Love It or Leave It

“Leave it” is a handy cue to communicate to your dog “it is none of your beeswax, leave it alone, period.” While it is pretty common for people to command, “leave it” at their dog in a threatening tone to get the dog to back off of something he wants, I would venture that those dogs are reacting to the tone of voice and don’t understand the words (try growling “rutabaga” in the same tone next time, and see what happens…).

Does it matter whether the dog understands the concept of leaving something alone on cue, as opposed to being scared into backing off? Maybe, maybe not. You’ll have to assess that for yourself, but here is some food for thought. There are times it is particularly important to get your dog to “leave it” without sounding threatening. For example, if your dog is approaching your baby, or thinking of going up to another dog, you probably wouldn’t want your dog to feel threatened or worried in either of those situations. You’d probably want him feeling relaxed, responsive, and capable of moving away on one, neutral, unemotional cue from you. Or on a “leave it” cue given by anyone in your family, even a child. Furthermore, you may prefer to tell your dog to “leave it” without having to keep after him. Ideally “leave it,” means to leave it alone, period, so that you can turn your back or leave the room, and your dog is not busy sorting out, “Is it safe or dangerous to go for it?” They are just happy to “leave it” without you repeating yourself or trying to catch them at something. That’s a much more reliable, practical state of affairs in my experience. And it means your dog can hang around you when you have guests over, appetizers at nose-level, because just the presence of something tempting can become part of the cue. It is very handy when “leave it” becomes the dog’s default behavior.

There are four steps to teaching “leave it.” This video shows the first two steps (the other two are putting the desirable item in more challenging places like the floor or a coffee table, and, finally, putting the behavior on verbal cue before working up to real-life scenarios). Things to know before you start:

  • In Step I you will present your dog with the temptation of treats held in your fist. The dog will try nudging, licking, pawing, and nibbling to get at the goodies. The object is to pay close attention so you will notice the instant your dog’s nose moves away from the temptation. And his nose will move away, if only an inch, if only for an instant. It is that voluntary withdrawal from the temptation that you will reward by saying ‘yes’ and feeding a treat from the opposite hand. What could be better than your dog volunteering to ignore items of great interest?
  • It goes very quickly. Even if you drop a treat or say ‘yes’ at the wrong time (I do each of those once in the video), it doesn’t matter, just keep going. Your dog will pick this up very fast, so be ready!
  • Use ho-hum treats in your “leave it” hand and super duper, really good treats in your reward hand. (In the video, my right “leave it” hand holds dog biscuits and my left hand holds tiny bits of meat as rewards.)
  • For Step II, you will hold a treat in your open palm, which your dog will go for (be ready!). When he does, say nothing. Do not withdraw your hand, but rather snap it shut like a clam.
  • Do not utter the words “leave it” for these first two steps. (You will not hear me say “leave it” in the video.) You would not want to pair the dog going for the food with the words “leave it,” right? Only when the dog understands that avoiding the desired item brings him rewards should you add the cue.
  • As a bonus, if you can keep the dog from sitting or lying down, that is optimal. In real life, the dog is usually up on all fours, moving about when we need a “leave it” cue. Possible scenarios might be on a walk and there’s something disgusting on the sidewalk, in the kitchen and you’ve just dropped a hunk of chocolate, or in the family room and your toddler is ambling by with a snack in hand. So if the dog sits during your “leave it” training, reward close to your body so he has to get up to get the reward. Or just back up and pat your leg before the next repetition. (In the video, the dog is sitting and even lying down at one point, partly because with such a tight camera angle I would have been out of sight had I backed up.)

That should be what you need to get started. Happy training!

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