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How to Train Your Dog to Leave It

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Contributed by Irith Bloom, faculty at Victoria Stilwell Academy and certified animal trainer with multiple certifications, including CPDT-KSA, CDBC, VSPDT, KPA CTP, and CBATI.

A Guide for How to Train Your Dog to Leave It

“Leave it! I said leave it! Ew! That’s gross.” Have you ever said something like this to your dog? I know I have. Unfortunately, dogs are interested in a lot of things that are either disgusting to us or dangerous to them. A well-trained “Leave it” can be a great way to keep your dog from picking the wrong things up.

Any time you are doing obedience training, it’s important to remember that your dog is not born understanding English. While leave it may seem like a pretty obvious phrase to us, to our dogs, any phrase is meaningless until you help them associate a meaning with it. So, simply yelling “Leave it!” at your dog is unlikely to get you results, unless you first train your dog to know what that phrase means. This is why in clicker training, trainers don’t give the behavior a name until after the dog is reliably doing the behavior. 

One problem with leave it is that it’s a pretty vague instruction. You may recall from other articles I’ve written that it’s better, and easier, to teach an animal what to do, instead of what not to do. Leave it is teaching your pet what not to do. Since I don’t like focusing on what not to do, I teach leave it in a way that tells the dog exactly what I want her to do. Once she understands the behavior, I add a phrase that means leave it.

Train Your Dog to Make Eye Contact First

I begin with a very simple clicker training exercise: making eye contact. Eye contact is a great fundamental behavior for any animal. I like eye contact to be uncued. What I mean by that is that I want the animal to default to looking at me when they don’t know what to do. Once a dog has mastered eye contact, it can be the foundation for a lot of obedience training—including leave it.

It’s pretty easy to train eye contact. You just stand near your dog with a clicker and some delicious freeze-dried treats (or other treats your dog likes) and wait. One easy way to hold the clicker and treats at the same time is to use a Dog Gone Smart I’m Gismo Treat Container with Training Clicker. Once your clicker and dog treats are ready, stand still and stay quiet; hints are not necessary. Simply wait for your dog to look in your general direction. Once your dog looks in your direction, click and then reward your dog with a treat.

If you are lucky, your dog will look you in the eye right away. Some dogs, though, will start by looking at your body or your face in general first. That’s okay! Click for those behaviors, too. Over time, you can start to get pickier and pickier about how close your dog’s gaze is to your eyes before you click (this is called shaping eye contact). In time, your dog will be looking right at your eyes, waiting for the click and treat. For a full description of how to teach eye contact, check out this article: Positively Trained: Intro to Clicker Training.

Steps for Teaching the Leave It Command

Now that your dog understands how to give you eye contact, it’s time to learn how to train your dog to leave it.

  1. Begin by doing a few warm-up click-and-treats for eye contact.
  2. Take a single treat in your hand. Make sure your dog knows it is there—you can simply open your hand and show it to her before you do the next step.
  3. Hold the hand with the treat in it out to the side at shoulder level, with your arm extended (so you kind of look like you are pointing straight to the side with your fist). From now on, I will call the arm with the treat your “temptation arm.”If your dog jumps up to get at the treat, put your temptation arm behind your back for a moment, and then try again. If she jumps up repeatedly, take a break and resume training using a less exciting treat.
  4. Watch your dog carefully. She will likely look at your temptation arm for a while.
  5. Wait for your dog to look away from your temptation arm—ideally at your eyes, but any look away from the treat is good enough to begin with, just like when we started eye contact.
  6. As soon as your dog looks at your face instead of your temptation arm, click and then feed her a different treat from your other hand, and bring your temptation arm back to your side. Use a treat that is at least as good as or even better than the one she looked away from. For example, if your dog loses her mind for PureBites Chicken Breast Freeze-Dried Dog Treats, use one of those.You can feed the treat from the temptation arm if you want, but I find the training to be the most effective when the dog gets something even better from the other hand.
  7. Repeat the above steps three to five times before taking a short break of about a minute. You can do up to three rounds with three to five repetitions before taking a longer break of at least 30 minutes.
  8. Scatter a couple of tiny treats on the ground for your pet between rounds, as well as after the last round.After you’ve done this a couple of times, if your pet looks at your face right away without looking at the treat first, click and treat. In other words, click for eye contact as soon as it’s offered, even if that happens while you are moving your temptation arm into position. I promise you the dog knows that the treat is there!

Adding the Verbal Cue

Once your pet is looking you in the eye as soon as you start this game, and you are willing to bet that your dog will look at your face and not your temptation arm, you are ready to add a verbal cue for the behavior. Everything about the exercise stays the same, except that you say your “leave it” cue before you put your arm out to the side. The correct sequence will look like this:

You say your leave it cue, you put your arm out to the side, your dog looks at you, and you click and then treat. Do this at least a few dozen times, so that your dog learns that the phrase leave it means to make eye contact, rather than look at the temptation arm.

Increase the Difficulty

You can then start to vary your hand and arm positions, or switch to holding the treat in your other hand. Eventually, you can move your arm closer and closer to the floor, so that the behavior is more realistic. If your dog gets confused at any point, go back to a point of success and then build up again from there more slowly.

One great thing about teaching leave it this way is that it teaches your dog to control her impulse to go straight for the treat and to look at you instead. This improved self-control will serve you well in all of your dog obedience training.

One last point: Your verbal cue for leave it does not have to be “Leave it.” In fact, it might be better to use a cue where you sound cheerful, rather than angry, so that your dog is more comfortable looking you in the eye. Some alternate leave it cues include “Icky,” “Ew” and “Not yours.”

Irith Bloom