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.
“Leave it” is a great thing to teach your dog. It helps protect your pup by keeping him from picking up dangerous things, such as rat poison or a broken bottle. It also keeps your canine from getting into disgusting or valuable—but not necessarily dangerous—items. Read on for steps on how to train your dog to “leave it.”
NOTE: When I refer to “leave it,” I mean, “don’t mess with that thing you do not have yet.” This command is different from “drop it,” which I use to mean, “let go of that thing you already have.”
One of the best things about the leave it cue is that once your dog learns it well, the behavior tends to transfer to nonfood items, such as picking up your expensive shoes, grabbing trash off the ground, rushing up to a person and even bothering another dog.
I explained in a previous article, but that training method focused on teaching the dog to look you in the eye when cued to leave it. For some dogs and their owners, that method is most effective. For people who are unsuccessful or uncomfortable with the mechanics of that method, the following alternative for how to train a dog to leave it might be a better fit.
What You Need for Dog Obedience Training
For this training, you will need a clicker and two types of food treats. The first should be yummy and enticing, such as Stella & Chewy’s Carnivore Crunch freeze-dried dog treats or Blue Buffalo’s grain-free turkey biscuits.
For the other food treat, choose something boring, such as a piece of your dog’s regular kibble or a vegetable that your dog will eat but doesn’t really love.
Easy Steps for Dog Obedience Training
- Put some of the enticing treats where you easily can reach them and your dog cannot. A treat pouch is handy for this exercise. Hold one of the boring treats firmly in your hand directly in front of your dog’s nose and the clicker in your other hand.I usually make a fist and hold the food in the middle of my fist to prevent the dog from getting at the treat.
- Keep your fist still, and watch for your dog to show the slightest hesitation or movement away from your fist. This movement might be as small as pulling his nose away from your fist or as big as sitting or lying down. Immediately mark that movement with a click. You are looking for and marking any behavior that is not trying to get the treat.
- Immediately move the hand with the boring treat behind your back. Break off a piece of one of the exciting treats from out of the treat pouch and give it to your dog. (You want to make sure you’re giving him a little taste, not replacing his meal. You can also try dog treats made specifically for training, which are smaller, like Merrick’s Lamb Lung Training Dog Treats.) The message to your dog is that leaving the boring treat alone earns an even better treat.
- Repeat Steps 1-3 until your dog hesitates as soon as you present your fist with the boring treat in it. Your dog should stay still or move away without trying to lick or nibble at your fist. Click and feed a yummy treat as soon as you see the hesitation. As mentioned above, some dogs even put themselves into a sit or down position at a safe distance from the hand; definitely click and reward that behavior with a delicious treat, too!
- When you are willing to bet $100 that your dog will leave the boring treat alone, you can begin saying a verbal leave it cue immediately before presenting the boring treat. Click and feed the exciting treat only if your dog does the right thing. If your dog goes for the boring treat, he is not ready for the cue, so repeat the earlier steps a few more times. NOTE: You can use any phrase you want as the verbal cue for leave it. I find that dogs respond best when we use phrases that we easily can say in a cheery tone, such as “not yours.”
The sequence will look like this: Verbally cue “Not yours” > Present fist with boring treat > Dog remains at a safe distance from your hand > Click > Put fist with boring treat behind back and feed exciting treat with your other hand.
Moving Forward in Your Dog Obedience Training
Once your dog leaves the treat alone nearly every time you give the verbal leave it cue, you can start to change the picture.
Present the boring treat a little higher, lower or to the side, or begin opening your hand—a little at a time and always ready to close it. You can even gradually move the treat toward the floor: first in a fist, then with your hand open and then on the floor itself.
Only change one thing at a time, such as the distance above the floor first and then whether your hand is closed or open at each height. Go back to something easier if your dog starts to go for the boring treat in a new situation, and then gradually build back up to the more difficult situation again.
As with all dog obedience training, regular practice is the key to success. If you do a bit of training regularly—even as few as three to five repetitions a day—you will get much better results with your dog.