Teach Your Dog to Leave It: It Could Save His Life

This training tip is brought to you Erin Rakosky of the AKC GoodDog! Helpline, a seven-day-a-week telephone support service staffed by experienced dog trainers. The Helpline provides instruction and advice on training and behavioral issues.

Imagine this scenario; you are in the bathroom and you accidentally drop a bottle of medication on the floor. You watch as it scatters pills all over the floor right in front of your food driven dog. What would you do? Frantically try to pick them up while having to battle your dog away from eating any?

What if you had a command that you could give that would keep your dog away until you could clean up the potentially life threatening mess. Teaching a leave-it command is a practical and potentially lifesaving command that every dog should learn. In this article we will help walk you through teaching a leave-it command that you can use in any situation. The only items you will need are a leash, boring and tasty treats, toys and a clicker (or marker word).  A marker word is a short word, such as "yes" or "good," that you use in the same tone of voice consistently to mark when your dog does the correct behavior.

  1. I start training this command by sitting on the ground with my dog. I put the boring treats in one hand and have the tasty treats sitting somewhere with quick access. Once the treats are in your hand make a fist and present it to your dog. Chances are your dog will quickly try everything they can to get the treats from your hand -- pawing, licking, nibbling, etc.  Do not let them get the treats!  As soon as your dog stops trying to get to the treats in your hand mark the behavior (clicker or marker word) and give them a tasty treat from your separate stash.  Never give your dog a treat from the hand you were preventing them from eating the treats from. This helps to remind them that these treats are off limits no matter what.   After a few sessions your dog will start to not even notice your closed fist with the treats in it when you present it to them. When this behavior occurs is when I like to start giving the command "leave-it" before presenting my closed fist. You are now ready to move to step 2.
  2. Once my dog is not paying attention to my closed fist I will increase the difficulty. I will present my closed fist and then while opening my palm give the “leave-it” command.  It is very likely that your dog will take this opportunity to try to steal the newly exposed treats. If this happens, very quickly close your fist before your dog can get to them and then try again.  As soon as you can open your palm with the exposed treats and your dog leaves them alone mark the behavior and again give a tasty treat from your side stash.  Be sure to remember never to give a treat from your open palm. 
  3. Once your dog understands the leave-it command with treats in your hand it is time to move the treats to the floor. The next steps are very similar to those in steps 1 and 2.  Place the boring treats under your cupped palm on the floor in front of your dog. Give the “leave-it” command. As soon as your dog leaves your hand alone mark and reward.  Once your dog does well with this, then it’s time to increase the difficulty again. This time you will cup your hand back over the treats on the ground. Then, while giving the "leave-it" command lift your hand away from the treats on the ground. Again, be able to quickly cover the treats back if your dog tries to steal them.  As soon as your dog does not try to take the treats, mark and reward.  Now you are ready for the final step!
  4. First, place your dog on a leash. Hold the leash relatively short but long enough that your dog can still move around a little.  For this exercise you can use either treats or toys.  I actually suggest working both to help proof your command. While holding the leash toss the object on the floor just out of reach of your dog.  Your dog will probably try to strain to get to the object.  Give your “leave-it” command. Once your dog stops straining towards the object mark and reward.  Eventually when you drop the object and give the command your dog will look quickly to you for a better reward. Again, like the exercises before, it is important to never let your dog have the object on the floor you are asking them to leave.  Always give a treat from another location.

Congratulations! You are now ready to put your newly trained command to the test. You can use it anytime an object is dropped on the floor, to help keep a new puppy from picking up objects while on walks outside or even to help your dog stop chasing the family cat. The important thing to remember while training, is to make sure that you always have something better to give to your dog when they do leave the item you are asking them to. This will help to solidify the command.

To talk to a trainer about your dog, enroll in the AKC GoodDog! Helpline -- a telephone support service staffed by experienced dog trainers. The trainers provide information and advice on dog training and behavioral issues.

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