A few months ago we were dogsitting my friend’s then 6 months old Border collie for a couple of weeks. Our Will is 12, so having a pup in the house was fun. Especially a collie. My affinity for herding dogs is old news.
Of course our life was a tad jumbled - there is a striking difference between a juvenile, and a seasoned, wise dog, but everything went without a hitch, mainly because my friend had already taught her lad a bunch of things, including cahcah, her cue for leave it.
Born and raised in Germany, I was amused by her word choice: Kacke, stemming from the Latin cacare, is coarse German for feces and other repugnant things and situations, and kinda fits the purpose as a leave-it command, doesn’t it?
Leave, or cahcah if you like the word, stands for:
It is not available to you.
Shift your focus and, the way I teach it, walk away from it.
The purpose is clear: A generalized command that stops a dog from pursuing something that caught his eye, ear or nose.
Step One happens where you should teach every new behavior: In the home, the place of least distractions, with the dog on the 6-foot leash, and ideally on a body harness because there is likely going to be some lunging or pulling. Depending on the dog, a flat collar could also work, but we don’t want to use a choke or prong collar, or Gentle Leader type snoot-loop, where the dog only behaves to relieve discomfort and pain.
Have a handful of kibble handy, and some yummy treats. If you have good footing and control, step on the leash; otherwise hold it in your hands.
Toss a kibble out of reach, and when your dog focuses on it say your leave-cue in a lower, but not intimidating, tone. You don’t want to inhibit your dog’s motivation to learn and be with you, but don’t plead either. Tell.
Brace yourself. Depending on your dog’s degree of gusto, he might pull or lunge strongly toward the treat. Your job is to do nothing other than preventing him, via the leash, from accessing it. Don’t say a word and don’t tug on the leash, because we want our dog to self-learn that fixation, straining, barking and whining will NOT get him what he wants.
After about 20-30 seconds most dogs realize that and change their behavior, which is: Shifting their attention away from the treat. Catch that moment, and indicate with your higher-toned, upbeat voice, that he is on the right trail. It is not that important at this stage that your dog looks at you, only that he doesn’t look at the loot.
What is important, though, is that you don't mark and reward, because there is a second part to leave-it: The dog must walk away. Yes, I lump the two actions. I want looking away and walking away to be a habitual sequence, and every dog I have worked with gets it – albeit rarely straightaway.
What typically happens after I open my mouth with: “You got it, what a smart pooch…” is that he promptly zones in again on what’s on the ground - as if my voice alone is the release command. You simply repeat the lower-toned leave cue, and wait until he shifts his focus again. Most dogs are quicker this time, more ready to reorient to you, and to hold that attention for a moment. That connection is what you’re after. Now keep your dog engaged with you, then lean or take a step backward to check if he is willing to walk with you.
I want to stress that there must be a slack in the leash – that is why you need a 6-foot one, because we need walking away from something that caught his interest to be the dog’s choice. We want him to own that behavior, so that we will have it when he is off the leash.
As soon as your dog walks with you, a party begins: Be animated, playful, toss a few of the yummy treats as you continue to create distance to the one on the ground. If you can convince your dog that making that choice is more rewarding than the other thing, you’ll set the stage for voluntary compliance in the future regardless what it is you ask him to leave.
Practiced a lot, at one point your dog will skip the “looking at the loot” part, brilliantly thinking he can take a shortcut to the rewards you have. That is when you meanly throw him a curveball by incorporating a novel item, for example a toy, then a different food item, then another toy, and so on. Practice in various areas outside, and step by incremental step generalize the cue, so that it will be a universal one that prompts your dog to leave a cat, person, poop, squirrel, or another dog – even a sound he is hearing.
Shifting the focus and walking away from a stimulus on cue could be as automatic as you putting your foot on the brake when something darts in front of your car.
Question! Does cahcah mean you can’t have it until further notice, or you can’t - ever -have it?
I’ll answer that in the next post, plus share a few troubleshooting tips.