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Imagine you’ve dropped a chicken bone on the ground at dinner time. Or perhaps you’ve spilled some medication. The last thing you want is for your dog to go running toward what they think are treats and scarfing them down (after all, cooked bones are a dog choking hazard, and the pills could be toxic). It’s important that your dog understands that everything on the ground isn’t up for grabs. But how do you teach your dog to leave things be? The “leave it” command is exactly the cue you’ll need.
Teaching Your Dog When to “Take It”
The goal of teaching your dog to ignore dropped items is developing automatic behavior. In other words, rather than taking an item from the ground, your dog should leave an item be without you having to ask them. You won’t always see the hazards before your dog does, so you might not be able to say your cue in time. Ideally, your dog should look to you for permission before eating anything off the ground. That’s a tall order, particularly for some dogs, but certain training steps can help teach your dog that kind of canine self-control.
A free-choice exercise is a good way to teach your dog the cue “take it” (which essentially means “you may eat this now”). This is especially important for grabby dogs who snatch treats from your hand. It also allows you to tell your dog when something is okay to eat, like if you’re dropping kibble on the floor so your dog can play hide-and-seek with dinner. Free-choice exercises help a dog to make that distinction.
- Place a dog treat in your fist. Let your dog try in any way possible to get the treat out of your hand. They may paw, lick, and nose at your hand.
- As soon as your dog stops trying to get the treat, mark the moment with a training clicker, marker word like “yes,” or praise. Then, immediately open your fist, say “take it,” and offer your dog the treat. The point is to show that not paying attention to the treat is precisely what earns the treat.
- After several tries, your dog should start pulling back from your fist or ignoring the treat. Now, wait for a second or two before saying “take it,” then offering the treat.
- Place the treat on your open palm. If your dog tries to get the treat, close your fist around it and wait for your dog to ignore it. Once your dog does ignore it, say “take it,” then offer the treat.
Teaching Your Dog When to “Leave It”
Once your dog is ignoring food in your open palm until you give the “take it” cue, they understand the concept of leaving things alone until otherwise instructed (at least for objects in your hand). Now it’s time to take things to the floor. Using the following steps to teach your dog the “leave it” command.
- Place a treat on the floor and put your hand over it. Let your dog try to get the treat. As soon as your pet stops trying, mark the moment, then reward. However, don’t use the treat on the floor as a reward. Although you could offer that treat with the “take it” cue, it’s time for your dog to understand that this isn’t about eventually getting the item. After all, dropped medication will never be up for grabs. Instead, reward your dog with a different treat from your pocket or other hand. Ideally, make the reward a treat of higher value than the floor treat. This helps emphasize that leaving certain things alone leads to the chance for even better things.
- When your dog is regularly leaving the covered treat alone, start removing your hand from above that treat. But be ready to cover the treat again if necessary. The goal is for your dog to ignore the uncovered treat, but you want to prevent your dog from getting the food at all costs. When your dog looks away, leans back, or shows disinterest in the uncovered food in another way, mark and reward with a higher value treat from your other hand.
- Put your dog on a leash and do this same exercise standing up, but use your foot rather than your hand to cover the dropped food. The leash prevents your dog from getting any food that you accidentally miss or kick away.
- If your dog is automatically leaving the food alone when you drop it to the floor, you have taught them about impulse control. Now you’re ready to add the “leave it” cue. Because your dog understands the concept, you shouldn’t have to use the cue, but the cue can be fantastic for other situations, too. Before you drop the food, tell your dog to “leave it.” When your dog ignores the food, mark and reward with the higher value treats that are in your other hand. After many repetitions, your dog should understand the meaning of the cue.
Teaching “Leave It” for Real-World Situations
In the real world, there are hazards everywhere, such as a sandwich on the sidewalk or garbage in the park. Now it’s time to up your training and walk your dog past things that need to be ignored. In practical situations, here’s how to work up to using the “leave it” command with your dog.
- With your dog out of the room, place low-value treats in a row along the ground. Space them several feet apart. Now bring your leashed dog into view of the floor treats, say “leave it,” and walk past the row. At each treat, mark and reward your dog with a high-value treat for ignoring the floor treat, then walk on to the next. Don’t try to do the whole row at once. If your dog tries to eat the floor treat, quickly cover it with your foot, using the leash to prevent your dog from reaching the treat before you.
- When your dog is ignoring each treat one at a time, try walking past the entire row after giving the “leave it” cue. Reward a successful run with something extra-special, like a game of tug or a chew bone. Show your dog that ignoring things means the chance for something even more amazing.
- Repeat the above exercises outside on the sidewalk or in the yard. The more locations you train in, the better your dog will respond, no matter where you are.
- Replace the food on the ground with other objects your dog loves, such as chew toys or durable balls for fetch. This will help your dog generalize the cue, meaning they won’t just leave food alone, but they also won’t try to eat anything you don’t want them to have without permission.
When your dog is reliable with the cue, no matter what the object, it’s time to try “leave it” and incorporate distractions, like a cat or a person riding a bicycle. Be ready with a high-value reward, and keep your dog on leash to prevent your dog from taking off after the distraction. Remember, don’t use the cue if you know your dog won’t respond. You don’t want your dog to practice ignoring you! Instead, if your dog isn’t responding to the “leave it” command and reacts to a distraction, go back to training and work that particular distraction into your routine.
By working through the above steps, your dog will learn to control their impulses and automatically ignore food on the ground. A strong “leave it” command means you decide what is safe for eating, not your dog. And by expanding the cue’s meaning to anything in the environment, you will also be able to control your dog’s behavior and keep your pet safe.