Teaching your dog a reliable “Leave It” is absolutely imperative to their future training success and well-being. Each of our dogs has a rock-solid understanding of leave it, which has saved us many a trip to the emergency vet throughout their lives. When learning how to teach your dog “Leave It,” there are several steps you must follow to be successful.
To teach “Leave It,” begin by holding a treat in your hand with your fist closed. The second your dog ignores your hand with the treat, reward them immediately with a “Yes!” and a treat from your other hand. Your dog will begin to understand that leaving your hand alone is the only way they will be rewarded.
When starting out, it can be a bit frustrating for both you and your dog as they try to figure out exactly what you are asking of them. Following the proper steps to introducing the command and continuing to practice over time will lead you to a dog that will leave anything alone when asked. A strong foundation is important as this skill will be continually built upon for years to come, but getting started is incredibly straightforward.
Introducing “Leave It”
The command “leave it” can be applied in just about any situation where you want your dog to ignore something completely. This can be a piece of food dropped on the kitchen floor, a dead squirrel on the side of the road, or even your cat who wants absolutely nothing to do with your dog. Getting to this level of generalization takes time and practice but is very easy to accomplish as long as you remain consistent.
To begin, place a treat in your hand and close your fist. Your dog will most likely nose or paw at your hand in an effort to get you to open it. Ignore this behavior and wait for the moment your dog moves their attention away, even slightly. Reward with a “Yes!” and give them a treat from your other hand to keep a barrier between the “left” treat and the reward treat. Once they get the hang of this, begin adding “leave it” when placing the treat in your hand. Reward the moment they leave your hand alone and repeat for several tries.
Once your dog has gotten the hang of leaving the treat alone with a closed fist, begin opening your hand, so the treat rests on your palm. If your dog leaves it alone with the command, reward with the treat from the other hand. If they dive for the treat, close your palm and start back from the beginning. After they have the open palm down, try placing the treat on the ground and covered it with your hand if your dog goes to eat it.
When teaching “leave it,” using a clicker in the beginning stages is a game-changer. When your dog leaves the treat alone that you are asking them to forget about, you can click and attach “Yes!” to the behavior. Since “leave it” is one of the first things I teach to a dog, this is a great opportunity to build up a connection between the word “Yes!” and a reward.
Remember, these sessions may take several attempts to get your dog used to the command, especially with tempting treats. You can use kibble in your hand initially as this may be easy to get your dog to leave alone. Be patient, as this foundation will be the roadmap for your continued success and is the most important skill you can teach your dog in the long run.
Leveling Up “Leave It”
Once your dog has a good grasp of the concept of “leaving” treats in your hand or around them on the ground, it is time to ramp up the difficulty. A solid leave it looks like your dog seeing a piece of a juicy steak on the ground and looking at you instead of the steak. This may sound lofty, but with patience and training, this is entirely possible.
Once the foundation has been set, start tossing treats on the ground around your dog. Follow the same steps as before by rewarding them for not touching the food or treats. You can use lunch meat, chicken, bread, or anything non-toxic that may entice your dog. This is great for establishing proper behavior in situations where food may be dropped on the ground accidentally, especially from plates or counters.
The next step is adding distance to your training. Being able to have your dog listen to you out in the yard or when going up to something on a walk is an awesome skill to have. When introducing distance, keep your dog on a leash so that they cannot go after the item you are asking them to leave. I’ll practice this in my yard with my dogs when they begin to play too rough. If the puppy starts chewing on my older dog, I’ll give her the leave it command while she is still attached to me via the leash. This allows me to reinforce the command by pulling her back to me if she ignores my command. If she does ignore me, I know it’s time to take a step back and refresh the basics of this command.
As you go, you will find new situations where leave it can be both useful and lifesaving. Dropping medicine off the counter will no longer cause panic once you know your dog will leave it alone when you tell them to. Leveling up your distractions and distance are critical to getting your dog to leave something alone, no matter how tempting.
Using “Leave It” With Toys
Another great way to work on “leave it” is to use a toy instead of food. I like to use a long rope toy and make it exciting by dragging it around or wiggling it near the dog. Once they latch on, let them pull and tug for a moment. Then, make the toy “play dead.” The moment your dog releases their grip, say “Yes” and then start the game over again.
After your dog releases the toy a couple of times, begin saying “leave it” when they let go. You can also combine this method with teaching “take it” and “leave it.” This is great for future training and also gives your dog the idea that you are asking them to play and also asking them to release what is enticing to them.
Teaching “Leave It” is the most important command to teach your dog as it is imperative for their safety. Start slow with your training to create a solid foundation for this skill and gradually introduce challenges so that you can get your dog mastering leave it, no matter what situation they may find themselves in.