One of the more useful behaviors a dog can learn is to leave things alone when asked. Dogs and especially puppies, explore the world with their mouth. Leave It is one of the very first exercises I began working on with Willow when she joined our home.
The cue, Leave It, as a finished behavior in our house means: Whatever it is you’re looking at this very moment, turn away from it and look back at me and don’t go back toward what you were looking at.” In our home we use it with both our dogs when they get a bit too interested in our four furry felines, when Willow is about to use her mouth on some forbidden object or on a walk when we come near trash and a myriad of other instances.
You can begin practicing this with a toy or as we do in class, with a yummy piece of dried beef liver, which is usually a very high value food for a dog. With your dog on leash and at your side, show the piece of liver to the dog, let her sniff and/or lick it and as you place it under the ball of your foot, say “Leave It” in a happy tone of voice. You will say the “Leave It” cue only ONE TIME. If your dog is like mine, she’ll begin sniffing your foot and trying to get her tongue under your shoe.
Your job, as the trainer, is to be patient, say nothing, and wait for the very instance when she does anything other than going after the liver under your foot. The moment she looks away, you’ll say Yes! (or better yet, Click & Treat) and feed her apiece of very yummy pea-sized food (we normally use turkey Natural Balance soft dog food, but cheese and hotdogs work well too). The goal of this exercise is to say “yes” and treat her continually for ANYTHING other than going after the liver. If she looks left, say “Yes” and treat. If she looks right, say “Yes” and treat. If she looks at you, say “Yes” and treat. After the first time she looks away from the liver and gets reinforced for NOT going after the liver, she begins to think, “Oh, if I don’t go after that liver, I get something else yummy” causing her to leave the liver alone for longer periods of time. After a few rounds of this, pick up the liver from under your foot and begin another repetition of the exercise. This is when you can use the “Leave It” cue again. Remember that you say the cue once and only once as you’re placing the liver under your foot.
Once your dog is doing well and beginning to focus more on you than the liver under your foot, you can uncover the liver, leaving it exposed. But…….be ready to immediately cover it back up if your dog decides to race toward the liver. If this happens, YOU SAY NOTHING, and merely put your foot back over the liver. Then, the moment your dog looks away, say “Yes” and reinforce her with that yummy treat.
Our clients tell us that this is one of the most useful exercises they learn in class. The funniest real life story is that the day after Halloween, a client walked in and was elated because her expensive Halloween fangs were saved by this simple, but important “Leave It” cue. Happy Training!
Lisa Lyle Waggoner is a CPDT-KA, a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer, a Pat Miller Certified Trainer-Level 2, a dog*tec Certified Dog Walker and Faculty for the Victoria Stilwell Academy of dog training and behavior. She’s the founder of Cold Nose College in Murphy, North Carolina. She enjoys providing behavior consulting and training solutions to clients in the tri-state area of North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, as well as offering educational opportunities for dog trainers and dog hobbyists throughout the U.S. www.coldnosecollege.com