the treat is visible and going through steps 2-3 again. If your dog goes for the treat, close your hand! It’s important that your dog does not succeed at “helping themself” at this step.
- Practice! Practice both the closed-hand version and the open-hand version. When you see that your dog is reliably doing well with the low-value treat, start introducing higher value items. Practice in different environments, so that your dog learns that this trick of “ignore the good thing, get a better thing,” applies wherever you go. Once your dog has a good handle on these steps, you can teach your dog to do all sorts of things, including that cute trick of balancing a treat on their nose that we see all over the internet.
Method Two: Using a leash to signal unavailability of the item: the item can be a food item OR a toy item.
- Put your dog’s harness (or head halter, if your dog is already comfortable with it) on them and clip a short leash to it. A four foot leash works well for this purpose, but you can also use a six foot leash and hold it shorter. Try to avoid using a collar for this exercise, because your dog will pull on the leash during this process and the pressure from a collar on their neck may be punishing, uncomfortable, or even do damage to their throat.
- Take your dog to a location that’s big enough: you need a place where you can, by standing in one spot and holding onto the leash, prevent your dog from reaching items on the ground that are 5-6 feet away from you.
- Making sure that you have a secure hold on the leash (one way to do this is to wear a waist leash, but you can hold the leash in your hand if you prefer), gently toss a treat out of your dogs’ reach. Your dog will follow the item and try to go pick it up, and be stopped by the leash. (If you are concerned that your dog is strong enough to drag you to the item, consider using a different method or training your dog to accept a head halter before trying this method.)
- As soon as your dog looks to you instead of trying to go grab the item, click + treat! These treats should be high-value – you’re working to establish that you and your treats are more enticing than that item over there, which your dog can’t reach anyhow.
- If using treats as the “unavailable item,” you can keep tossing treats out of reach during the same session. If using toys, you may want to prepare the room before bringing your dog in by placing the toy out of reach and then walking your dog into the room, rather than throwing it. To practice with toys as the “unavailable item,” you can walk the dog out of the room and then back in, rather than tossing more toys.
- Practice! Keep the sessions short and sweet – 3-5 minutes includes a lot of repetitions. To avoid your dog becoming frustrated, make sure you’re clicking and treating any time they look to you instead of the item, and make sure the treats you’re feeding are high-value to the dog. (The way you know this is if they are eating the treats eagerly – remember that the dog defines what a high-value treat is, not the trainer.)
- Attach a cue to the behavior: when your dog is consistently turning to you when they see the item on the ground, say “Leave It,” right before they turn to you. Consistently saying the cue right before the behavior will attach the cue to the behavior with practice.
- Up the game by bringing your dog closer to the item: be careful when doing this that your dog can’t actually reach the item until they are very, very consisent in turning to you instead of going for the item. It’s important at this step that the dog does not succeed at “helping themself.” A good indicator of whether your dog is ready to get closer to the item is whether they are still encountering the end of the leash while you practice. Do they still have to be stopped by the leash sometimes? They aren’t ready to get closer. Do they consistently turn to you when you say “Leave It,” before reaching the end of the leash? They might be ready to move closer!
- Practice! Practice in different environments. Practice with different “unavailable items,” including when you go for a walk! Consider setting up an “unavailable items course” in your yard or house – set out items in the yard and practice walking near/past them. Remember to start with lower-value items and slowly move up to higher value items. How close you should get to the items depends on how successful your dog is being right in that moment at turning to you rather than going for the item. If you think they won’t succeed – don’t get too close! A single instance of your dog snatching the “unavailable item” can set you back for weeks.
Method Three: Method Two plus a helper.
Follow the same steps as Method Two, but instead of tossing the “unavailable item” yourself, have your helper stand out of reach and drop items near their feet. You’ve now got a back-up plan when you reach Step 8: if your dog goes for the item, your helper can simply step on it or move it out of reach with their foot. Another way to combine Method One and Method Two is for your helper to offer a food item (first with closed fist, later with open hand), but the helper never actually gives your dog a treat. Instead, you are always the one offering your dog a high-value treat for “Leaving It” whatever is in your helper’s hand.
Safety Note for Method Three: If you are uncertain whether your dog will snap or bite at your helper if frustrated, do not place either your dog or your helper in this position. Instead, seek assistance from a science-based trainer who can help you safely teach your dog the vital skill of Leave It.
Each of the above methods is a way for you to get started teaching your dog to Leave It. Once your dog is starting to “get it,” the sky is the limit with this skill/trick – and yes, it can be turned into some very impressive tricks! For ideas on how to expand your dog’s Leave It skills, we suggest reading: Dog
Training Teaching: Surviving a Puppy Without Losing Your Mind by Jane Young of Foxfield Dog Training.