Teaching a dog to leave it – to not eat a piece of food or other object that they’re interested in – is a critical skill for the safety of your dog. How often have your seen those chicken bones on the sidewalk during a walk? Or dropped a piece of food that may be unhealthy or even dangerous for your dog to eat while you’re cooking? In these circumstances and many others leave it can be a life-saving skill for your dog. Luckily, leave it can be a very straight-forward skill to teach. It’s important to start teaching the skill with simple exercises and slowly increase the difficulty of the exercises over time. The behavior will become more and more reliable and will be much more likely to occur in challenging environments (like that chicken bone on the sidewalk).
A great way to start teaching “Leave It” and “Take It” is to teach your dog that “leave it” means not to touch, mouth, or chew your closed fist when it has food in it.
- Put a piece of food in your hand and close your hand into a fist over the treat. Then, put your fist right in front of your dog’s nose. Say “leave it.” Your dog is not going to know what that means, so they’re probably going to try to mouth and paw at your hand to get the food. Leave your hand where it is by their nose and wait until they move their nose and paws away from your hand.
- It may just be a split-second of no contact. The moment you see this happen, say, “take it,” and then open your hand. It’s important to say the cue “take it” before you open your hand to let your dog eat the treat, so that he/she learns the meaning of “take it.”
There are a few things to remember when you’re working on the exercise.
- Put your fist right in front of your dog’s nose and keep your hand still while they’re mouthing or pawing at it.
- Say the “leave it” cue once only. Don’t repeat the cue as your dog is trying to get the treat out of your hand, just stay still and quiet while they figure out that pawing and mouthing your hand doesn’t work to get the treat.
Repeat the exercise 3-5 times in a row. Most dogs will quickly learn that all they need to do to get the treat is not touch your hand. Once you think your dog has gotten the hang of it, try to gradually build up to one second of time between the moment that your dog moves their nose and paws away from your hand, and saying “take it” and giving them the treat.
Once your dog can do a “leave it” without touching your closed fist for 3-5 seconds, then you can make the exercise more difficult by working towards having your dog “leave” a treat in your open hand.
- As with the first exercise, start by holding a treat in your closed hand, and say “leave it.” Wait until your dog moves their head away from your hand, then open your hand part-way. Close your hand into a fist as soon as the dog tries to take the treat, and re-open your hand as soon as the dog backs off again.
- Once the dog keeps their head back while your palm is partially open for about a second, say “take it” and give your dog the treat.
Once your dog leaves treats in your open hand regularly, you can build on this new foundation behavior in a variety of ways to increase the reliability of your dog’s skill and make “leave it” useful it in real-world situations.