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

Imagine this scenario: You are in the bathroom and you accidentally drop a bottle of medication on the floor. You watch as pills scatter right in front of your food-driven dog. What do you do? Frantically try to pick them up while having to battle your dog away from eating any pills? What if you had a command 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 possibly) lifesaving command that every dog should learn.

We will walk you through teaching a leave-it command that you can use in any situation. The only items you will need are a leash, low-value and high-value 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. Start training this command by sitting on the ground with your dog. Put the low-value treats in one hand and have the high-value 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 he can to get the treats from your hand — pawing, licking, nibbling, etc. Do not let him get the treats!  As soon as your dog stops trying to get to the treats in your hand, mark the behavior (using your clicker or marker word) and give him a high-value treat from your separate stash.  Never give your dog a treat from the hand you were preventing him from eating the treats from. This helps to remind him that these treats are off limits, no matter what.  After a few sessions, your dog won’t even notice your closed fist with the treats in it when you present it to him. When this behavior occurs, start giving the verbal command, “leave-it,” before presenting the closed fist. You are now ready to move to step two.
  2. Once your dog is not paying attention to the closed fist, increase the difficulty. Instead of the closed fist, present an open palm and 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’s time to move the treats to the floor. The next steps are very similar to those in steps one and two. Place the low-value 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.  Working with both will 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.


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