Seven Easy Steps to Teach “Leave
Here’s the situation: you’re struggling to open a child-resistant cap from a big bottle of Tylenol. Before you know it, the lid pops off and the bottle shoots through the air, spilling Tylenol all over the floor. Your dog comes running, eager to gobble up the “treats” as quickly as possible, not knowing these treats can kill him. There isn’t any way you can pick them all up before your dog eats some, so what can you do? If you’ve taught your dog the behavior of “leave it,” you simply say those words to your dog and resume picking up the Tylenol off the floor, as your dog sits and watches. No emergency veterinary visit, no forcing your dog to vomit the Tylenol. Sounds good, right? You owe it to your dog (and to your wallet) to teach this behavior. It’s a convenient behavior, as well as a life-saver.
Leave it means this to your dog: remove your face from the object and look at me. The dog should disengage from the object and give you his full attention. A well-trained “leave it” is really something to see, and it’ll impress all your friends when your dog performs this cool trick. We’ll teach this behavior using food in our closed hand. The closed hand makes it really easy for the dog to get it right – it’s almost impossible for the dog to get food out of your closed hand.
This is a great behavior to teach your dog because you don’t need to rely on a leash and collar to keep your dog from getting something in his mouth. Instead, you’ve got a phrase that means “look at me and leave that thing alone.” It serves you both well because it keeps the kitty poop or dead bird or Tylenol out of your dog’s mouth and it also is an easy way for your dog to earn a goody. Here’s how you teach “Leave It.”
Place a treat in your hand, make a fist, and present your fist to the dog at nose level and say nothing. Your dog will sniff, lick, paw, gnaw, push, and mug your hand, trying to get the treat out. At some point, the dog will pull his nose off of your hand, even for 1/8 of a second. The instant that happens, CLICK and open your hand to let him have the treat. We don’t care why the dog pulled his nose away – maybe he heard a noise, maybe he got bored. Put another treat in your hand and continue this step until your dog stops nosing or pawing at your hand when you present it. Once your dog is good at leaving the treat alone, you’re now going to add the eye contact into the behavior. Instead of clicking when the dog pulls his nose away from your hand, you’re going to wait until your dog looks up toward you. Goal: Your dog doesn’t touch your hand at all when you put it at nose level in front of his face. And your dog has started to leave the hand alone and is looking at you to earn the goodie.
When you are ready to bet me $100 that your dog will not touch your fist when you present it, you are ready to add name the behavior. Say “leave it,” (or whatever word you choose) before you present your fist, then present your fist. Because your dog is really good at this, he shouldn’t move forward at all. Click and treat! If he does move forward and touch your hand, simply do nothing. Wait until he leaves your hand alone, then click and treat. If you find that you’re saying the word, but your dog is still trying to get the treat, you’ve added the word too quickly. Go back and keep working without the word until you’re ready to bet $100 that your dog won’t touch your fist. Goal: You say “Leave it,” put your hand out, and the dog leaves your hand alone (i.e. doesn’t bump your hand with his nose). Important note: Do NOT repeat the cue “Leave it,” more than once. If the dog doesn’t comply, simply wait until he leaves the hand alone all by himself. He isn’t in trouble, he simply loses the chance to earn a little snack.
You’ve named the behavior, now let’s increase the difficulty slightly. To do this, say “leave it,” and present the treat in a slightly open hand. If you’ve mastered Steps 1 and 2, your dog should not charge in to get the treat. When your dog leaves the treat alone, click and treat! If he touches your hand or tries to get the treat, simply close your hand, being sure not to pull your hand away. Continue to open your hand a little more each time so that your hand is open wide with the treat in the middle of your hand and the dog still leaves the hand alone. Goal: Your dog is as good at leaving the open hand as he was leaving the closed hand.
The next step will be to put the treat on your knee. Your dog should be getting the hang of this game now and hopefully will not try to go for the treat. If he does, however, just cover the treat with your hand so he cannot get the treat. When his nose comes away from your hand and he looks at you, CLICK and treat. Always pick the item up and hand it to the dog, as opposed to letting him take it off your knee when you reward him. Goal: The dog looks at you when you put the piece of food on your knee and say “leave it.”
We’re now ready to move into more “real life” territory. This is a big step – you’re going to present the treat on the floor and ask the dog to leave it. Have the dog on a short leash. Say “leave it,” and put the treat on the floor on the opposite side of where the dog is sitting. Be ready to cover the treat with your foot if your dog tries to eat the treat off the floor. When your dog leaves the treat alone and looks at you, click and pick the treat up off the floor and hand it to your dog. Always handing the treat to your dog makes it clear for him that grabbing the treat from the floor isn’t the way he gets the treat. This will set him up for success in real life when something falls on the floor in front of your dog.
Once your dog is easily leaving the item when you place it on the floor, drop the item on the floor. If you are doing this with your dog on leash, do not use the lead to pop him back from the food. Toss it far enough so he can’t get to it even if he tried. As he gets better, gradually toss the treat closer.
Begin to introduce new “leave it” items to teach your dog that this behavior applies to all kinds of things (i.e. a toy, a person, another dog, steak on the counter, etc.). Remember to make the reward for leaving it better than what the dog actually left. If you gave me a bowl of Brussels sprouts because I left the pan of brownies alone, I probably wouldn’t leave the brownies alone next time you bake!
Taking the time to teach your dog to leave things alone and look at you isn’t only useful, it can save your dog’s life if he’s ready to eat something poisonous or something that will make him sick. Or heck, if he’s about ready to dive into your fresh-off-the-grill hamburger that you (sloppily) left on the coffee table while you got a drink!