Friday, February 20, 2015

Training your dog to “leave it”.

At first glance, "leave it" may not be the fanciest trick you teach your dog, but it is incredibly important. Our goal is for you to be able to say “leave it” and your dog stops what he’s doing. We’re going to start with food, but with a little practice you can get your dog to leave the window, stop barking at people or other dogs, and come away from objects that you feel are unsafe.

Before we start, your dog needs to know how to sit. Make sure if you have a puppy or other high energy dog that he’s had plenty of exercise. It’ll be super hard to do this if your dog keeps leaping at you!

All you need for this is a little pile of treats. With my dogs, I sit on the floor with them because they’re so small. Feel free to sit in a chair if you have a bigger dog, this one takes a few tries.

Keep the treat a safe distance away and at eye level.

Step 1: Have your dog sit. You’re going to need a treat in each hand. Hold one hand out at eye level several feet from your dog’s nose with a treat on your palm, like your hand is a little plate. Your dog will probably leap at it. Just close your hand over the treat, taking it away and saying something like “nope” or “oops.”

After a few tries your dog will realize he can’t get the treat by leaping at your hand. Stay patient, he’ll figure it out. But we’re looking for one more step. When you hold out the treat on your hand and he stays seated, wait until he looks away from the treat. Then, immediately say “yes, leave it” and give him a treat from your other hand. Don’t give him the treat you showed him, always give a treat from the other hand.

Practice this step two more times then take a break until later, especially if your dog is young. In other words, quit while you’re ahead. Spend 5 minutes a day once or twice a day on this step until it’s very comfortable and your dog knows what to expect.

Keys to success:
1. At this step, keep the treat at eye level a few feet in front of your dog’s nose.
2. Always treat from your other hand, not from the treat you’ve been telling him to leave.
3. Work for short periods of time – 4 or 5 successful “leave its” in a row should do.

Lower your hand to the floor. (Ninja thought this meant "down" lol)

Step 2: We’re going to do the same thing as step one, but move your hand to your dog’s chest level. If he can successfully “leave it” a couple times, then progress to having your hand on the floor. Believe it or not, every time you change the position of your hand, you need to retrain this a bit. That’s ok, our dogs just don’t think the same way we do. Spend a couple days transitioning slowly from having your hand at chest level to having it flat on the floor.

Step 3: This is the trickiest step. Some dogs are super smart and won’t have a problem, some dogs will completely forget what you’ve been working on.

Put the treat on the floor. Set yourself up for success by
keeping the treat a few feet from your dog's nose.
You can move it closer later.

Practice “leave it” once or twice with the treat on your hand on the floor. Be sure you’re a couple feet in front of your dog so you can snatch the treat away if he goes for it. Now, slowly put the treat on the floor while saying “leave it.” You want him to look away from the treat, hopefully at you but any direction will do. If he lunges for it, pick it up and say “nope.” Put him back in a sit and try again.
It may take a couple tries, but he’ll get it, I promise.

That’s it!

Those are the basics, and you should be able to train this in a week, maybe less if your dog is super smart and you work on it every day.

How does this translate into real life?

There are a lot of foods your dog shouldn’t eat. Have you ever dropped some onion you were chopping? Do you have a toddler that pushes food off the table? I’ll bet you’ve accidently knocked something over or spilled pop on the floor. These are the times that you want to be able to say “leave it” and not have to wrestle your dog away from what he shouldn’t eat.

You can also use “leave it” in other contexts. In our house, it means “please stop barking at the mailman.” Because when you say “leave it,” they know to look around at you and expect a nice treat. I also use it with Mocha when someone doesn’t want him to sniff them or if I drop my chapstick or something.

Such a good dog! 
Turn it into a cool trick:

When we only had Mocha, we did a lot of training with him. If you go back to step 3, you can move the treat closer and closer every time you train. Eventually, we had the treat on Mocha’s paw and told him to leave it and he totally did. One day, my husband lined treats all up both his paws, poor thing. He’s so devoted he just sat very very still until we gave him the treat he had earned. So when people put a treat on their dog’s nose and the dog waits until they’re told to eat the treat, that’s “leave it.”

As a therapy dog:

“Leave it” is one of the key points in a therapy dog test. Your dog has to be able to “leave it” to pass the test. For our test, they put a piece of cheese on the floor and I had to walk Mocha past it twice. He was allowed to look at it, but had to come away when I told him to “leave it.”

He also had to be able to “leave it” when offered food from a stranger. This was hard for him, he’s a very trusting dog, and she offered him more cheese. But we’d practiced and he did listen.

Why is this important? When you’re visiting a nursing home or a hospital, or any other medical facility, there are lots of things on the floor you don’t want your dog to lick up. Patients bleed and throw up and ooze on the floor. They can drop their medications too, and you really don’t want your dog to eat that. People drop random things too, like bits of paper, pen caps, or used tissues. It’s really important to be able to keep your dog away from things that may be harmful, and to keep a sharp eye on the floor when you’re visiting.

A video on “leave it”

Here’s a nice YouTube video by Victoria Stillwell for all you visual learners on how to train “leave it.” Every trainer will be a little different, but the principle is the same. I like her because she only uses positive reinforcement. You may wonder why I don’t use a fist like she did. Honestly, I don’t like to be licked that much. Also, I’ve worked with rescues that would just start gnawing on my hand, and that’s no fun at all. So I skipped that step. If you go to 4:20 in the video, that’s my step 1.

Good luck! And feel free to ask if you have any questions.


  1. Sarah - that's an excellent write up. I'm going to try it. We've already done where I put a treat on the floor and tell her to wait. She waits, sometimes very vocally, until we nod or say "okay". I need to use that to teach her to "leave it". She is very food oriented, so this should be something she can learn fairly quickly. Thank you!

    1. You're welcome, Shari! Let me know how it goes. :)