Puppies are curious about everything, and while investigating the world around them is a normal part of development, in certain scenarios, this trait can lead to problems. The tendency to grab anything they can put in their mouths can be dangerous. Rather than wrestling with your puppy after she picks up something forbidden, it’s much easier to train a strong “leave it” cue.
Learning how to teach a dog to leave it is a simple way to redirect your puppy from something potentially dangerous, and turn the focus on you for a tasty reward instead.
Why Teaching ‘Leave It’ to Dogs Is So Important
Puppies use their mouths to learn about their environments, and that means sampling everything from your fingers to electrical cords. Teaching puppies to turn away from temptation is not only a great lesson in impulse control, but also helps to keep them safe from choking hazards or accidental poisoning. For example, a strong “leave it” cue can help prevent your puppy from diving for a chicken bone on the ground during a walk, or from snatching medication that you accidentally dropped.
“Leave it” is the first line of defense when your puppy spies something intriguing on the ground. The goal is to get your puppy to look away from the item and at you instead, to stop your puppy from grabbing the item. However, sometimes puppies are too quick and manage to pick up contraband before pet parents have a chance to use the “leave it” cue. That’s where a “drop it” cue comes in handy. Equally important, the “drop it” cue can be used to help prevent your puppy from ingesting dangerous items once they’re already in her mouth, and can also be used in casual situations, like during a game of fetch.
How to Teach a Dog to Leave It
The first step in teaching a dog to “leave it” is determining your puppy’s hierarchy of treats. Most puppies love all treats, but this exercise requires a boring, dry treat as well as a pocket full of high-value goodies, like freeze-dried liver or cheese.
The following “leave it” dog training steps should be spread out over several training sessions:
Show your puppy the boring treat and place it beneath your shoe. Cover it so that she’s able to smell it but she can’t reach it. Your puppy will probably bite and scratch at your shoe to try to uncover it, but don’t move your foot or acknowledge this behavior. After your puppy realizes that she can’t dig through your foot to get to the goodie, she might look away for a moment, and that’s the first step of a leave it cue. Mark any behavior like moving or looking away from the goodie under your shoe, either with a clicker or a marker word like “yes!” or “yup!” and give your dog one of the special treats.
Pick up the boring treat from beneath your shoe so your puppy sees it again, then put it back under your shoe. This will make it seem “new,” and your puppy will likely go back to the same dig/bite/lick technique she used the first time. Once again, mark the moment your puppy looks away or backs up from your shoe, then reward her with an extra special goodie.
When your puppy is reliably backing away from your shoes after you place the treat beneath them, make it tougher. Move your toe so she can see the goodie, but be ready to cover it up again. If you puppy opts to look away, mark it with your word or click and give her the special treat. If your puppy has a hard time ignoring the uncovered treat, go back to Step 2.
As soon as your puppy is predictably backing away from the treat next to your foot, add your verbal cue. “Name” the behavior by saying the phrase “leave it” as she backs away from it. It will probably take about 15 to 20 repetitions before your puppy associates the phrase with the looking away or backing up behavior she’s doing. (You can anchor the word to the action over several individual training sessions.) Keep in mind that the goal of this cue is an almost reflexive response to move away when you say it.
Make it even tougher on your puppy by “animating” the dry treat. Say “leave it” and give it a little kick or toss it, then mark and reward the moment your dog backs away.
Start to generalize the behavior by putting your puppy on-leash and walking past one of the dry biscuits. Say “leave it” as you approach the biscuit, then reward your puppy and give her lots of praise when she backs away. Try this step in a variety of locations, throughout your house and yard. If your puppy is unable to respond to the “leave it” cue, go back to Step 5.
Continue generalizing the behavior while your puppy is on leash by walking her past a variety of items she might find interesting, like dirty socks or wadded up paper towels. Ask her to “leave it,” then reward her with a special treat and continue walking.
Practice using the “leave it” cue during walks with low-value items you encounter, like a stick in the middle of the sidewalk or plastic bags. The goal is for your puppy to find the behavior so reinforcing (and reflexive) that when you really need to use it—like if she spots a pile of French fries on the ground—she’ll still happily respond to “leave it.”
Leave It Dog Training Tips
Even though trying to keep your puppy from grabbing inappropriate items can get stressful (and sometimes, disgusting!), stay calm when using your “leave it” cue. You’re not trying to scare her into ignoring the item, you’re asking her to follow your instructions in a calm, non-threatening tone. If your puppy isn’t able to reliably respond to the “leave it” cue out in the real world, it’s likely you need to brush up on remedial around-the-house training.
Curious puppies might find their way to inappropriate items outside that can present major health hazards, such as poop that contains parasite eggs or infected dead animals. As well as teaching your pup a strong leave it command, ensure they are on broad-spectrum parasite protection year-round, such as a monthly chew like Interceptor® Plus (milbemycin oxime/praziquantel).
Although the “leave it” cue can be a literal lifesaver, most puppies can master the foundation steps quickly. With practice, your puppy will learn that checking in with you for a tasty treat is always better than sidewalk chicken bones!
Interceptor Plus Indications
Interceptor Plus prevents heartworm disease and treats and controls adult roundworm, hookworm, whipworm, and tapeworm infections in dogs and puppies 6 weeks or older and 2 pounds or greater.
Interceptor Plus Important Safety Information
Treatment with fewer than 6 monthly doses after the last exposure to mosquitoes may not provide complete heartworm prevention. Prior to administration of Interceptor Plus, dogs should be tested for existing heartworm infections. The safety of Interceptor Plus has not been evaluated in dogs used for breeding or in lactating females. The following adverse reactions have been reported in dogs after administration of milbemycin oxime or praziquantel: vomiting, diarrhea, decreased activity, incoordination, weight loss, convulsions, weakness, and salivation. For complete safety information, please see Interceptor Plus product label or ask your veterinarian.
Disclaimer: The author received compensation from Elanco US Inc., the maker of Interceptor Plus, for her services in writing this article.
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