One of the most useful cues to train your dog, “leave it” covers a wide range of ground and can be used to control your dog in a variety of situations: when you’ve dropped food, when they’re nosing through the garbage can, or when you want them to leave a toddler alone. Like recall, or the “come” cue, a dog will ignore “leave it” when he or she doesn’t fully grasp the request, so taking the time to teach it properly is worth the effort!
“Leave it” tells your dog not only to back off that piece of steak (or the neighbor’s Chihuahua) but also to look at you for further instruction. The full cue requires him to remove his focus from the item. You must first ask your dog to “leave it” when you can keep him from the item completely, so that he doesn’t inadvertently get reinforced for taking it.
Here are the steps to teaching your dog how to “leave it”:
- Hold a treat in your hand with a closed fist.
- Bring your hand right to your dog’s nose. He will most likely lick and nudge your hand with his nose.
- Now just wait for him to back off. Don’t say anything. At some point, he will back his nose off your hand.
- Once he backs off your hand, click (or mark with “yes”) and treat (preferably with something from your other hand). Repeat this until your dog is backing off your hand quickly.
- Now, wait for your dog to not only back off the treat but also to look at you – i.e. change his focus. When he looks at you, click and then treat.
- Next, hold a treat in your hand with your thumb at the ready to cover it. Repeat steps above, covering treat with your hand if you have to. At this point, if he is backing off immediately, you can also add the cue “leave it” right before he leaves the treat alone.
Once your dog has mastered the “leave it” cue in the controlled situation, the real challenge comes: teaching your dog to leave a treat (or object) from the ground, not just a treat in your hand. Simply drop a treat on the floor and ask your dog to “leave it.” If you have successfully completed the steps above, your dog will back off the treat on the ground and look at you. At that point, click (or mark with “yes”) and give him a different treat, preferably something with a higher value to him than the treat you asked him to leave. Then try with different objects – squeaky toys, balls, ropes – and when he leaves it, click and treat.
The sky is the limit with this cue, as long as you make sure you are rewarding your dog from leaving something alone. The trick is teaching your pup that if he leaves whatever you’re requesting alone, he may actually get something even better in return.