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Why Teaching “Leave It” is Useful

Have you ever tried to stop your dog from doing something? What did you say in that moment? Often people go with “no” or “stop!” We generally repeat whatever it is and end up raising our voices each time we repeat it. Before we know it we end up screaming, “NO!” The best way to communicate that we’d like our dogs to stop something is by teaching them a cue which means to back away or disengage from that thing. We call this “leave it.” If your dog is investigating the counters, about to snatch a snack from your child’s hand, about to grab something of the ground during the walk or not listening to another dog’s cutoff cues, “leave it” is the thing to use. The thing is, dog’s don’t naturally understand what this means. Also, dogs are very good at learning something in a certain context but really struggle with generalizing it to other scenarios. For example, the first step we teach for leave it is having the dog leave food from a closed hand. Once they figure that out, we move to the next step which is an open hand. If dogs were able to generalize this they should grasp the concept nearly instantly and leave it during that next step. In fact, it wouldn’t even be necessary to teach different steps of the behavior. I mention this because if you want your dog to be able to leave things when you ask, you’ll need to practice with as many different variations as possible. The other thing is that this can stop working if it’s no longer rewarded. It can also stop working if it isn’t practiced. If your dog is great at leaving food that was accidentally dropped but weeks have gone by since they were asked last, it’s very likely that the response will be rusty. Leave it, just like all other behaviors, needs to be used and rewarded in order for it to maintain its strength. Here is how to teach it: 1. Put treats in your closed hand and put your hand near your dog’s nose. Wait for your dog to give up and when it happens, say, “good” and reward. Repeat this until your dog no longer tries to go after it. 2. Open your hand revealing the food and say, “leave it.” If your dog leaves it, say, “good” and reward. If your dog goes for it, say, “too bad” and close your hand. Next, open your hand and say “leave it.” Continue this until your dog no longer goes for it. 3. Place a piece of food on the ground and say, “leave it.” If your dog does, go ahead and provide a reward. If your dog goes for it, say, “too bad” and cover it or pick it up and repeat. If at any point your dog is “failing” 3 times in a row, go back to the prior step to set everyone up for success. These are 3 steps to get you started!

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