Thursday, December 19, 2013

Leave-it: What It Means And Troubleshooting

In my last post I discussed how to teach a dog to leave and walk away from something that he wanted to pursue. 
The natural question is if leave, categorically, means he never gets access, or if  means: Leave till further notice. 

Opinions are split, as usual, but here is how I apply the command:
If there is a real risk that a dog will harm a person or animal, then leave has to mean access denied. Period. With absolute certainty, and you better be a darn good manager so that your dog, indeed, doesn’t get what he wants during the training phase. 
For all others, though, such finality limits the command’s use. Sometimes, something or someone can become available after a leave cue, after I had a closer look, and I want the flexibility to change my mind. 
For example, there could be dog in the distance I don’t recognize at first and want my dog to leave, but as he comes closer I see that it’s one she played with before. 
Or there could be a stranger my dog wants to greet, but I need to ensure first that the person is okay with that. 
Squirrels are initial leave-its, but when I see that it is safe for squirrel and dog, I allow mine to chase. 
For me, having a reliable leave with the liberty to change my mind is the best of both worlds: It allows my dogs to have fun and socialize – something I take great joy in, but it is on my terms, not theirs. 
It keeps them out of trouble, they practice self-control, and it strengthens our bond because they understand that access to things they want happen through me. 

If your goal is the same, then, during the training phase, periodically let your dog have what he originally wanted and you initially told him to leave, but make sure that he waits for a release cue. I use get, my universal signal for: access granted. 
And don’t let the dog get the original item every time, or he’ll expect that and becomes frustrated if, one time, he can’t have it. Realistically, a dog can’t always get what he wants. No matter how friendly yours is, not every person likes dogs – I know, hard to believe but true – and not every dog wants yours in his space. 
So, don’t be so predictable: Sometimes, you offer something else, sometimes he gets that plus what he originally wanted, and sometimes he only gets what he originally wanted. Not only do you train against frustration, but you also raise your dog’s attention to you. 

Leave works! It is, in my opinion, one of the fundamental commands and I teach it to almost every dog I meet. It is generally easy to teach, but periodically I encounter a dog where it’s less straightforward. Here are a few common hurdles and how to solve them:

  • The dog is not interested in what you toss! Up the ante and use a higher valued treat, and/or play games with the food first. 
  • The opposite: The dog is so hyper-motivated by what you tossed that he cannot shift his focus. Lower the value. And feed your dog. Heck, if an animal has to jump through hoops for every piece of food, food becomes a really big deal and all he can think about. If your dog still can’t do it, you can name-prompt to give him a clue what you are after. I’d rather wait a dog out and let him find the behavior, but some dogs really do need the initial extra help. 
  • The dog is too scared to go for the tossed treat. That is typical fallout from punitive training methods. Because he experienced in the past that acting  spontaneously it could hurt, he becomes too inhibited to offer behaviors, is stressed by the treat on the ground, and shuts down. In that case, you need to build the dog’s confidence first: Play, reinforce offered behaviors, and of course don’t use anything aversive. 
  • You are raising criteria too fast. Which means you take it to the next level before you mastered the present one. Don’t go from kibble to a hambone, or your dog might offer you a quick glimpse as a trick, but won’t be committed to leave the thing for good and walk away from it. Remember, it is commitment you want, so raise the bar gradually - and when you ask your dog to leave something he really wants, the reward has got to be similar to what he wanted to do away from you. If it was to chase a squirrel, don’t shove a cookie in his mouth, but play chase. If he wanted to play with a dog, then play with a toy or run with your dog. 

The goal is that your dog will want to hear you say the cue. Then, don’t be surprised if he puts his own spin on it and uses it to solicit for rewards and interaction. Not kidding, whenever Davie and Will thought I was especially boring on a walk, they would hang the schnoz into something, typically scat or deer poop, and look at me a split second later, waiting for the leave command they enthusiastically and instantly heeded when it came. There is no other explanation. They weren’t collecting intelligence, they wanted some fun with me, and prompted it by trying to get me to say leave. 
If your dog does that, it’s okay. He is not dominantly controlling you, he is thinking – and leaving whatever it is he shouldn’t have. Exactly what you want. Be proud and play along. 


  1. Oh Yes don't we all know that and if you don't catch in time. It is the old shoulder role into that great "Oh no what did you just role into" Thanks again for show us the way. Always looking forward to your blogs....#1 Fan Merry Christmas Till Next time!!

  2. Great Post, Silvia. Thanks! I always enjoy reading your blog.