Mastering the Leave It Command

When we take our dogs for their daily walk in the fields, we aren't too thrilled when one or the other wants to ingest horse manure or geese droppings. Nor are we fond of having to extricate such delicacies from a dog's mouth. To tell the truth, we'd prefer if they didn't pick up anything from the ground they perceive as potentially edible. At a dog park in our area, several dogs became seriously ill after ingesting chunks of poison-laced hot dogs. This command is a good start for such situations.

Teaching this command is a wonderful opportunity to find out more about how your dog's thought processes work. You can truly see the wheels turning. Depending on how quickly Buddy catches on, you may want to practice this exercise over the course of several sessions. Keep the sessions short — no more than five minutes at a time, and follow these steps:

1. Hold a treat between your thumb and index finger.

2. With your palm facing up, show the treat to your dog.

He'll try to pry it loose. Say "Leave it," close your hand into a fist, and turn it so that your palm now faces down. (See Figure 8-2).

3. Observe your dog's reaction.

He may stare fixedly at the back of your hand, he may try to get to the treat by nuzzling or nibbling your hand, or he may start barking. Ignore all these behaviors. You're looking for the first break in his attention away from your hand. He may make eye contact with you or look away.

4. The instant he breaks his attention away from your hand, say "Good," and give him the treat.

5. Repeat until your dog looks at you or away from your hand when you give the command and turn your hand over.

You're teaching Buddy that looking at you and not at your hand is rewarded with a treat.

6. To find out whether Buddy is responding to the command or to the turning of your hand, repeat Step 1 without turning your hand.

If he responds, praise and reward. If he doesn't, close your hand into a fist and wait for the break in attention. Repeat until he responds to the command.

7. Make yourself comfortable on the floor, and show your dog a treat; put it on the floor, and cover it with your hand.

When his attention is on your hand or he tries to get to the treat, say "Leave it."

Figure 8-2:

Working on the "Leave it" command.

Figure 8-2:

Working on the "Leave it" command.

8. Wait for the break in attention, and then praise and reward.

9. Repeat Steps 6 and 7, but cover the treat with just your index finger. Then try it when placing the treat between your index and middle finger.

10. When successful, place the treat one inch in front of your hand, and repeat Steps 6 and 7.

Here you need to be watchful: He may be faster at getting to the treat than you can cover it.

11. Put Buddy on leash and stand next to him (Heel position), neatly fold the leash into your left hand, and hold your hand as close to his collar as is comfortable without any tension on the leash.

You need to make sure that the amount of slack in the leash isn't so much that his mouth can reach the floor.

12. Hold the treat in your right hand and show it to Buddy, and then casually drop the treat.

When he tries to get to the treat, say "Leave it." If he responds, praise him, pick up the treat, and give it to him. If he doesn't, check straight up. Repeat until he obeys the command.

Test his response by taking the leash off and dropping a treat. If he makes a dive for it, don't attempt to beat him to it or yell "No." He's telling you he needs more work on leash.

Now, go outside, but first you need to do some preparation. Select a food item that's readily visible to you in the grass or the ground, such as some crackers or a few kernels of popcorn. Drop four or five pieces of food in the area where you're taking Buddy for the big test. Put some of your regular treats in your pocket, and take Buddy for a walk on leash in the area where you left the food. As soon as his nose goes to the food, say, "Leave it." If he responds, praise enthusiastically and give him a treat. If he doesn't, check straight up.

If he manages to snag a cracker or kernel of popcorn, you're too slow on the uptake. Practice walking around the food-contaminated area until he ignores the food on command.

Buddy should now know and obey the "Leave it" command. Test him off leash, and his response will tell you if he needs more work. Still, like any other command, you need to review it with him periodically on leash.

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