Dog Training Tip: Teaching the "Leave It" Command
By Martin Deeley
Probably one of the most useful commands your dog should learn is “leave it.” It can be used for so many situations where your dog is going to pick up or interfere, or even make contact with an item, a smell, an animal or a place you do not wish him to be in contact with. It can also be one of the most important commands for a dog’s safety. You drop a medicine pill on the floor and he goes towards it – “leave it” and he does not have to go to the vet. In the countryside he may see what looks like a tasty morsel and even smells like one but it could be poison bait – “leave it” and his life is saved. Of course “leave it” can be for the interest in the cat, or one incident that I’ve seen with quite a few older friends – the hearing aid falls on the floor and one “leave it” stops $2000 from being crunched and ingested.
So how do we teach the “leave it” command?
The easiest way to train this is by using something your dog wants – such as a treat or a toy. Have a treat in your hand held between your fingers and thumb so he cannot grab it, and let him see, smell, and even lick it. Then say, “leave it,” and move your hand away. If he tries to follow, close your fingers and do not let him get to your hand. Once he is calm, show him it again, say “leave it,” and once again move your hand away. If he follows your hand and attempts to grab it you can put him on a leash to show him what you are asking for by holding him back. Or, what I do is give him a little bump on the front of the nose as he moves into my hand, then say “leave it.” When he does make a movement backwards from the treat I praise him and give the treat to him. You can do the same with a toy, if he is toy driven. Some trainers use another, even better treat in the other hand and when the dog moves away from the first treat they give them the higher value one as the reward. This gives them the motivation to respect the “leave it” command to get the more desirable treat. Whichever way you choose remember the aim is to cut out all treats and have your dog “leave it” without any motivation other than pleasing and listening to you, his pack leader.
Next – put your dog on a leash and let him see you drop a treat on the floor. Control him on the leash so he cannot pick it up and then command “leave it” and move him away, even give him light pops with the leash if necessary to get him to leave it. Sit him a little ways away from the treat and then pick it up and give it to him. We want his attention to come to you and follow you, so the treat or toy comes from you. If your dog will retrieve, drop a toy he likes to carry, tell him “leave it” and walk away with your dog, leaving the toy behind. When he is following you nicely (a few steps or so), turn around, ask him to sit, then say “fetch” and let him go for it. Over longer distances this may require a long line or when he becomes more responsive to the command and the game, you may practice the exercise off-leash.
Some dogs unfortunately will do all this and know the “leave it” command but in some situations where prey drive or instinct comes into play, they cannot control themselves, and will not leave the tempting place or object. In these instances you can go back to the leash work and use it where the temptations are greater or you may create a stronger distraction or interrupter to gain his attention, such as dropping an object (a paperback book or a coke can with pebbles in it) at his feet. This makes him think, “When I go for that object, something falls around my feet from the sky.” You do not indicate in any way it came from you – you say “leave it” and encourage him back with a smile, calmly. Leave the object “that fell from the sky” there until later.
Once you can have your dog off-leash without him picking up pop corn or kibble as you throw it around him, or you can walk without him chasing a bicycle, or you can keep him away from playing with your socks, just by using the words “leave it,” you know you are having success. Remember, even with success, keep practicing – it can be a fun game to play with your dog and stimulate his mind at the same time!