ClickerSolutions Training Articles

Teaching "Leave It"

Begin with two types of treats: one really sumptuous pile of nuked garlic chicken or something equally tantalizing, and one pile of so-so treats, just a step up from kibble.

Put one pile of treats on a table in back of you. Put one pile in your hand. Sit on the floor. Hold your open hand to the dog with the so-so treats in it and when he begins to sniff the treats, fold your fingers up over them so the dog can't get them.

If the dog is really a chow hound, totally persistent, take your hand totally away. The object is a bit of "doggie Zen"--you have to give up something good to get something better. so if the dog "mugs" your hand, put your hand up over your head and ignore the dog. Make no eye contact, don't say a word--no scolding, no nothing. Just ignore the dog for a few seconds.

Then bring the treats out in your hand again in front of the dog. Watch closely, because you're looking for the ONE moment when the dog backs off, looks away from the treats. Chances are, when you fold your fingers over the treats, he will back off. The moment he does, click or say "YESSS!" and give a treat from the really, really GOOD pile on the table behind you.

Repeat this process until the dog looks away, backs away or ignores the treats in your open palm.

Once this is happening, add the cue words "leave it" --said in a neutral, non-confrontational voice. This is NOT a punisher, only a cue to tell the dog to back off at that moment in time. You are not punishing him, only giving him information so that he can make a choice.

To add the cue word, offer the bait in your open palm and say "leave it". Whisper it. You don't need to say it roughly, but nicely, as you might say, "Thank you." The dog is already reliably pulling away from the bait, and has the idea without you having ever said a word. Now you're just associating the word with the behavior. That's why we add the cue AFTER the behavior is pretty well learned. Until the dog is doing it reliably, adding words only muddies up the water, confuses the dog. Once the dog is backing off, say "leave it", then click and treat.

Now, lower your hand toward the floor, and in several different directions. Repeat the above, then move it into another room, outside--wherever you can. It takes a while for the dog to learn to "generalize" the behavior. Just because he knows how to "leave it" in the kitchen facing north doesn't mean he will understand he has to also do it in the bedroom facing east. So you back up a few steps, reteach the behavior in each new environment, setting the dog up for success. This usually only takes a couple of clicks to get the brain in gear in a new environment.

Once you can lower and raise your hand and the dog will back off, put treats on the floor and watch closely! Now is when the chow hounds think "free meal" and will jump on it. Be ready to put your palm OVER the treats. You don't want the dog to get those treats because if he does, it is very strong "variable" reinforcement.

What does that mean? Well, variable reinforcement is something that happens not every time, but it has happened before and probably will happen again. Like a slot machine. You know when you put your quarter in, each pull of the handle won't net you a payoff. But you have gotten a payoff before, and you suspect you will again, so you keep on chucking in those quarters and hoping the bars will come up with three cherries. That's the power of variable reinforcement. So, you don't want your dog to get those treats on the floor!

Keep repeating the "leave it" and click and treat, never allowing the dog to have the treats on the floor, but only the other treats you will give him from your hand.

This all goes very rapidly, and within 15 minutes you should have a pretty good behavior going the first time you try it.

Again, once your dog is effectively ignoring treats on the floor, you can up the criteria and walk him by the treats, saying "leave it" before you get to the treats on the floor. But be careful: don't tighten up on that leash involuntarily and make 'leave it' a punisher. The dog needs to make a choice, and make the choice you want him to make. He will, if the reinforcement is strong enough.

Good luck and happy training!

Debi Davis & the Service Papillons, Tucson, AZ
copyright 1999 Debi Davis


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