How To Teach A Dog The ‘Leave It’ Command
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Teaching your pup the “leave it” command is a key part of dog training. This command is all about self-control, which is important for keeping her safe and out of trouble.
“The ‘leave it’ command is one of the best ways to communicate to your dog what they can or can not engage with,” Taylor Frank, owner and trainer at Proper Paws Dog Training in the Greater Salt Lake City area, told The Dodo. “This can be applied to anything the dog finds reinforcing such as toys, people, other animals or environments (streams or lakes).”
The Dodo spoke with Frank to find out how to teach a dog to “leave it” — and make sure the behavior actually sticks.
Use positive-reinforcement training
According to Frank, “leave it” dog training works best when it’s choice-based training. That means setting the training up so your dog can make a choice, and you’re not forcing her to do anything.
“Teaching ‘leave it’ is about controlling the reinforcements of the dog’s choice rather than trying to control the dog,” Frank said.
Basically, you wouldn’t want to nudge or push your dog towards the choice you want her to make, because then she’s not consciously choosing to exhibit that behavior on her own.
If your dog is making choices without you influencing her, building the right behavior becomes even more effective.
“If they make the choice we want (ignoring another object) when working with you, positive reinforcement will follow,” Frank said. “If the dog makes an inappropriate choice, the reinforcement is removed. When using choice-based training, we don’t want to manipulate, force or lure our dogs.”
That’s because your dog will be constantly learning anyway, regardless of which choice she makes.
“Our dogs learn just as much from getting it right as they would when getting it wrong,” Frank said.
Step 1: Encourage your dog to back away from a treat
First, you’ll want to present a high-value treat to your dog, but don’t give it to her, so she inevitably makes the voluntary decision to focus her attention elsewhere.
“Start by sitting at your dog's level with food in your hand. Hold your hand out, but keep it closed,” Frank said. “When your dog goes for the food, keep your hand closed and wait until they make the choice you want — backing away from your hand and ignoring the food.”
“Once they make the choice to back off, pinpoint that with a ‘yes’ and open your hand,” Frank said. “If they go for the food when your hand is open, close your hand and repeat this process.”
Step 2: Reward your dog for backing off
It’s super important to start rewarding your dog for backing away from the treat voluntarily so the behavior is reinforced.
“Once you can open your hand and your dog stays back with the food available, reward with a different treat while saying, ‘Yes, good leave it,’” Frank said. “Keep repeating this game and building on the successful behavior you want.”
Step 3: Increase difficulty
As your dog masters each stage of training, you can make the impulse tougher to resist.
“When your dog gets good with the food in your hand, place it on the ground and try walking around the room, making sure to always be able to cover the food if your dog goes for it,” Frank said. “If your dog goes for the food, make sure to cover the food rather than impeding your dog’s path.”
Making the adjustments really tiny is important for getting the training to stick.
“Eventually, your dog’s impulse control becomes so strong, you can trust them unsupervised with a pizza on the kitchen counter,” Frank said. “Ultimately, your dog will begin to show the same behaviors when you're gone as they would when you're in the room with them.”
The key to getting this behavior to stick is through repetition, gradually increasing the access to the object you want her to leave alone and by rewarding her when appropriate.
“The dog will learn self control and to make the right choices that we as owners want,” Frank said.
This approach can also be applied to anything you want your dog to ignore — like toys that aren’t his, people walking by and other animals.
But it’s best to start training with things like toys and food, since you have the most control over those objects and can present them to your pup in quiet places with limited distractions.
Common mistakes made during ‘leave it’ dog training
If you really want the “leave it” command to stick, you need to know which mistakes to avoid during training.
Forcing your dog to do something
Letting your dog make a choice to do something, rather than being forced, will make training her much more effective.
“Often, a mistake owners make is they don't allow the opportunity for their dog to make a choice, which removes the dog’s opportunity to learn from their choices,” Frank said. “If pet owners manipulate, force or lure behaviors out of their dogs without allowing the dog to make the decisions, the dog is rewarded for aimlessly doing an action they truly did not ‘choose’ to do.”
If you take away your dog’s ability to make that choice on her own, the process ultimately won’t work.
“With choice-based training, you are giving your dog a problem to solve,” Frank said. “Based on the choices they make, they will either get rewarded or not. They ultimately learn just as much from getting it right as they do from getting it wrong.”
Teaching your dog to make her own decisions will actually get the desired behavior to stick.
“When they make their own choices, they truly learn what to do as opposed to being forced to do something they don’t want to do and fighting the owner’s decisions,” Frank said.
Making the scenario too challenging
When you’re just starting out with your dog’s “leave it” training, you’ll want to use a desired object that’s actually easy for you to control, like food or toys, and train your dog in a place that doesn’t have too many distractions.
“Often, commands may not take because the dog isn't being set up for success,” Frank said. “They may be put into too challenging of scenarios that they begin to become overwhelmed.”
If you kick off your dog’s “leave it” training with people, other animals or in a place with a bunch of distractions, she could get overwhelmed and not actually retain much.
“When this occurs, we often think our dogs ‘just don't get it,’ but rather they are in a situation that needs to be altered to produce better learning,” Frank said.
“Starting small with limited or no distractions around them is an important factor to set them up for success,” Frank said. “Start with easy choices to teach your dog how to seek value through you and to reinforce the behavior you want.”
You can move on to trickier scenarios once your pup masters the simpler ones.
“You can work your way up to the tougher choices,” Frank said. “Once you have worked through food and toys, try introducing favorite people or other dogs as distractions. You can also expand the difficulty by challenging your dog in new environments.”
Why the ‘leave it’ command is important
The reason the “leave it” command is so crucial is because it teaches your dog both restraint and redirection, and teaches her to ignore or not engage with something she shouldn’t.
These things are really useful when it comes to keeping your dog away from distractions (especially ones that can be potentially dangerous, like dropped chocolate or strange animals).
“‘Leave it’ is a core cue within training that helps redirect your dog's attention away from an object that may cause them to react positively or negatively,” Frank said. “By teaching them to redirect their attention away from those items, you are able to provide the positive reinforcement to build the behaviors you want, ultimately teaching your dog to ignore those surrounding distractions and to pay attention to you.”
By teaching your dog to leave something alone, you become the source of her reinforcement instead of other external factors.
“Dogs often make choices that inadvertently get reinforced,” Frank said. “This reinforcement can come from a variety of sources, but primarily comes from other people, other dogs and their environments.”
And if you’re the one reinforcing your pup’s behavior with the “‘leave it” command, then you’re in control of the behaviors she’s building.
Otherwise, undesirable behaviors can develop since they’ll be based on the external reinforcement she receives when acting on her impulses.
“If your dog were to run off to another dog or person, they may get ‘rewarded’ by being able to play with that dog or by receiving attention from the person,” Frank said. “Intentional or not, reinforcements build behaviors.”
As long as you’re the one providing that reinforcement, you can ensure the behavior she’s learning is actually helpful.
“Not only does this command keep your dog safe, it also helps teach them impulse control,” Frank said.
You can even combine it with a “release” command, which will teach her when it’s OK to act on urges.
“Once your dog learns how to make their own choices and learn[s] to seek value through you, you can begin to pair release commands, which communicates when your dog can engage with those same reinforcing items,” Frank said.
So, teaching your dog to “leave it” is one of the best things you can do for your pup, since it’ll teach her good behavior while also keeping her out of trouble. And while your dog won’t learn the behavior overnight, your patience and dedication to teaching your dog the “leave it” command will be well worth it in the end.
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