You’re walking along with your dog, enjoying the apple blossoms and a nice breeze. Then you notice Fluffy scarfing down something – it looks grey and slimy. You yell, “Oh no! What are you eating?”
She swallows and licks your hand, her tail wagging a bit. You almost gag.
We’ve all been there. If you own a dog, this is a familiar scene of horror. I try to view these situations with a tinge of amusement. Your dog is just doing what ancient dogs did – scavenge for food in human trash.
In an attempt to avoid the aftermath of your dog’s grey slime delicacy, it’s imperative to teach your dog to drop things on cue. This cue will also come in handy when playing fetch or tug. It’s best to teach your dog to leave it as well, so that you can avoid the unfortunate situation altogether. You can read our article that teaches the “Leave It” command here.
It’s going to be much easier to teach your dog to drop it when you use items that are low value at first (like sticks or boring toys) before moving on to higher value objects, like edible chew toys or food.
As with all of the cues that we will teach your dog at Kennel Trainer, we’ll go through several options for teaching your dog to drop it. When working with clients, I recommend using several different drop it training games to really get good at this behavior!
A Quick Note on Resource Guarding
Dogs that growl, snarl, snap, or bite when you take food or toys away from them are commonly known as “resource guarders.”
Resource guarding is a normal dog behavior and generally indicates insecurity around sharing. It could be that your dog has learned that food is scarce and it must be hoarded, or that others will steal her food if she doesn’t guard it.
If your dog is a resource guarder, it’s best to contact a professional, certified positive reinforcement based trainer to get help. IAABC is a great place to start. The trainers on their list are certified using rigorous testing and adhere to high ethics standards.
While it’s important to teach dogs that resource guard how to drop it on cue, it’s best to do this training under the guidance of a trainer. For now, it’s safer to focus on not allowing your resource guarding dog to get ahold of toys or food that you don’t want her to have.
Do not punish your dog for resource guarding or “show her who’s boss” by messing with her food. This will only teach your dog that you are untrustworthy and that she needs to try harder to keep her valuables away from you. Essentially, she learns that you’re a jerk who will take them away or hurt her while she tries to eat.
Instead, a good training plan will focus on teaching your dog to voluntarily leave objects alone or drop them on cue. It also will include a large component of counter-conditioning and desensitization, which means teaching your dog that what she thinks is bad (sharing) is actually awesome!
Teaching Your Dog To Drop It
The Exchange Game Method
This is one of my favorite methods to teach a dog to drop it. Essentially, the goal is to teach your dog that when you say drop it, she’d better listen because you’re about to give her something awesome! Step One: Wait for your dog to have something in her mouth or give her an object and let her play with it. Let’s use a tennis ball as an example. Then approach her with some boiled chicken or string cheese in your hand. Step Two: If your dog looks up at you, immediately praise her and drop the boiled chicken a few inches from her. She’ll spit out the ball and go eat the chicken. Step Two (alternate): If she doesn’t look up at you right away, make a smoochy noise with your mouth or otherwise gently get her attention. Then praise her for looking at you and drop the boiled chicken a few inches from her. She’ll spit out the ball and go eat the chicken. The advantage of this approach is that your dog is being rewarded for paying attention to you, and dropping the tennis ball almost starts out as an accident! Step Three: Pick up the ball and wait for your dog to finish eating. Then give her the ball again and repeat. If your dog isn’t interested in the ball because the chicken was just so yummy, try again with objects that are a bit closer in value to her – like her favorite toy and some normal dog kibble. Step Four: After doing several repetitions of steps one to three, your dog will start to spit out her ball or toy in anticipation of chicken when you approach. That’s exactly what you want! Now you are ready to start adding a cue. Step Five: Say “drop it” just before your dog spits out her toy, then reward her with chicken. You can give her the toy again for more training or playtime after. It’s best to occasionally give the toy or object back after practicing drop it – this will keep your dog’s compliance high and allow you to reduce the use of treats in training. Keep practicing this game in a variety of situations with a variety of toys and objects. Once your dog is spitting out the toy or object in step four and five without you tossing chicken first, you can start rewarding her by giving the object back to her.
The Two Ball Fetch Method
Not all dogs love fetch, and that’s ok. If your dog isn’t one for fetch, this method of teaching your dog to drop it probably won’t help much. If your dog is a fetch lover (like mine is), this game can really solidify drop it. It’s played very similarly to Exchange Games from above, but instead it’s using two identical fetch toys.
Step One: Throw a ball for your dog. She’ll run and get it if she loves fetch.
Step Two: As she’s about ten or fifteen feet away from you, praise her and throw the next tennis ball. Step Three: As she runs to go get the second ball, go and collect the first. Step Four: Repeat. This game can take a bit of practice for both dog and human to perfect. Be patient! Step Five: Start to wait until your dog is closer and closer to you before throwing the second ball. Step Six: Add a cue. Say, “Drop it” before throwing the second ball. Repeat. Step Seven: Enforce the cue. Don’t throw the second ball until after your dog has dropped the first one. If you’re getting really stuck with this game or your dog is inclined to play keep-away, try using food as well. Instead of throwing the second ball when your dog is ten to fifteen feet away, wait for her to come closer. Then give her a piece of chicken. Then throw the ball. This fix will only work with dogs that value treats and toys equally. Some dogs won’t spit out a toy in exchange for food, and other dogs will lose interest in fetch after food comes out. It’s a merger of Exchange Games and Two-Ball Fetch.
The “Ready-Set-Go” Method
This method of teaching a dog to drop it is great for dogs who love playing tug of war. My border collie Barley and I love this game. Whereas Exchange Games (above) are great for teaching your dog to drop it, Ready-Set-Go is perfect for improving your dog’s speed and compliance with drop it. Step One: Teach your dog the basics of drop it using the Exchange Game protocol above. Step Two: Initiate a game of tug of war with your dog. Don’t get her too riled up at first, just play a little. Step Three: Say drop it and immediately stop playing tug. Hang onto the tug toy, but don’t tug back. Just be a bit limp. I will even let the tug toy slip through my fingers a bit to really reduce resistance on the tug toy (and also reduce fun in the game). Step Four: Wait. Your dog might just hold onto the tug toy with her tail wagging or might try a few more good tugs. If she doesn’t drop the tug toy, repeat the cue once more while she’s calmer. Step Five: When she drops the toy, immediately praise. You can give her a piece of chicken at this point. If your dog is a real tug of war maniac though, you won’t need to give her chicken. Instead, you can reward your dog by restarting the game. I give the cue “Take it – and tug tug tug!” so that my dog knows exactly when it’s ok to take the toy and play tug. Step Six: Play more tug. You can play really rigorously right after your dog drops it. Gradually reduce the intensity of play again before giving the drop it cue. Repeat this game to keep working on your dog’s speed and compliance with drop it. If your dog doesn’t drop the toy at Step Four, go back to exchange games and do more of that.
Level Up Options: Ready for a bigger challenge? I play the Ready-Set-Go game to improve my dog’s compliance with a variety of cues. Instead of just giving the drop it cue, I ask him to drop the toy. When he does, I ask him for one of his other trained behaviors, like sit, target, shake, or lie down. When he complies with that cue, we restart the game again. This really helps keep him thinking and listening when his adrenaline is pumping!
As with all dog training cues, be sure to learn more about adding cues, adding distractions, and fading out treats when teaching your dog to drop it.