LEAVE IT is one of the most valuable, and versatile safety skills we can teach our dogs. Whether you have a new puppy, or dog of any age; LEAVE IT should never be a punishment, rather it’s a chance to offer your dog a reward in the face of the most enticing distractions.
Taught positively, LEAVE IT is an important exercise in impulse control that can be applied to an infinite number of scenarios, and may even save your dog’s life. Whether it’s antifreeze in the garage, a toddler with an ice cream cone, or a squirrel on the other side of the street, LEAVE IT is a great tool to have in your training arsenal.
Being a dog mom of three, I can’t express how useful the words LEAVE IT can be when your dogs respond reliably. Preston, my 15-year-old foodie, has a propensity to put anything potentially delicious in his mouth – even goose poop on the beach. Yuck! When he was a therapy dog, LEAVE IT was important while volunteering in the hospital. Penelope and Delilah have both reliably left rattlesnakes alone on hikes. And LEAVE IT helps me communicate when something amazingly fun and sometimes allowed, like chasing the seagulls, is inappropriate, depending on what the leash laws may be. LEAVE IT is also helpful for those of us who enjoy taking our dogs to restaurants, and even silly photo ops.
LEAVE IT can be used to “pause” your dog and divert their attention to keep them safe – after all, that’s our job as canine’s best friend.
So how do we teach it?
What You’ll Need
A quiet training space
Healthy, high-value treats and less-appealing treats (like your dog’s everyday meal)
A leash and harness
Step 1 – Get Treats Ready
Fill your treat pouch with delicious treats that your dog loves broken up into bite-sized pieces. Have a pile of low value kibble or less-appealing treats nearby.
Step 2 – Start with Less-appealing Treats
Put a piece of kibble on the floor and cover it with your hand. Allow your pooch to sniff it, and when they back away, CLICK or say “Yes!” Reward them with the higher value treat in your pouch.
Step 3 – Repeat
Do this over and over again. Once your dog ignores the treat on the floor reliably, add the cue LEAVE IT. When your dog makes eye contact instead of sniffing the treat on the floor, CLICK or say “Yes!” and reward generously.
Step 4 – Remove Your Hand
The next step is removing your hand from covering the lower value treat on the ground. Say LEAVE IT when your dog gives you eye contact and CLICK or say “Yes!” and give a high-value treat.
Step 5 – Toss the Low-value Treat
With your dog on leash using a harness, toss the low-value treat. When your dog stops sniffing or pulling toward the low-value snack, or makes eye contact with you, CLICK or say “Yes!” and reward with a high-value treat.
Step 6 – Variation
Practice this skill with lots of lower-value things like their least favorite toy, vegetables, etc. Practice with at least five items.
Step 7 – High-value Leave It
Once you feel that your dog is ready, practice LEAVE IT with high-value treats and toys.
Remember that LEAVE IT shouldn’t be you nagging your dog to NOT do something. Make this a game so that your dog remains excited about what you’re giving him or her instead.
If your dog has learned the cue LEAVE IT inside, but has a difficult time responding in new environments, don’t worry! Set up training sessions in a number of different public places.
Try playing the LEAVE IT game:
At a restaurant with food (go on a weekday morning during quiet hours!)
At your local car wash or oil change place in the waiting room
Outside the dog park or on your dog’s favorite hiking trail
At your dog’s vet office
At the local pet store
Practicing in all the places your dog spends the most time will help make this behavior more reliable so that if ever you REALLY need it and don’t have food on you, your dog will still listen. While in the training phase, use the highest-value food or toys your dog will work for! Practice with a normal voice, as well as your OMG-I’m-frightened voice because I guarantee if you come across a rattlesnake, your natural reaction will probably be to scream "LEAVE IT!" at the top of your lungs. Prepare your dog for that!
And remember to continuously reward your dog for listening no matter how good they are or how much you’ve practiced. The best way to achieve success with this skill is to make certain that your dog always finds the reward even more satisfying than whatever you’ve asked them to leave alone.
My dogs are all rock solid with this skill, yet I always randomly reward them for listening because I want our relationship to remain strong no matter what we face in life.