By AKC GoodDog! Helpline Trainer Hilarie Erb
Many new puppy owners are alarmed when their pup explores the world by tasting every new thing they find. Grass, dirt, sticks, rocks, mulch – nothing is off limits!
This is normal behavior. Many animal babies, humans and puppies included, put things in their mouths to find out how they taste and feel. It’s a habit that is almost always outgrown. But until that happens, there are things you should do to keep your puppy safe by diverting his attention from forbidden treasures that seem to be everywhere.
On walks, take along a favorite toy and some tempting treats. Keep the walks short and frequent. Talk cheerfully to your puppy! Young puppies have a short attention span and if you don’t make yourself fun and interesting, they will get busy checking out what’s on the ground. Use the toy and treats to keep the puppy focused on you; reward often for staying on task.
In the back yard, understand that it will be a few months before you can simply let Fido out by himself. He needs you to show him what to do. For pottying, use a leash, even if the yard is fenced. Take those high-value treats and a favorite toy so you can use them to distract from the acorns on the ground. If you have an area that’s filled with mulch or other irresistible cover, you may want to put a temporary barrier around it.
Teach your puppy the “leave it” command. Rocks and mulch will probably lose their fascination by the time the pup matures, but a discarded fast food tidbit is a temptation that almost no dog of any age can resist unless she learns this useful cue.
Start indoors. You can sit on the floor with your puppy. Hold a treat in your tightly closed fist right in front of his nose. Keep it closed and do nothing while he sniffs, licks, or paws at it. If he gets too vigorous about it, put the hand behind your back for five seconds, then present it again.
The instant he stops trying, praise! Open your fist and encourage him to eat the treat. At this stage, DO NOT SAY ANYTHING.
When you reach the point at which you can present your fist with the treat and your puppy makes no contact or effort to get the treat, it’s time to add the cue. Say “Leave it” as you present the hand with the treat. When he backs off, praise him and reward with a higher value treat from the other hand which has been hidden behind your back.
As your puppy masters each step, increase difficulty by holding the treat in your fingertips, then placing it on your open palm, and finally advancing to putting it on the floor in front of the dog. Always reward with a higher value treat from the other hand when he “leaves it.” Give plenty of time for your puppy to master each stage before moving on to a more challenging one.
Just remember that your puppy is a baby, doing what comes naturally. That doesn’t make it safe, of course, but with good management and training she will learn what should and shouldn’t be eaten.
To learn more about training your puppy, check out the video playlist below.
For more tips and to develop an individual training plan for your puppy, enroll in the AKC GoodDog! Helpline, a seven-day-a-week telephone support service staffed by dog trainers.