Teaching Your Dog To Leave

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This is a basic command that’s absolutely invaluable, yet many people never manage to master it. It’s actually really easy to train your dog to “leave” anything – including food. Because of the recent disturbing spates of poisoning and glass-filled baiting incidents across the country, I thought I’d postpone my planned post and get you all teaching your dogs how to “leave”, even when they are off the lead and not right beside you. “Impossible!” I hear you cry! Actually – it’s totally possible – even if your dog is absolutely obsessed with scavenging. “Leave” is possibly the best thing we ever taught Oscar – it’s a crucial command to master. It comes in very useful for a whole host of situations – leaving:

  • Food
  • Dead stuff
  • Hedgehogs – and other living creatures
  • Barking
  • Other dogs
  • Nasty green sticks
  • Anything you don’t want them to pick up
  • Anything you want them to drop

“Leave” is our go-to command for all of the above – apart from food and dead stuff, as Oscar now simply doesn’t bother with it, unless he pees on it.
How did we manage it? Let’s follow the steps:

Step 1: Leaving in the Hand

Get a supply of something that they love to eat and stick it in your pocket – a stinky, meaty treat, a piece of chicken breast, carrot – whatever your dog adores. Get on the floor with your dog, take a piece of the food in your hand and show them. If they are too over-excited, make them sit first. Put the food in the palm of your hand, with your hand open, and put your hand close to your dog’s nose, level with their mouth. When your dog tries to take it, close your hand and move it away, and say “leave”. Repeat this process until your dog gets the message and backs away or sits still while the treat is in the palm of your open hand. You can repeat “leave” while your palm is open for reinforcement, too. Don’t expect miracles right away – at first, your dog may not manage more than 5 to 10 seconds before they just can’t resist. So start small. If 5 seconds is what they can manage, then go with that. Praise them then reward by allowing them to take the treat.

Once they can do 5 seconds without fail, increase their leave time to 10 seconds, then 20, then 30. If they can manage 30, then they can manage a full minute, then 2 minutes. This is often the most challenging step, as patience is something your dog – and probably yourself – aren’t used to exercising when it comes to food – or something that you really, really, really want. Most likely, your dog sees something it wants and leaps straight for it. You spot it a few seconds too late, and dive on top of your dog to try and wrestle it away. But don’t despair, this simple step is the first and most important to stopping that habit.

Step 2: Leaving on the Floor

Once your dog will “leave” beautifully the scrummy treat in your hand, it’s time to make it a bit more challenging. Still sitting on the floor, armed with delectable treats, place a bit of said food on the floor in between and in front of you and your dog. If your dog goes for it, put your hand over it – guarding it – and say “leave”. If he won’t back off, remove the treat and go back to “leave” in your hand. Again, the same principle applies – start small and celebrate small victories. If he leaves for 5 seconds, praise him and tell him to “take it”, gesturing at the treat. Slowly build until you can reliably get him to leave a treat on the floor for a full minute – or even two minutes if he’s awesome.

Step 3: Stay and Leave

If you really want to challenge your dog and test his mettle, this is the perfect one. Set him up in a sit/down stay and place a treat just in front of his paws. Tell him to “leave” and do your stay practice as you normally would. When he looks like he’s going to grab that tasty snack, take one step forward and tell him firmly to “leave”. If you miss your queue, or he grabs the food anyway, return to your dog – do not praise him – set him up for another “stay”, and do it again – but for a shorter time. Even if your dog can stay where you put him for 5 minutes without moving – he can’t necessarily do it when he’s being tempted by something scrumptious – so you’ll likely have to start small and build it up. Once he’s mastered it, step out of sight for a few seconds, then return. Eventually you should be able to get your dog to leave a treat between his feet for a full minute while you’re out of sight.

Step 4: Practice as Often as You Can

Even when you’ve mastered every step in this post and your pooch is “leaving” anything you tell him to in a split second, it’s worth practicing regularly – ideally at random times every day. This is particularly crucial while they are still learning. A good opportunity, for example, occurs every evening, when you’re sitting on the sofa, watching T.V, doing some crafts, etc, etc. Take something real tasty and make your dog leave it for a minute or two, then praise and reward. Do it while you’re out on a walk. Do a sit/down stay, place a biscuit between his feet, and make him leave it for 30 seconds. Make him “leave” his evening chew for a minute before letting him take it.

Step 5: Leaving the Exciting Surprise Item – On Lead

Sadly, there’s a bit of a leap between leaving little treats etc around the house and leaving that special surprise item when you’re out on a walk, so you’ll most likely need to take teeny tiny baby steps to make it work. On the plus side – this improves on-lead walking and attentiveness, too. Firstly, start off indoors or in the garden. Keep your dog out of the room/garden, or get someone to hold them, on their lead. Make sure you’ve got some small tasty morsels in your pocket. Get something tasty or exciting – you can use food or toys – anything from balls or plush toys to chews, carrots, – whatever gets them excited. Lay these tempting items all around the room/garden, leaving plenty of space between each one. Get your dog – on a short lead – and get them to pay close attention to you – show them the treats you’ve got in your pocket. Start walking toward the first item. Your dog can sniff it – but must not pick it up. If they begin to pull, stop, firmly tell them to leave – gently tug the lead if you have to – repeat “leave” – once they stop pulling toward the item, give them big, BIG praise – do your silly voice – and give them a treat. Just watch out – because often your wily four-legged friend will immediately go for the item again – or will try to get at it as you walk away.

[callout style=”green” title=”Tip” centertitle=”true” align=”center”]When they’ve stopped pulling toward the item, to walk them away from it without them trying to grab it, turn so that as you walk, you are between your dog and the item. It also allows you to turn them with your leg as you move forward – we’re not talking about kicking! I simply mean, if your dog is being particularly stubborn and doesn’t want to turn his head away from the item, as you walk away, make sure you’re in between him and the item, get a treat, pop it near his nose, and use your leg to turn his head as you walk away. Talk to him, encourage him, offer the treat, and as he moves away, give him more praise and a treat.[/callout]

Keep practicing this – until he can leave anything you place on the ground while on the lead – even if he does need the occasional reminder. The next stage involves leaving stuff you drop while off the lead.

Step 6: Leaving the Exciting Surprise Item – Off Lead

The thought of trying to do this one may fill you with dread – or you may collapse in helpless giggles at the very thought – but you can do it! Like everything else when it comes to training – you have to take it slow and make it achievable for you and your dog. So, start with one thing – something that you know your dog desperately wants. Get someone to hold your dog or put him on his lead and slip the end under a chair leg. Place the item in the middle of the room. If he hasn’t already spotted it, bring him up on his lead and show him the item – but don’t let him touch it. Make sure you are in between your dog and the object, and let him off his lead. If you don’t think you’re quite ready for that, just drop the lead so you can easily step on it if he isn’t managing the task. Your job is to guard the object and not let your dog get at it. If he tries to get at the item, step forward, stand up straight, and say “leave” firmly. If he keeps coming, push him away gently, repeating “leave”.

Remember to stand up straight – if you are bent over or crouching, you look just as exciting as the object, and he’ll think you’re playing a game. So stand straight and be firm. If he tries to go around you, move with him so you stay between him and the object. When he backs away and stands still, or sits down, just for a few seconds, step forward, give him a treat, and lots of praise. Repeat! Repeat! Repeat! As he gets better at this, introduce more items. Make him leave – but make sure you praise him every time. It’s also important to not immediately give him the items you’re making him leave at this stage. If you do, he’ll assume that if he leaves anything for a few seconds, you’ll let him have it afterwards. So give him something – a treat or a ball – from your pocket as a reward instead. Once you’ve mastered this, you can do it out in the big, wide world, too.

Be patient, be firm, and persevere. If you follow each of these steps, you’ll be able to get your dog to leave anything – from toys in the house and stuff you accidentally drop in the kitchen, to disgusting dead things, litter, and sticks.

When you’re out and about with your dog – be vigilant! If it looks like he’s about to pick something up, tell him to “leave” immediately. You never know what they’ll find – or what awful people are out there and what they’ve put in the local park. So pay attention. If you know your dog loves to tuck into anything they find, don’t let them get out of your sight. Similarly, if your dog likes to play with toys he finds, take one with you instead of letting him play with whatever he finds. After all, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Want some tasty treats for him while training? Try these pumpkin and peanut butter treats!

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