How to Teach Your Dog to Leave
Teaching a dog a leave is a useful and incredibly important cue. Dog’s by their very nature are scavengers and explore the world with their mouths. It is highly likely that at some point in their everyday lives they may well pick up something that is dangerous to them.
Snatching items from your dog’s mouth runs the risk of encouraging resource guarding, or an endless game of chase around the house, but a solid ‘leave-it’ can avoid heartache all round. In order to be successful, this exercise should be practiced repeatedly until it is second nature to both you and your dog. Once this exercise has been perfected it can then be used in real life situations.
The Leave & Receive Game
1. This game begins with two hands of food: a ‘leave’ hand that contains boring dog food and a ‘receive’ hand that contains an exciting tasty reward. The ‘receive’ hand is placed behind your back for a secret reward, and the ‘leave’ hand is presented to your dog with a tightly closed fist so no food can be sneakily eaten.
2. Your dog will naturally be interested in the leave hand and start to sniff, lick or paw at it. Be patient and wait for your dog to lose interest and voluntarily pull away from your hand.
3. As soon as your dog pulls away from the leave hand, mark this with a verbal marker such as “yes” or a clicker and immediately reward your dog with the hidden surprise treat from your ‘receive’ hand. The hands are then reset and the game is repeated. Try switching your hand between games to keep your dog on their toes!
a. If your dog struggles with this and bites at your hand, the ‘leave’ hand can be held up at head height and your dog should be rewarded for looking away from it. Your leave hand can slowly be brought down closer to your dog with each successful attempt.
4. Now it is time to bring in the verbal cue. Announce your ‘leave it’ cue as you present the dog your ‘leave’ hand. Take care not to repeat yourself if the dog is continuing to attempt to get the food. In a real life scenario we want this cue to work first time! Once your dog has left the hand alone they are marked and rewarded with the receive hand.
5. To progress your dog the ‘leave’ hand can now begin to be slowly unfurled in small increments with each attempt. It is imperative to increase the difficulty slowly and to ensure the hand is swiftly closed should the dog attempt to eat the food from the ‘leave hand’. We don’t want to teach our dogs that they can reach the item if they are fast enough!
6. Once you are able to present your dog with a treat on a flat palm that will be safely left alone you can now progress your dog by bringing your hand towards the floor in gradual increments. This stage will help make this cue more realistic as, more often than not, the things we want our dog to leave alone are on the floor! It can also be helpful to practice this with items the dog might not be allowed such as the remote control or socks.
7. When your dog is able to leave an item alone on the floor now try dropping items or gently rolling them across the floor and asking your dog to leave them alone. This is a tricky stage as most dogs have learnt to grab dropped items quickly! Practice with short drops and small rolls first before building up to longer drops.
Video demonstration of leave it
Video demonstration of drop it
Many dogs will engage in ‘stealing’ behaviour, where they will find an item and run away with it. In this scenario many owners will respond by chasing their dog to retrieve the item. This inevitably results in a fun game of chase for the dog until the owner finally catches them and takes the item away.
Every time the owner engages in the game of chase, the dog is rewarded for the behaviour and this can quickly result in a dog that seeks out items to steal as they enjoy the game! To prevent a habit of stealing, it is important not to engage in games of chase when your dog has taken something they cannot have.
If your dog has taken something that isn’t harmful/valuable (e.g. tissues or cardboard), do not react and simply ignore them. They may well destroy the item, but if it is not dangerous to them and you ignore them completely, they will learn stealing does not equate to attention. They will become bored with the item as it is not getting them a reward and will leave it eventually, at which point it can be retrieved.
If your dog has taken an item that is dangerous and needs to be retrieved, stop and do not follow them. Remove yourself to a different room as quickly as possible and use an enticing sound to get their attention and draw them away from the item e.g. rustle treats, open the back door, squeak a toy. Once you have called your dog away from the item, ask them to perform an alternative behaviour (such as a sit or a paw) and reward this with a treat toss across the floor. As your dog chases the treat, close a door between your dog and the item they have taken. This is to ensure they don’t race back to the item to get it whilst you are retrieving the item.
Do not attempt to remove things from your dog’s mouth. Forcefully removing items from your dog puts you at risk of being bitten, and increases the likelihood of your dog using more severe aggression in the future.
I do not recommend punishing your dog physically or verbally when they steal items. Whilst punishment can stop an undesirable behaviour it does nothing to teach your dog the way you do want them to behave. It is more efficient and kinder to set your dog up for success by carefully managing the environment around them to reduce opportunities to steal, and to teach them cues to prevent stealing in the first instance.