leave it

Leave it

Elsa doing a very nice "leave it" for demonstration purposes.

Elsa doing a very nice "leave it" for demonstration purposes.

The "leave it" exercise is one of the most useful things that you can teach your dog.  The "leave it" behavior is typically taught for leaving food items; but once your dog is accomplished at it, you can use it for anything.  Personally I have used it for gross items found on the ground during a walk, babies, bees, retrieving items, toys that do not belong to my dogs and so much more.  

Imagine if you could tell your dog not to touch an item and they didn't.  No pulling, no yanking, no yelling?  Wouldn't that be the greatest thing ever?  Well, it is up there with some of the greatest things ever, for sure.

Showing off their "leave it" skills.  

The "leave it," behavior, like most other behaviors is a progression of steps to get to a solid and reliable response.   Once your dog has it down and if you have used it extensively; it is often not needed in certain situations.  Dropping food off of the counter, table or hand can become a non issue once they understand that you control the items.  

The big secret to teaching a solid "leave it" is to reward it.  The exercise begins with a low level food item like toasted o cereal (cheerio type).   The food that is used to reward the dog should be of equal value.  So don't tell them to leave a piece of steak and then give them a cheerio for not touching the steak.  They are very smart and will soon be going for the steak faster and sneakier.  Makes sense right?  

  • Put Cheerio in your open hand and cover with your thumb.
  • They will NEVER be receiving the food in the hand that you have the cheerio.  You do not want them to think that at some point they will get the food in your hand.
  • Tell your dog to "leave it" and put your hand out.  They will typically try to get the food for a while but do not let them pry it out from under your thumb.  
  • As soon as they pull away from your hand for a split second, mark the behavior and reward with a cheerio from your other hand.  At the same time pull the lure hand back beside you.  
  • Do this as many times as it takes for them to "get" that moving away from your hand is what gets them the reward.  
  • This requires a great deal of patience.  
  • Be sure to tell them to "leave it" before you place your hand out.  Give them a heads up.
  • Try doing it with your hand on the floor, then put the food on the floor with your hand hovering over it.  NEVER let them get the item that you have told them to leave.
  • As they become more solid with the "leave it" you can get further and further from the item. 
  • Once they are super star professionals at "leave it" you can drop food from your hand and then the counter top; always rewarding them for not touching the item.  Don't forget to tell them to "leave it" before dropping the food.

Now that they are amazing at "leaving it" you can use it for anything that you don't want them to touch.  

Remember to only make the exercise harder when they have complete success as each step.  Too much challenge can mean failure.  Best to take baby steps during the process.  



Leave It-Mine Until told Otherwise

"Don't put food on the coffee table," "you can't put food on the table," "it has to be out of reach."  These are a few statements that I've heard over the years and there have been many, many more with regards to dogs stealing food.  Do you wish you could sit on the floor and eat a sandwich?  Wouldn't it be great to have a picnic on a blanket without having to tie your dog to a tree?  Eating dinner on the coffee table while watching a great movie may be just a fleeting "that would be nice" idea for you.  

So how do you get to a place where you are not longer trying to keep your dog from stealing any available food?  

Simple, the leave it exercise is how you accomplish this.  It doesn't matter what word you use for this exercise; “don’t touch, off, mine, not yours,” etc. etc.  My word it “leave it” for the leave it exercise and I have been teaching it for many years. 

But the leave it exercise is really just the beginning of “what’s mine is mine until told otherwise.”  Teaching and instilling the idea that you own the food is a good idea when living with dogs. 

When you teach and work on “leave it” as a way of life, not just an obedience exercise; there are wonderful fallout behaviors that occur.  See the above photo of Elsa?  I didn’t say anything to her about the food that was placed right beside her.  She knows not to touch it because it is mine; it is as simple as that.  Is she fearful or cowering because I own and dispense the food?  Nope, she just waits until I (the boss) tells her that she can have some. 

Creating boundaries with dogs is a good thing.  Dogs are opportunists; give them an inch...well you know.  Manners are extremely important; both for us and our dogs.  I do not like chaos; the type of free for all type behavior in dogs or in humans for that matter.  I am not a control freak, I just do not like when things get out of control.  

So when I sit on the floor with a snack, I do not want to be fighting to keep my food away from my dog.  It is simple to instill rules; you just have to want to and then implement.  Of course it must be consistent; wavering or allowing behaviors will weaken the rules.  (This can happen when someone in the family lowers the bar as far as enforcing rules and allowing inappropriate behaviors.  Not mentioning any names.)

"Leave it" is an important rule of life.  It starts with just the item that you are saying should be left and grows into much more.  From the beginning of learning the "leave it" to making it a way of life; it is one of the most important things that you can teach a dog.  I for one love the fallout behaviors that come with a very solid "leave it."  

Teaching Dogs Not to Touch Things

Learning not to touch is essential. 

"Don't touch," "leave it," "NO."  How many times have you either belted one of these or something similar?  How many times have you heard these or other phrases of humans pleading to our canines?  Hahahahaha, too many times.  How on earth do you teach a dog not to touch?  Easy.  Don't let them.  Yep, it is as simple as that. 

Of course it takes consistent training; and any little slip in the wrong direction from you, may lead them down the slippery slope to touching again.  Just the other day I was so very impressed with Elsa at the park.  We were in the midst of a great chuck it retrieve session when a rabbit appeared from the bushes behind me.  As Elsa got closer to me her ears shot up and her body tensed.  "Leave it," I automatically said.  She stood statue still with the ball in her mouth.  There was a ponder moment from her; to chase or not to chase, that was the question.  She chose not to chase which is huge for a dog with high drive. I immediately chucked the ball out as far as I could to reward her.  

I have been working hard on the rabbit thing over the years.  Of course Elsa wants to chase them but I have attempted to make them a non issue.  The ball is much more fun and if she stays focused on it; "it" will continually be thrown.  

Once a dog understands "leave it" then you can implement it with just about anything.  Nice.  But what about when they don't know "leave it" yet?  I have trained many, many puppies who don't know much of anything when we start out.  When you don't have any formal communication sounds or verbal cues to fall back on you need to step in.  

I remember working with several puppies who were having a very difficult time understanding that they were not to eat from the adult dog's bowl.  They needed to learn the rule quickly because I was going to leave and their guardian needed control of the eating situation. I do not like free for all, chaos eating and I also do not like having to separate dogs while they eat; so they must learn the rules of eating.

Puppies are stopped in their tracks.  That's it, that's all.  No passing, wherever the line is made.  This means physically being prepared to stop them.  This is not something that can be worked on willy nilly; you must be fully aware, highly alert and ready to stop.  One breach of security and you're sunk.  If you let your puppy get passed you then they will keep trying forever.  Typically puppies learn very quickly that they are not getting by you.  Oh they will try, those little smarties try to deek around you but you must be faster than them. 

I ABSOLUTELY LOVE the moment of realization.  The very specific point in time when they stop trying.  Even when their own bowl of food sits on the floor; a puppy often desires what the big dog is eating.  Their reward for not trying to get the food from the adult is their own bowl of food.  

Utilizing your arms and legs is essential in teaching dogs not to touch.  You need to stop them at all costs which often involves feet and hands.  You may feel inadequate tackling the job of just not letting them; but if you want to make sure that they understand "not to touch," you must make it very clear to them.  If it is cloudy at all, you're sunk.   

Dog communication and the importance of watching

Always, always watching. 

From across the yard I looked over at Elsa sitting on our double lounge.  She looked intent, like she was watching something crawling on the ground in front of her.  I watched and searched the ground, but could not see anything.  I put down the hose and head to the patio area where Elsa was still staring.  With her ears at full attention, her gaze frozen; I called out to her "leave it."  I didn't know what "it" was, but I wasn't taking any chances.

As I got closer to her I scanned the ground without result.  Not until I got right to the lounge, did I see it, a BEE.  There was a bee on the lounge, right in front of her.  I shouted out loudly "LEAVE IT," as I panicked and ran to it.  As soon as I was on the bee I praised Elsa like crazy.  She is allergic to bees and if stung, she can have an anaphylaxis response.

She'd left the bee when I told her.  She clearly understands that she is not to touch bees; I have instilled that with a very frantic "leave it," anytime I see her watching them.  She is not like a foolish youngster who goes chasing after bees; she is more about watching the little devils.  I have seen her sniff them on the ground and walk away; which is what I want her to do.  

The bee she'd been watching was right on the lounge in front of her.  It was crawling toward her which of course caused Elsa to sense a threat.  I think if it got too close she would have given it a bite; which may have resulted in a sting.  I would not have know that this was all playing out if I had not looked over to see what she was doing.  Even in the safety of our own yard; I am always watching to see where she is and what she is doing.  

If you don't watch, you will never see.  Dogs are creatures of constant communication.  They communicate with body language so if you are not watching them you will not see what they are saying.  Elsa happens to be a big and loud communicator.  Added to that is my constant vigilance and you have great communication. 

As I took of my gardening shoe to capture the bee and throw it over the fence, Elsa stiffened.  I had to give her a low mmmm, mmmm meaning "no."  She acts like a team player and wants to help rid the beast from our yard.  But I let her know that I'll deal with it and she relaxes.  

She is always telling me something.  This girl has a lot to say so I am always listening.  

Leave it, really leave it.


My voice rang out over the hush of the neighborhood.  It was early and as I let Luke and Elsa out for their morning pee, she spotted it first.  A rat was in our yard and probably suffering from the effects of poison.  The poison is not from me but I know that other people put out poison.  I was freaked out that she might touch it so screamed "leave it."  To my surprise, she did.  Oh it wasn't easy as she was in prey drive mode.  Her body was tense and ready.  I must have yelled five times; being afraid that she might actually grab it. 

Slowly she turned her head; she was still in prey mode.  I called her to go and pee which I never thought would happen with a rat sitting there.  Very methodically she tip toed away and onto the grass where I told her to "hurry up."  She did, and as she left the grass I motioned for her to go inside which she also did while her body and mind remained in the prey zone.  What a good girl, that is how a good "leave it" should look.  Of course it was much harder than most leave it exercises; this was nearly impossible to leave for her.  That along with the fact that she saw it before I did.  It is always much more difficult to stop a behavior once it in process. 

There are a few things that all dogs should understand.  Leave it needs to be taught and proofed.  That means you need to practice, practice, practice.  Not just under normal situations but weird places like at the park, with very high value items and when they don't expect it, not training time.  Clearly Elsa understood by my frantic tone of voice that I meant business, this was a very serious "leave it." 

Leave it is very strict in my house; each one of my dogs over the years has clearly understood that when something is dropped it is not a free for all.  Dropped things belong to me and if I don't say anything then they will eventually check it out.  I was cooking yesterday and dropped a mushroom; it was cooked in butter so Elsa probably would have eaten it.  If it was raw, she wouldn't touch it.  So as it fell I calmly said "leave it" and she did; then she was rewarded with a piece of meat for not touching the mushroom.  This was a much calmer "leave it" than with the rat. 

You should be able to ask for a "leave it" at a distance but this takes time.  I was quite far from Elsa and the rat when I belted it out.  A solid "leave it" means training and it means following up your verbal cue.  That means when you say it, mean it.  If you allow your dog to take something once you have told them to leave it then you are actually teaching them to disobey you.  Think about it.