"Leave it!" Do you need to teach this to your dog?

[Photo Credit: Andrew Hyde]

“No!” “Leave it!” “Off!” These are three cues that are more familiar to some dogs than “sit”, “come”, and “good dog.” Surprisingly, they often work against dog owners and serve to reinforce the very behaviors the owners are trying to punish.

A scenario: At the pet store, a bag of dog kibble has torn open and spilled all over the floor. A man is walking his dog down the aisle. His dog notices the kibble and lunges forward to eat some. “Leave it! No, leave it!” He commands his dog to stop, but it falls on deaf ears, and he sees no other choice but to drag his dog away from the food. The dog has been rewarded (by the kibble) for ignoring the “leave it” cue.

Here’s an idea: What if you didn’t have to constantly tell your dog how to behave?

When my dogs see food on the floor, or a toy on the bottom shelf at the pet store, or gum on the sidewalk, they look at it and then look to me for direction. They do not lunge toward it or grab it. They know that the only way they will get access to that thing they desire is through a verbal cue from me.

My dogs do not know what “leave it” means. What does “leave it” mean to your dog? “Don’t touch that?” What exactly are they supposed to do instead?

Clarity in Dog Training – No “Leave It” Necessary

If I invited you into my house and said “don’t sit on the blue chair”, what would your response be? Two things: you would look at the blue chair (I drew your attention to it by mentioning it, didn’t I?) and you would not know where you should sit. There are lots of other seating options in my house – couches, a rocking chair, dining room chairs, a loveseat, even the floor!

What if instead, I invited you into my house and said “please sit next to me on the couch.” You won’t even consider the other seating options. I told you exactly where to sit. There is no confusion.

To bring this back to dog training, I call my dogs with their name or the cue “come” if they are showing excessive interest in something that is not available to them, like a chicken bone on the street. They know to turn away from that thing and come to me to earn a reward instead. I do not say “no” or “leave it”, because it is incomplete information – those cues tell them they can’t have the chicken bone. Now what?

My mantra in dog training is “teach self control, not imposed control.” I teach my dogs, and my clients’ dogs, to default to asking politely for something (via eye contact, or offering to sit without being told to do so) rather than grabbing for it themselves. The training process is deceptively simple. The hardest part is for owners to embrace the concept of letting the dog make a choice, rather than preventing him from making a decision on his own by commanding him to not do something.

In my next post, I’ll show you a video demonstrating how I teach self-control around food. In the mean time, I have some food for thought for you: if you have taught your dog a very strong “come” cue, why not use that rather than “leave it”? Are two cues better than one? Let me know what you think in the comments.