If you were going to teach your dog just one cue, it should be this one (well okay two). The leave it and drop it cues are quite possibly the most important to teach your dog. It can save your expensive items as well as your dog’s life should they put something in their mouth that is dangerous.
Leave it is the cue you will give your dog before the item actually is in their mouth. You can also use leave it for dogs that chase things – the earlier you catch them the more likely they will respond. For example, say leave it while they are staring at the cat about to chase, rather than waiting until they are already chasing it to try and get them to leave it. At that point it is much harder for your dog to physically respond because their instinctual prey drive has kicked in.
As with any behavior, first you want to decide what the behavior looks like. For example, some people just want their dog to stop going towards whatever they asked them to leave, and that’s it; the do can do whatever they want after that. Others, want a more structured leave it that might entail:
- Interruption of the movement toward or watching of an item, turning, returning to owner, and sitting next to them
- Interruption of the movement toward or watching of an item, turning, and giving eye contact back to the owner
In all three of these instances, notice the dog never gets the item once you have asked him to leave it. This is a common mistake people make. They will ask their dog to leave something and then let them have it as the “reward.” All you have taught your dog is that leave it means to look at you and then grab the item. Be careful with that.
It’s easiest to start with something you can control, but that your dog wants like a piece of food or a toy.
- Hold it in your hand so your dog can’t get it. Let him try as much as he wants. As soon as he stops and his nose leaves your hand, mark and reward!
- Continue this until your dog stops going to your hand at all. Mark and reward.
- Then, add your next step, if you have one, such as returning to you, giving eye contact, etc.
- Once your behavior looks exactly like you want it to, then add the cue “leave it” by saying it as your dog is doing the behavior.
Only when it is on cue should you start to make it harder by upping what you are asking your dog to leave. Remember to gradually increase the difficulty so your dog is always successful.
Drop it is exactly that – your dog dropping whatever he has in his mouth. This is so important for dogs that are resource guarders, but really for any dog in case they start to eat something dangerous – plugged power cord, poison, etc.
Fortunately, drop it can be trainer fairly easily and quickly.
- Just take something you know your dog will bite onto (a sock, bully stick, fetch toy) that is long enough that you can safely keep your hand on it.
- Then, using your other hand, put something of higher value to your dog on her nose (a better treat, toy, etc).
- As your dog spits out what’s in his mouth to take what you are offering, say Drop It.
Repeat this for several sessions. Then:
- Remove your hand from the item and see if your dog will still drop it when you bring forth the higher value item.
- When you start to see your dog spit the item out before you have time to bring your hand to his nose, he knows the game.
- Test him and see if he will drop without your hands near his face, on cue. If so, start playing it with different objects, again increasing difficulty as your dog is successful.
NEVER purposefully put something dangerous in your dog’s mouth just to “test” his drop. Hopefully, you will never have to cause to hope he has a good drop. Definitely don’t tempt fate by setting your dog up; instead, always practice with safe items in case your dog makes a mistake.
Remember, if your dog fails at Leave it, drop it is your back-up! Don’t forget you have it and use it when necessary.
About the Author
Based in Wilsonville, Ore., animal lover Kristina N. Lotz is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) and works as a full time trainer. She is the founder of, A Fairytail House, a unique all-positive all-sport dog training facility that helps rescue dogs in her area and provides free seminars and training classes for the community. In her spare time, she trains and competes in herding, agility, obedience, rally, and conformation with her Shetland Sheepdogs. She smartly married a Veterinary Technician, who helps keep the fur kids happy and healthy, and provides a quick resource for articles.