Teaching a Leave It behaviour is a great way to begin teaching your dog about self-control, especially around people, other dogs, or other items that he REALLY wants to investigate. It’s a way to teach him to ask for permission instead of just grabbing. Sometimes it’s not an appropriate time to play or greet someone new, and sometimes the item that your dog is moving towards might be potentially dangerous. Teaching a strong Leave It behaviour will help you avoid a potential disaster and will help you encourage your dog to be calm, patient, and focused on your around high level distractions.
Asking a young dog or a dog that is new to training to leave another person/dog/potentially yummy treat on the ground can be challenging. To help the dog be successful, we are going to break Leave It dog into four separate parts; each part will build on the previous one and will help to prepare your dog for increasingly difficult training sessions.
In the first stage of Leave It training, we are first going to ask the dog to back away from a treat that’s hidden in our closed hand. Once the dog is consistently backing away from the treat and our hands, we are then going to ask him to back away from our hand and then offer eye contact to us.
To start working on this, first make sure that your supplies are organised. You will need some of your dog’s favourite food, a clicker, and a bait bag or bowl for your treats. In the first step of this exercise, we are looking for the dog to stop mugging our hands and back away from the concealed treat. Put a treat in one hand and then close your fist around it. Hold the clicker in the other hand. Offer your closed fist right in front of your dog’s nose. Your dog will most likely try to mug your hand by licking/pawing/chewing. He can try those behaviours all he likes, but none of them will cause your hand to open. Watch your dog closely and wait for him to stop mugging your hand in some way (backing away, a brief pause in licking/pawing, turning his head away, etc.). As soon as he stops, immediately click and then let him eat the treat out of your hand. Repeat this step until your dog is immediately backing away from your hand as soon as your offer it in front of him.
When your dog is no longer mugging your hand, we are going to change the game and ask him to offer eye contact after he moves away from your hand. Put a treat in one hand and then close your fist around it. Offer your closed fist in front of your dog’s nose. You can praise him when he backs away from your hand, but continue waiting for him to look up and make eye contact to you. As soon as he makes eye contact, click and then open your hand and let him eat the treat.
Once your dog is reliably performing the behaviour (back away from the hidden treat in your hand and then offer eye contact), you’re ready to put this behaviour on cue. When you are naming any behaviour for your dog, you are going to say the cue WHILE the dog is performing the behaviour.
Before you start working, make sure that your supplies are organised for easy access. Make sure that you are starting in a quiet location where it will be easy for your dog to focus on you. Put a treat in your hand and then close your fist around it. Hold your hand still in front of your dog’s nose. Wait for him to begin moving his head away from your hand and up towards your face, then say “leave it,” then click and treat when he makes eye contact. Remember, the point of this exercise is to match the behaviour with the cue so that he is able to make the connection between the word and the behaviour.
Does your dog understand what to do when you say ‘Leave It?” Let’s test it! Count out 10 treats. Say “leave it” as you are holding your closed fist (with a treat inside!) down in front of his nose. Does he back away from your hand and then make eye contact with you? If he does, click and treat. If he doesn’t, put the treat to the side and then try again. If your dog isn’t able to respond to the cue the way that you’d like two times in a row, stop training and take a break. Same thing goes if your dog got more than two incorrect responses out of ten repetitions. He is just telling you that he needs a little more practice for him to really understand what you’re trying to teach him. You can try spending a few more training sessions practicing the fundamental parts of this cue and adding the cue before you try testing this behavior again.
Once your dog has aced his test, you can increase the level of difficulty for this exercise by changing the type of treat that you are holding inside your hand or using a favourite toy. Most dogs are usually willing to try mugging a little more if they can smell a piece of steak or know that their favourite squeaky toy is hidden in your hand!