Fido’s Homeschooling DIY Training Program: Leave It

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The ‘Leave it’ cue is extremely versatile. It can be handy as you and your inquisitive canine prepare to enjoy a successful pawliday season together. And it can even be a lifesaving skill to have in your behavior toolbox! A very useful cue, ‘Leave it’ means, “Stop what you’re doing and check in with me for an incredible reward!” 

Think about the times you would like Fido to leave things alone when asked – someone left a plate of food on the table, the roast is just a little too close to the edge of the counter, a giant muddy puddle is in your path, you just dropped medication on the floor, the list goes on… Below are some dog training exercises that can help keep your pup, your stuff, and your holiday goodies a little safer.

Items You’ll Need for These Exercises:

  • Reinforcers of varying values-
    • Lower value food morsels that your dog might not really care much about
    • Higher value rewards that your dog would do backflips over!
  • A surface, such as a table or countertop
  • A lower value food that your dog will never likely eat, and/or a nonfood item to ‘leave’

Optional:

  • Clicker
  • Treat container or treat pouch
  • Comfortable harness and a leash 
  • A helper for the more advanced exercises 

How to Train ‘Leave It’:

  • Start by teaching your inquisitive canine to leave a relatively boring item that’s in your hand:
    • Tuck a low value piece of food in one hand, making a fist around it.
    • Present this hand toward your dog. 
    • Allow your dog to sniff and investigate your hand and even attempt to retrieve the tiny morsel from your closed fist (but don’t let Fido have the food). 
    • Say the cue “Leave it” in a firm voice. Training Tip: Avoid a harsh or loud voice, but do your best to use the tone of voice you would use if you actually saw your dog heading toward something you really didn’t want him getting into. This way he’s used to hearing the cue the way it’s likely to sound in real life.
    • As soon as Fido pulls away, click or use your magic word and reward with a higher value treat – from your other hand or a treat container, away from the forbidden item. Training tip: Do not reward from the hand in which you were hiding the first morsel. That’s what your dog is learning to leave alone! In real-world scenarios, “Leave it” doesn’t mean “leave it, then take it.” Right?
  • Keep repeating these initial steps until your dog just ignores the hand you’re presenting, looks at you, and maybe even backs up – in anticipation of the better payoff. 
  • Next practice the same steps as above, but with a low value piece of food in an open palm this time, rather than a closed fist:
    • When your dog shows interest, say, “Leave it.” 
    • If your dog gets too close, be ready to close your hand, covering the piece of food. Training tip: Don’t pull your hand away (creating a lure), just close your hand so the food is inaccessible to your dog and wait for the behavior you want to reward. 
    • When Fido looks away, click or say “yes,” and reward in the same manner as above, with a higher value treat from your other hand, a pocket or separate container. 
    • Repeat this exercise until your dog ignores your open palm holding a piece of food when cued to do so. At that point, you’ll be ready to start adding in the next steps.

Building to Advanced Levels 

  • Next help your inquisitive canine learn to leave an item that’s sitting on a table:
    • Place treats on a dining table, coffee table or countertop. You can even place them on a plate to imitate real life. Just remember, nothing too enticing at this point.
    • Stay close enough to cover the food or remove it from the surface if needed. 
    • When your dog shows interest, say, “Leave it.” 
    • If your dog looks away, yay! Click or use your marker word and reward in the same manner as above, with a higher value treat from your pocket or treat pouch, but not from the plate on the table. Training tip: Keep in mind, it’s your dog who decides the relative value of rewards. This concept is key in keeping these training games fun and preventing frustration and boredom.
    • If your dog goes for the food on the table, just say, “too bad” in the same tone of voice you’d say, “oh well” and cover the food up. When Fido stops trying to get at it, click and reward away from the item.
Ringo Leaving the (lower value) Treats Alone
  • Once you have good success at this level of difficulty, the next step is to increase the distance between yourself and the table. 
    • Ask someone to help protect the food if needed or have your dog on a harness and leash. Training tip: Think about how you can use management and prevention to set Fido up for success in each of these exercises.
    • Continue to increase the distance between yourself and the table as your dog is ready for a more challenging game of ‘Leave it.’
    • Remember to go back to an easier step if indicated and work towards the more challenging level from there.
  • Next, help your inquisitive canine learn to leave an item that’s on the floor (or ground):
    • Repeat the exercise above, but with food or another item on the floor instead of the table. (Easy access – oh so tempting for a pup!)
    • You can do this step with anything on the ground so long as it is lower value to your dog than the rewards you will offer. 
    • Begin farther away and practice ‘Leave it’ while you and your dog are simply walking by the item (food, a piece of trash with a food smell or an object your dog likes to investigate, such as the trash can, etc.). 
    • When your dog notices the item, say “Leave it” and reward any response that isn’t going for the item. Moving away from the item, ignoring it, or looking at you would all result in a click and a fabulous treat.
    • Then practice getting closer gradually, as your dog is able to get nearer to the item without going for it. This is tough, but important, so remember to stay generous with your praise and rewards and to keep your expectations realistic. You’re doing great and so is your inquisitive canine! Stick with it.

Generalize the New Behavior

Eventually, you can begin to generalize, or proof, this skill and include a wider variety of items, including nonfood items. As in the very beginning, start with things your dog might not be that interested in, then proceed to bigger challenges like children’s toys, shoes, laundry, or other enticing items around the house, keeping in mind that your dog might find the most obscure item(s) enticing. (Do you have an example from your inquisitive canine? Please comment below!) 

Once your dog is responding to the ‘Leave it’ cue reliably indoors, you’ll want to begin practicing with objects you’d encounter on your walks and other outdoor adventures. Remember, if your goal is to have your dog respond to you, even when distractions are high, then bring your training games out into the real world too. Additional temptations you might want your pup to practice ‘leaving’ are bicycles, cars and other animals. 

Troubleshooting 

‘Leave it’ is a cue that takes tons of patience, practice, repetition and high value rewards, but it’s also one that really pays off for devoted pet guardians! So, to reinforce this skill, make it clear that there is consistently something amazingly wonderful to be had in exchange for moving away from an item or situation on cue and checking in with the handler, no matter the circumstance. 

Beyond Training Exercises

A well-trained ‘leave it’ can be the difference between your dog stealing the pot roast off the counter and your holiday dinner being enjoyed by the humans it was intended for! And when you’re out and about adventuring together, you’ll be confident knowing you can call your precious pooch away from potential dangers if needed. As you continue practicing over and over, in different locations inside and outside, you’ll notice how your smart, inquisitive pup begins to respond automatically to your ‘Leave it’ cue. Great job!

Happy training and happy holidays from the Inquisitive Canine team!


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