Teaching “Leave It”

Liz Palika
Leave It CommandWant to avoid a scene like this?
Teach the "Leave It" command.

Living with dogs requires some compromises but that doesn’t mean you have to make all of them; your dog is capable of learning to overlook some of the things that catch his attention. Teaching your dog to ignore some items, especially those that are potentially dangerous, can keep him safe. Learning to ignore items that you’d prefer he not disturb can help make life easier for both of you.

The definition of the “leave it” command is “ignore it.” When you tell your dog “Sweetie, leave it” as he sniffs the over-flowing kitchen trash can, for example, he needs to look the other way as he walks by it. The same applies to your shoes, the family cat, your neighbors’ barking dogs: anything you want him to ignore.

This “leave it” exercise is not supposed to be a trick. Your dog should not ignore something at your request and then get it after your back is turned. You don’t want him to learn to initially ignore a dropped pill, for example, then assume he can have it after waiting a few seconds.

You might need to rename this training exercise if your dog already knows the “leave it” command. For example, you might be teaching your dog a trick where he waits with a biscuit on his paw or nose when you say “leave it,” then gets the biscuit at your command. Instead you can rename the ignore command “ignore it,” or something else that you will readily remember.

Teaching “Leave It”

Teaching this exercise is easier if your dog already knows how to sit when you ask him to do so. The “watch me” exercise is also important. If your dog doesn’t know these two exercises, teach them prior to beginning to teach “leave it.”

To begin teaching this exercise, choose something that will distract your dog and gain his attention. Half a peanut butter sandwich is great as it has a good scent (very important for dogs!) and will be safe if your dog happens to grab it.

With your dog on leash, ask him to sit by your left side. Holding the leash in your left hand, shorten it so there is just a little slack. (Do not hold it tight on your dog’s neck.)

Place the sandwich on the ground in front of your dog. Tell him “Sweetie, leave it!” If he moves towards the sandwich, shorten the leash to prevent him from grabbing the food. At the same time, have him maintain the sitting position. Using a training treat, instruct him “Sweetie, watch me.” Praise him for paying attention to you and ignoring the sandwich. “Sweetie, yeah! Good watch me! Awesome!” Be enthusiastic.

After about 5 seconds turn your dog away from the sandwich, praise him, and give him a treat. Don’t praise him as he sits next to you as he’ll immediately try to grab the sandwich. Instead, moving him away from the sandwich can prevent that from occurring. At the same time, praising him away from the sandwich is reinforcing the idea that ignoring the sandwich is a desired behavior.

Repeat this exercise 4 or 5 times and then stop. Repeat it again a little later in the day and then several more times over 2 or 3 days. When your dog understands that “leave it” means ignore the sandwich, change the distraction and use something else. The family cat’s food is always good, as are trash cans.

Using “Leave It”

As your dog learns this exercise you’ll find many different uses for it. It can help keep your dog safe as well as prevent him from getting into trouble.

In the house, teach him to ignore the roll of toilet paper, trash cans, shoes and socks, the family cat, and her food and litter box. You can also use this exercise to teach your dog to ignore food that doesn’t belong to him. No more counter surfing allowed, and no stealing food from the kids or the dining room table!

Out in public, use this exercise to teach your dog to ignore barking dogs behind fences, rude dogs lunging and pulling while walking up the street, or kids riding past on bicycles. Teach him to ignore trash left on the ground, outside trash cans, and anything that gets his attention which could be a problem.

This exercise does not mean your dog must go through life ignoring everything, looking only at you, and behaving like a robot—far from it, in fact. You want him to have a full interesting life; however, learning to ignore harmful or momentarily problematic things can be very useful. Chasing a child on a bicycle while on a walk with you, for example, can be prevented with “leave it.”

Leave It, Watch Me, Praise and Treats

I’ve heard dog owners use this exercise as a punishment; chanting, “Leave it! Leave it!” as their dog ignores them. That is not how to train or use this command!

Keep in mind that you want to prevent or interrupt behavior undesirable behavior (such as stealing the cat’s food), then redirect your dog and gain his attention: “Sweetie, watch me!” Praise his attention to you (“Sweetie, yeah! Awesome!”) and finally give him a treat to reward his attention. When the exercise is consistent going smoothly and your dog knows it well, start giving the treats randomly and scratch his ears or rub his head instead. Continue with the verbal praise, however. Eventually your dog will perform the “leave it” exercise whenever you need.

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