Training the Leave It Command
The Leave It command is commonly used when you want your dog to leave or ignore an object and this can be very useful when taught correctly.
It can be used if your dog likes to bolt out and chase after things (like squirrels or cats, etc.) to deter this behavior. This is also one of the dog training commands that can prove very useful in ensuring the safety of your dog. Being able to command your dog to ignore an object that may otherwise harm him is very important, especially in young puppies.
The Leave It Command is one of the dog training commands often used along with the No command. Some people choose to stick with just the No command instead and use it for various different types of behaviors, therefore covering all areas without the need of the Leave it command at all.
But many dog trainers and owners create these two different verbal commands in order to use the No command mostly for training purposes, (when a dog doesn’t perform one of the obedience commands correctly etc.) and then they use the Leave it command for other everyday actions.
Many dog owners and trainers try to use just positive reinforcement methods alone, without any corrections, but this may not always work in all cases and sometimes corrections may be required.
Let’s start with a few simple ways of how to train our dogs the leave it command.
Just like with the No command, the sooner you start the better.
There is a difference if you are teaching this command to a puppy or an adult dog. Especially if that older dog has already had the experience of hearing the command without the knowledge of what it meant, and has established self-rewarding habits (like quickly eating up any food that may fall on the floor when he hears “leave it” assuming that if he doesn’t, you will remove it from him).
Choose a familiar and non-distracting environment, like with any other learning-phase exercise. This way you will get the best results and avoid undue suffering from environmental stresses.
If you are working with a puppy this may be easier, simply have a lure and some treats with you and it would be nice if you can have a helper as well.
For the lure you can use a small piece of bread or something that is really not so appealing to your dog but that he would normally eat anyway (this is what you will be teaching him to “leave alone”).
In the other hand you will have a really high value treat (small pieces of ham or steak for example, small and soft, not so big that your dog will need to chew for a few minutes).
- Sit on the floor, present the lure to your puppy, place it on the floor and when he wants to take it say the leave it command and cover the piece of bread (or other lure) with your hand.
- As soon as your puppy stops paying attention to your hand or gives up, then reward him with your high value treat in a “jackpot” manner, slightly leading your dog’s attention away so that your helper can remove the bread without your puppy noticing.
TIP: Many dog owners and trainers, after having rewarded their dog, also give the lure itself to the dog as an additional reward. I avoid doing this simply because of how easy it is for a dog to create an anticipation pattern, if you give your dog the “leave it” object, your dog may conclude that the leave it command means leave the object for a moment and then it is okay to take it.
Leave it means leave it and there should be no circumstances under which your dog might misunderstand that breaking this command is acceptable. Again, always keep it simple.
The second step is to raise the challenge for your dog.
- Place the lure on the floor, within reaching distance of your own hand and let your puppy try to get at it.
- Once your puppy approaches the lure say the Leave it command and if your puppy leaves it then reward him immediately. If you see that he is not stopping quickly cover the lure and wait for the puppy to give up and then reward him. Do not repeat the command.
Once this step is successful, you can then increase the challenge.
Once your dog understands the concept of the leave it command, you can then work on your dog’s range and endurance.
- Place your dog on a leash, play with him for a little bit so that you have his full attention and he is actively participating, and then present the lure.
- Do not throw it, as this will trigger your dog’s prey drive, and this would be setting him up for failure, which is not fair at this level. There is no need to set up a scenario that will require an unnecessary correction.
Instead, place the lure next to you on the floor and move to the side, kind of forming a triangle between the lure, yourself, and your dog.
- Your dog will notice the object on the floor and will proceed to “investigate”. It is at this moment that you will use the Leave It command. If your dog disobeys, cover the item on the floor so that your dog cannot reach it, and do the exercise again.
If it happens that you end up “fighting” or struggling with the dog to keep him away from the item, you probably went too far, too fast. Step back a few levels in your training until your dog has a clear picture of what you are doing.
Once we have our dog completely obeying the leave it command we can expose him for a longer period of time to the presence of the lure. If your dog attempts to touch the lure again repeat the step above.
This will teach the dog that the “leave it” object is really not available to him, even if it is present and within range.
If it happens down the road that your dog starts disobeying, and he is very well aware of the command itself (the learning and generalization phases have already been established) and you are sure that you have done the same setup in which the dog has performed successfully “x“ amount of times, some dog trainers will then apply corrections.
TIP: If you are “fighting” with your dog in order to drag him away from the object, your dog hasn't learned the whole exercise properly, instead of applying corrections, go back a few steps in order for your dog to learn how to succeed.
Now we can increase distractions and apply the training outside of the house. First, on the leash and then later, off of the leash. We can also change the type of “Leave it” objects or lures.
Just like with the No command, it is recommended to replace the unwanted action or behavior with a new rewarding one instead, which will increase the results and strengthen the positive behavior.
For example: Normally, I use the ‘watch command’ after ‘leave it’. So as soon as your dog shows interest in an object and you use the Leave it command, then add the watch command right after. If you use them instantaneously, your dog will leave the object and turn towards you to complete the watch command.
Now, you can release your dog (if you are using marker based training ) and reward him. This is a situation in which you want to use the ‘anticipation effect’ to your advantage.
By delivering the two commands, your dog will create the anticipation that as soon as you say leave it; he will leave the object and automatically give you his focus through eye contact.
Later, you can stop using the watch command, as it will become a part of the leave it command. By doing it in these smaller steps first, the leave it command becomes a more complex two-step command that is easy to use, and much more reinforcing for your dog.
Another way of using the Leave it command
Many dog owners use the leave it command for more complex situations (like chasing cars, other dogs, or other animals etc.) or even some forms of aggression.
This is more demanding, and is not as simple as the previous examples in which we are dealing with simple objects.
We may have a dog that is perfectly trained for this command in our created situations or with any inanimate object. But if you try using the command while your dog is getting ready to bolt after a squirrel, you may end up disappointed, with only the cloud of dust he left behind.
So why is this? What just happened to this otherwise, well-trained dog?
The answer is that chasing prey involves a high prey drive and instinct for the dog. And in some dogs it is so high that they will simply “lock” onto the prey and there is nothing in this world more important than that to him at that moment.
What to do when Leave It doesn’t work?
As in the scenario described above, we have to understand that this is a completely different situation than our initial inanimate object training. And this requires a different approach.
Many dog owners use the same leave it command training and then get frustrated when it “doesn’t work”, but it is not a matter of the command it is the situation itself that must be addressed.
Depending on the level of training and your dog’s drive and instinct levels, you may be facing a milder case where you won’t have too much problem redirecting these unwanted behaviors.
On the other hand, you may be faced with a dog with high prey drive, in which case the game of chasing is so self-rewarding to him that there isn’t anything else to replace that reward.
In milder cases when you still have control over your dog, you can redirect his behavior with high value treats and games or activities. These will signify a higher level of reward to him than chasing the prey itself.
You may be lucky enough that your dog may not even need corrections and the transition will go smoothly.
In cases where there isn’t any way that you can get a response or the attention from your dog, you may be facing a longer period of training, with more difficulties and more steps involved.
Also, you will probably need to become more familiar with a few non-rewarding or negative reinforcement and correction methods.
You can learn more about these correction methods and how to apply them correctly on the Dog training corrections page .
At this point I would also like to mention the E-collar as many dog owners use this tool in order to resolve their dog’s chasing behavior issues. An E-collar is a powerful tool that requires a specific training before it gets applied. The inappropriate use of an E-collar can turn your problem into an even worse nightmare. If you plan to use this tool, I highly recommend that you don’t use it on your own without first seeking the help of a professional who has experience and who will be able to determine if the E-collar fits your situation.
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