Most dog owners - even ones who have never trained their own dogs - have in mind a list of behaviors that they think all dogs should know. Sit, lay down, stay, and come when called are usually at the top of that list. Leave It is another core behavior that many trainers teach; it seems important, especially for the service dogs that I train, but it’s one that I almost never teach. And for good reason.
Dogs are inherently curious, and enjoy investigating everything, by touching it or grabbing it in their mouthes. But the human world is covered in things that are dangerous for dogs to touch or mouthe, or that are simply valuable to us. Leave It is often seen as a solution: trainers tell you that you should be able to say Leave It and your dog will stop doing whatever it is he was about to do.
But here’s the trouble with Leave It: it doesn’t tell the dog what *to* do. “Don’t touch that” doesn’t give the dog information about what you want him to do. And it doesn’t give you a specific behavior to reward when he does successfully Leave It.
Say “Sit” - the dog puts his tushie on the ground - we tell him “good boy”
You and your dog will be most successful with training when you follow this formula, as you and the dog both communicate clearly about what you want and what he can do to make you happy. But if we apply this formula to Leave It:
Say “Leave It” - the dog *stops* - is that good enough?
Leave It expects the absence of a behavior. And the absence of a behavior can’t easily be rewarded.
And here’s another thing:
Let’s say you’ve trained Leave It and your dog knows what to do when you say Leave It. He knows that if he does the right behavior he will get a reward: attention from you, praise, petting, maybe even a treat. Well, dogs are smart and can figure out that if they want a reward, all they have to do is make you say Leave It. And how do they make you say Leave It? By doing the thing you don’t want them to do in the first place.
What’s the alternative? Don’t reward when he obeys your Leave It cue? Guess how long he’ll continue obeying your Leave It cue if you stop praising him for doing so?
Instead of training Leave It, there are a couple of better options:
Leave It can work for some dogs in some situations. But if you’ve been frustrated about your dog not obeying when you say “Leave It,” maybe it’s time to look at other training options.
As always, feel free to contact Elizabeth at any of Alabama Dog Academy’s social media platforms, or click the Contact button below!
Elizabeth Morgan specializes in training service dogs as the trainer and owner of Alabama Dog Academy.