Contributed by Irith Bloom, faculty at Victoria Stilwell Academy and certified animal trainer with multiple certifications, including CPDT-KSA, CDBC, VSPDT, KPA CTP, and CBATI.
One of the most important dog training commands you can teach your dog is to drop things on cue. This can literally be a lifesaver.
Unfortunately, not everyone knows how to train a dog to drop something on cue. Even worse, some dog training methods make it more likely that a dog will run away or swallow an item when told to drop it.
Over the years, I have developed pretty specific rules about how to train your dog—and how not to train your dog—to drop something on cue. These rules have worked well for my clients, and I’d like to share them with you.
Be Sure to Avoid This Dog Training Mistake
First of all, here’s a tip about what not to do when you’re learning how to train your dog to drop something. Unless you think your dog’s life is actually in danger, do not grab your dog’s head and snatch the item away by force. Most of the things dogs pick up are not dangerous. They are also not that interesting to a dog. If you simply give the dog a minute, he will usually drop whatever he picked up. It’s almost like the dog just wants to take a closer look at an item, and once he knows what it is, he decides he doesn’t want it anyway. (Some people do the same thing when they’re out shopping.)
When you grab for the thing right away, you make it seem more valuable, and therefore worth holding on to. Also, your dog learns that you may “steal” things he picks up. The dog wants to keep the item (at least until he’s done checking it out), so if he notices that you always take things away from him, he is more likely to run away or swallow the item before you can grab it. This is the opposite of what you want.
Gather the Stuff You’ll Need
All of that said, I don’t like having to choose between letting a dog have something or trying to get it away from the dog, so I teach drop it a lot. It’s one of the first dog commands I teach puppies. I also make sure every adult dog I work with has this skill. There’s more than one way to train a dog to drop things, but here’s a method that works well for most dogs. (In a future article, I’ll discuss a different way to teach ‘drop it’ that can work better for some dogs.)
To teach drop it, you’re going to need some tasty dog treats, such as Halo Liv-a-Littles freeze-dried treats. You may also want a clicker, like the Downtown Pet Supply dog clicker. Finally, you need a toy your dog likes. Something like the Hartz Frisky Frolic squeaky toy can be a good choice. If your dog already has a ball or tug toy he enjoys playing with, that will work well too.
Teaching the Drop It Dog Command
Step 1: To start, offer your dog the toy (make it extra enticing by wiggling it around if necessary).
Step 2: As soon as your dog takes the toy, click and then offer your dog a tasty treat. Most dogs will let go of the toy to grab the treat. Dogs who have a lot of experience with the clicker may even let go as soon as they hear the click.
Note: If you find it’s too hard to handle the toy, the clicker and treats, you can make a sound with your mouth in place of the click. Some people click their tongues. You can also say the word “yip” (yes, that’s a nonsense word) in a high pitch. Whether you click a clicker, click your tongue, or say “yip,” after making the sound, reach for a treat and hand it to your dog.
Step 3: At this point, the toy should be on the ground, and your dog should be eating the treat. While your dog is still busy with the treat, pick up the toy and offer it to your dog again. If your dog has already scarfed the treat, drop an extra treat or two away from the toy, and then pick up the toy.
Repeat these steps until your dog lets go of the toy every time, as soon as he hears the click.
Note: If your dog loses interest in the toy because the treats are more exciting, change toys. You may need to try a few toys before you find one your dog wants to pick up. You may also need to rotate between different toys on a regular basis as you practice.
Step 4: Now that you know your dog will drop the toy when he hears the click, start to say your “drop it” cue after you give your dog the toy, but before you click. Some creative drop it cues my dog training clients like to use include, “Icky,” “Mine,” and “Trade ya!” The ideal cue is one you will say in a cheerful or neutral manner, rather than in an angry voice, since an angry voice is more likely to make your dog run away or swallow the item.
Here’s the sequence:
Offer toy > Dog takes toy > Drop it cue > Click > Dog drops toy > Treat
Step 5: After you repeat Step 4 enough times, your dog will start to drop the toy when you say your verbal drop it cue. Once this happens, begin to delay the click until AFTER the toy drops to the ground. Continue to follow the click with a treat (as always).
Here’s the new sequence:
Offer toy > Dog takes toy > Drop it cue > Dog drops toy > Click > Treat
Step 6: Repeat this process with as many different objects as possible, in many different places. Start in quiet locations, such as your living room, using items that are relatively boring, such as toys your dog is not too excited about. Gradually build up to items that are more exciting, such as tissues or sticks.
Work up to practicing this dog training exercise when your dog has something like a Nylabone DuraChew, or even a Bones & Chews bully stick. The key when you’re practicing your drop it cue with these kinds of exciting items is to make sure that you practice with a lot of easier items first, and that your dog is really jazzed about the treats you are using.
One more note: In an emergency situation, if your drop it cue is not working, the most important thing is to keep your dog safe. If your dog has picked up something dangerous, and will not drop it when you say the cue, simply drop a large number of treats on the ground and then take the item away while your dog is distracted eating the treats.