When we’re out on adventures with our dogs, the world is happy to provide all manner of things we don’t want them getting into, whether it’s cow manure, a muddy puddle, a rabbit hole, or someone’s perfectly laid-out picnic. An extremely useful cue, “Leave it” means “Stop what you’re doing and come to me!” This is a critical skill to add to your adventurous dog’s arsenal!
Here’s how to teach it.
Step 1: Leaving an Item in Your Hand
Start with a lower-value piece of food tucked in one hand. Say the cue “Leave it” in a firm voice (don’t yell, but do your best to use the voice you would use if you actually saw your dog headed toward something you really didn’t want them getting into, so they’re used to hearing it the way it will sound in real life), and then present your hand with the food toward your dog. Allow your dog to sniff and investigate your hand. As soon as they pull away, click (if you use a clicker) or say “yes” and reward with a higher-value treat from your other hand (or another container). Do not reward from the hand in which you were hiding the first treat! That’s the one your dog is learning to leave.
Keep repeating this until your dog ignores the hand you’re presenting, looks at you and maybe even backs up in anticipation of the better payoff.
Now practice the same steps as above, but with an open hand. Be ready to close your hand, covering the piece of food, should your dog get too close. Don’t pull your hand away! Leave it in position, but close it so the food is inaccessible to the dog. Continue repeating this exercise until your dog ignores your hand before moving on to the next step.
Step 2: Leaving an Item on a Surface
Place treats on a table, coffee table or counter where you’re close enough to cover them if needed. You can even place them on a plate to imitate real life. When your dog shows interest, say “Leave it.” If the dog looks away, click or use your marker word and reward in the same manner as Step 1, with a higher-value treat from your pocket or a separate container.
If your dog goes for the food, give them a “Too bad” (in the same tone of voice you’d say “Oh well”) and cover the food up. When the dog stops trying to get at it, click and reward.
When you have a 100% success rate with the first exercise, try it with distance between yourself and the table. Ask someone to help protect the food if needed or have your dog on a leash. Increase the distance when your dog is ready.
Step 3: Leaving an Item on the Floor or Ground
Repeat the first exercise in Step 2 above, but with food on the ground instead of the table. You can use trash with a food smell, etc., so long as it isn’t higher value than what you have available to reward your dog with.
Practice “Leave it” while you and your dog are walking by the item. Begin farther away and practice getting closer as your dog is able to be up close with the item. You can do this with anything on the ground. When your dog notices the item, say “Leave it” and reward any response that isn’t going for the item: coming away from or ignoring it, or looking at you.
If your goal is to have your dog leave items outdoors as well as in your home, you must practice this skill out in the real world!
Step 4: Leaving Non-food Items
In this phase, you can begin to generalize, or proof, the behavior — including the transfer of skills to nonfood items. Start with those your dog might not be interested in, then proceed to things like children’s toys, shoes, laundry, or other enticing items around the house.
Once your dog is able to perform the skills reliably, you can begin practicing with any objects you’d encounter on your walks and adventures.
Having the “Leave it” cue in your behavior toolbox is a handy and sometimes even lifesaving skill. Continue practicing over and over, in different locations, until your dog responds automatically. And, keep in mind that the dog might find the most obscure item enticing. That’s when all that proofing you did will really pay off! What a relief it will be for you when you’re out and about adventuring, knowing you have the confidence to call them away.
Here’s to harnessing fun!