Two of the skills that we get asked to teach a lot with our puppies and adolescent dogs are ‘drop it’ and ‘leave it’. They are both super important and helpful skills for our dogs to know, and they do tend to come in especially handy over the holidays when our food is a little more free wheeling and there are so many fun new things to steal.
When we are working with our dogs, knowing the difference between the behaviors, and making sure you are asking for the right thing is very important. Typically “Leave It” means “don’t pick up that thing” and “Drop It” means “let go of that thing in your mouth”. Clarity is very important in our training. We have such a limited window of communication with our dogs that it is crucial that we are very clear in what we are asking them to do.
Now, if you have taught that when you say “leave it” your dog drops whatever is in their mouth, that’s totally fine! I would highly recommend coming up with a different cue for “don’t pick up that thing” though. Letting go of something and never picking something up are two very different behaviors, so we need to differentiate between the two behaviors in our cue. If your cues are not the normal cues, that doesn’t mean you aren’t being clear. As long as your dog understands what you are asking for. That’s all that matters.
So now that we understand the difference between the two behaviors, let’s talk about how to teach them! We will be referring to these skills as “Leave It” and “Drop It” but remember, the cue really doesn’t matter. As long as you are consistent your cue for any behavior can be any word. If you need more help on finding the right cue for you, check out our handout on how to pick a cue.
Let’s start with Leave It
Like all things we teach our dogs, there are a million different ways to teach Leave It. This is my preferred method, but that doesn’t mean it is the one and only way to do it. You might even learn it slightly differently if you work with one of our other trainers! This method works the best for me and my students and get’s me to the result I’m really looking for.
When I say “Leave It” what I want it to mean to my dog is “leave that thing alone and look at me”. I don’t just want them to not pick the thing up, I also want them to shift their focus to me. I also want checking in with me before they eat something to be somewhat of a default behavior for them, just in case they notice something before I do. This means I take my time adding the cue to this behavior.
When I first started training as a little baby trainer I used to teach the skill in a similar way, but with a small difference that has turned out to be pretty major for how quickly dogs pick this up. I used to have two handfuls of food, one with something boring like kibble and the other with something awesome like hot dogs or other higher value training treats. What I found was that although the dogs left my kibble hand alone pretty quickly, instead they were just messing with or camping around my other hand full of the high value treats. So, I figured I might as well just use those for the whole thing!
So now I start with just one handful of high-ish value treats. Typically I teach this sitting on the floor with my dog (standing and bending over can really hurt the back, so I find that’s better to do when they already have an understanding of the behavior), or sitting in a chair if that’s better for you than the floor. I hold my handful of food out towards my dog in a fist, closed tight, and we begin.
Your dog will immediately sniff at your hand and start trying to figure out how to get the treats. They will likely paw, lick, and chew at your hand. Wait them out!
If at any point your dog starts to hurt your hand, pull it away for a moment, and then try again.
As soon as they back off of your hand for a moment, mark and hand them a treat!
You want to give them a treat out of the pile that you are holding in your fist, but make sure to deliver it either with your other hand or from the ground. If you deliver it from the same hand you are trying to get them to leave it can be very confusing.
Continue to do this until your dog is no longer messing with your hand.
When they are able to stay backed off, open your hand with the treats in it. If your dog goes for the treats, close your hand and wait for them to back off again. Then open it. When you can keep your hand open without them going for the treats, mark and treat!
Do this until they are able to stay backed off the open hand of treats reliably.
At this point is where we start to add in the eye contact requirement. Once your dog is staying backed off, start waiting for them to look up at your face before you mark and treat.
This is the point I like to get to before adding the cue. Once I’m able to hold an open hand of treats in front of my dog and they are able to not lunge for it and glance at my face. That’s when I start to teach them that this pattern is what we do when I say “leave it”.
What about Drop It.
Drop it is a little tricker to set up and teach. You have a couple of different ways that you can work on it. With stolen items, the easiest way to teach a drop is to trade. If your dog picks up something forbidden, instead of getting on them and chasing them around the house, walk over to a treat jar and call your dog to you. A few different things may happen when you do this:
If they drop the item on their way over to you, yay! Tell them to find it and drop the treat on the floor, then quickly scoop up the stolen item and place it somewhere more out of reach.
If they trot over to you with the item still proudly in their mouth, hold the treat in front of their nose and ask them to “drop” (or whatever you want your drop it cue to be). Most likely they will sniff the treat and open their mouth to eat it, dropping the item. When this happens, mark and deliver the treat and scoop up the item.
They might still run away, or just stand there and stare at you. If this happens you have a couple of different options.
My first go to is usually to sit on the floor where I am and encourage them into me or just wait for them to wander over. If the item is something I don’t really care about (paper towel or something of similar value) then I will wait a fair amount of time. When they eventually make it over I’ll complete the trade as above.
If they have an item that is irreplaceable or dangerous then I will chase them down. This is the last resort. Ideally we don’t want this to turn into a game of keepaway. Even if I have to chase my dog down, I’m still going to trade. Even if I have to pull the item out of their mouth, I’m going to replace it with a treat.
Now you’re probably sitting there thinking “Meggan, that’s ridiculous. Why am I rewarding my dog for stealing something and running away from it.” The thing is, that’s not how our dog is looking at the picture. They have just found an awesome new toy that got you to play a super fun game of keepaway with them, and then you steal the toy and the game is over. So what have they learned from the interaction? Be better at keepaway! They may even start to learn to guard their super fun items because whenever we take something away from them, it never comes back. And that’s a big bummer. Giving them a treat after taking something away from them maintains the idea of a trade. That when we take something from them, we will usually give them something yummy in return. Sure, there is still the possibility of fallout that your dog will connect “steal things = get treats” but typically what happens then is that they will steal something, and then come and find you for a trade. That is a fallout I’m much more willing to live with than resource guarding, personally.
You can also use play with your dog to teach them to drop items on cue. I like to use two toy fetch and tug to
teach drop it cues to my dogs.
To teach drop it using tug:
Get your dog tugging with you and having fun. Tug for a couple of minutes, and then stop and get really boring. Don’t let go, but stop engaging. When your dog gets bored and lets go, mark “yes” and get them tugging again.
When they are starting to get the hang of this and are readily dropping the toy to continue the game, start saying your “drop” cue when you are sure they are about to let go.
To teach it using two toy fetch:
Make sure you are using two toys of equal value. Toss one and then encourage your dog back to you. When they get to you, show them the second toy (you can even try squeaking it if it squeaks). When they drop the first toy, mark “yes” and toss the second, then scoop up the first toy.
As they are getting the hang of this, keep your second toy hidden behind your back while waiting for the drop before tossing.
When they are running back and readily dropping the toy, with the other toy hidden behind you, start adding in your verbal cue.
They both take a little time (and some shoulder strength for tug depending on your dog) but are great ways to practice this cue without your dog having to steal something. Personally I tend to use all of these to teach the skill, that way it has been applied in a variety of situations right off the bat.
And that’s Leave It and Drop It! Two distinct skills that often get confused when it comes to teaching them to our dogs, but now they won’t because you have this resource. Of course if you need additional help clarifying these skills with your dog, or teaching them from scratch, reach out! We are always here to help.