As a professional dog trainer, I’m often asked, “What’s the most important thing for my dog to know how to do?” There are many good answers to this question – come, stay, wait at the door. All of these skills could save your dog’s life. But they’re not my answer to this question. My answer is, leave it.
Teaching your dog to “leave it” is a skill that will keep you sane, protect your socks from chewing, rescue your carpets from projectile you-know-what after your dog scarfs down something rotting on your morning walk, and save your dog from ingesting rat poison.
Dogs like to put things in their mouths. They like to eat stinky things. They run off into the woods after skunks. That’s why teaching your dog to leave it will save your sanity – and potentially your dog’s life.
What is Leave it?
At its most basic, leave it generally means, “Don’t put that in your mouth.”
Some trainers and dogs are able to generalize the concept of leave it to include “Don’t go greet that person,” or “Stop sniffing that dog’s butt,” or “Don’t chase that squirrel.”
However, that sort of generalization can be difficult for many dogs. It’s best to start with your leave it training focusing on not eating things. Later, you can teach your dog to generalize the concept to more human-like interpretations, if you like.
Keep in mind that your dog does not speak English, and does not truly understand the meaning of the phrase Leave it.
That’s why it will take extra training to teach your dog that leave it truly means, “Leave that thing there alone.”
How to Teach Your Dog Leave It
Like with all things dog training, there’s more than one way to teach your dog to leave it. You can combine these training techniques, or just stick with one.
Teaching Leave It Using “It’s Your Choice”
This is one of the most common ways to teach your dog to leave it. It’s often described as a “game,” though it’s probably a bit frustrating for some dogs.
“It’s Your Choice” was popularized by Susan Garrett and is a great way to teach your dog that he can either look to you and wait for a signal, or dive in and have the food disappear.
How To Play “It’s Your Choice”
Put a piece of food in your hand and hold out your hand near your dog. Keep your hand higher than his head at first, and a bit further away from him.
Your dog will paw, lick, and even nibble at your hand. Just wait.
Eventually, your dog will back up and stop trying to get at the food.
When he does, open your hand again. If he’s like most dogs, he’ll dive back in to try to gobble down the treat.
Close your hand again. Be sure that you’re always faster than your dog. If he snatches the treat, he’s just learned the wrong lesson – that he just has to be faster than you!
Repeat until your dog doesn’t dive into your open hand immediately. Just wait for a one or two second break.
When you get this pause, say “Good!” and pick up the food with your other hand and bring it to your dog’s mouth. This is important because it still keeps your control over the food.
You can make this game harder by using tastier treats, putting your hands closer to your dog, putting the treats on the floor and covering them with a cupped hand, or putting them on the floor covered with a foot.
After your dog is “automatically” leaving the food alone, start to say, “Leave it,” before making the food appear. Keep practicing and work on generalizing the skill and you’ll have a pro in no time!
Why is this frustrating for your dog?
Well, it looks a bit like teasing, doesn’t it? I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use this technique – I use it all the time to teach dogs impulse control.
However, it technically uses what’s called a “negative punishment” procedure. Without getting too nitty-gritty, basically understand that we’re punishing our dogs for going after the treat by making the treat disappear.
This is almost certainly a frustrating experience for our dogs – but it does wonders for teaching them to leave it.
This video with my dog Barley shows a very quick progression from the cupped hand variation to dropping food while Barley leaves it alone. Note that I’m very quick to cover the treat again before he eats it!
Teach Leave It Using Dr. Sophia Yin’s Technique
Dr. Sophia Yin was an amazing veterinary behaviorist who pioneered an on-leash variation of teaching your dog leave it.
I prefer this version of the lesson, because I find it generalizes well to on-leash distractions like people, dogs, and squirrels. It also helps teach dogs to walk nicely on leash!
I generally teach dogs both this and the “It’s Your Choice” game above.
To use Dr. Sophia Yin’s Leave It technique:
Put your dog on leash. Ensure you have a good grip on the leash. Use a back-clipped harness for this lesson, not a neck collar.
Toss a treat to the opposite end of the room.
Most dogs will charge towards the treat (this is why we use a harness).
Don’t yank on the leash, but hold steady.
Your dog might strain at the leash for a while. He might bark or whine, but just wait. When he looks back at you or sits with slack in the leash (pick one of these options and stick with it), say, “Good!”
Move towards the treat with your dog on leash. The movement forward is a reward for your dog.
If your dog hits the end of the leash, stop moving and wait for your dog to either look at your or sit with slack (whichever you did in step 5).
Repeat until you get to the treat, then let your dog eat it.
Eventually, you’ll be able to walk up to the treat with a slack leash.
If you’re struggling, you can use a less-enticing treat to reward your dog at each pause. Just make sure that the treats you’re giving your dog aren’t as good as the one you tossed out of reach!
After a few repetitions of this, you can give your dog the verbal cue leave it beforehand.
Here’s a video of Dr. Yin demonstrating this leave it technique.
Teach Leave It by Teaching Your Dog to Get It
Sounds contradictory, doesn’t it? Well – sort of. Sarah Stremming of Cognitive Canine is one of my big dog training idols and her podcast is one of my favorite things to listen to while walking Barley.
She recently posted a great mini podcast series on the training protocol known as “Nothing in Life is Free.”
I’ll spare you the nitty-gritty trainer nerd talk (but you should check out her podcast if you’re into that sort of thing). To make a long story short, she got me thinking about how both of the above examples of leave it instruction are pretty frustrating for our dogs.
Sarah advocates the idea of teaching your dog a cue to “get it,” then only giving the cue in certain situations. Since hearing her podcast about two weeks ago, I’ve been working on this with Barley. I have to say, it’s been really helpful with teaching Barley to not pick up sticks along our walks. Instead, he takes other cues from me (such as sit, wait, go sniff, and with me) and only grabs sticks when I tell him to. I’m able to use the cue “get it” as a reward for good behavior. How cool is that?
This approach to the leave it problem isn’t for everyone. If you’re really dedicated to reducing frustration for your dog and building your relationship, though, it’s a game-changer.
Sarah explains it best in the second video in this blog, but I’ll do my best to explain here.
- Put a small bowl out.
- Drop a treat into the bowl and say “bowl.” Your dog will dive in to eat the treat.
- Repeat 10-20 times.
- Now give a different cue that your dog knows well – like “sit” or “down.”
- Go back and forth between the new “bowl” cue and the well-known cue a 5-10 times.
- Now drop a treat into the bowl and give the cue to sit or lie down. Your dog should comply with the sit or down cue instead of eating the treat.
- Release your dog to get the treat by saying “bowl.”
This variation of leave it might not be very effective for saving your dog from eating rotten food on the sidewalk – use the first two training methods for that instead.
However, you can use a variation on this leave it training for all sorts of situations.
For example, instead of using the “bowl” cue, you can teach your dog “chase the squirrel” or “jump all over the person” or “grab the tug toy and tug like mad” on cue. Then you can control when your dog does this because you’ve got it on cue.
Again, this variation of leave it training isn’t for everyone. It’s a bit more complicated than the other options.
Teaching Leave It in Real Life
No matter which variation of leave it you decide to teach, it’s important to take the leave it training on the road. Gradually increase the difficulty of each training scenario by using more tantalizing treats and reducing your apparent control over the situation.
As your dog is better and better at listening to your leave it cue in training scenarios, start setting up training that is more like real life. For example, leave a small piece of apple on the sidewalk before taking your dog on a walk. Using apple keeps the training easy for your dog. As you walk by and your dog notices, give the leave it cue and then reward your dog for listening. Gradually use tastier and tastier treats in “real life” situations – then try off-leash!
Help your dog by rewarding him for making the “right” choices and gradually increasing difficulty. Check out this blog for some more ideas for how to add a cue, increase distractions, and take training on the road.
Feel free to comment questions below, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org for any clarifications about any of the versions of leave it discussed here!