Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Traditional training teaches five commands at the beginner level. Sit is one. Almost every dog I meet sits when told, or offers it for a reward cause it is, universally, possibly the most practiced behavior.
Come is another, although many dogs I meet don’t always return to their person when called, even when it’s been trained. The others are: heel for not pulling, down and stand. On their own, some owners teach “off”, intended to eliminate jumping, counter surfing and hogging the furniture, and just about everyone uses the unspecific exclamation “no” to tell the pooch he’d better knock whatever it is he’s doing off.
Abovementioned are the behaviors the general dog-owning public considers must haves, and they believe and expect that they can be mastered in an 8-week course and then guaranty a mannerly dog for life. Newsflash: it’s a delusion.
I have must-have behaviors too, but except for the recall “come”, and one position, either sit or down, mine are different ones. In my opinion, what a pup or newly adopted dog should learn first are: offer eye contact attention, respond to his name, entertain himself when given the “all-done” command, shift his focus from an environmental stimulus to his person when told to “leave” it, and release whatever he’s got between his teeth when told to “give”.
The benefits of those foundation behaviors are obvious: you get your dog’s attention when you need it; he stops pestering you when you’ve had enough; you have off-leash control if your dog reliably leaves this or that on command, checks in with you and comes on recall.
Why give is so important is also obvious. A dog who releases on command, voluntarily, whatever he has in his mouth won’t eat or destroy it, and won’t aggress over it. It keeps him from getting sick, your possessions intact, and makes a game of fetch or tug much more pleasurable.
As with any behavior, voluntarily only happens if taught without force, cause force fosters resentment and competition, and with that comes confrontation, suspicion and guarding. Now, some say that you never get reliable obedience unless you convince your dog that you can make him – in fact just today I read guidelines from another trainer who uses leather gloves as part of her tools when she teaches “give”, but I argue that you get more reliable obedience from a dog when it is more rewarding for him to listen to you than not.
Teaching Rover to release voluntarily is easy. The exercise most people are probably familiar with is the trade-up game. Prerequisite is that you know what your dog likes. What, and how passionately, because for the exercise you need to have a number of material resources handy, staggered from low-valued to higher-valued. The leather-glove trainer starts with the highest valued bone, and that’s why she needs to protect her hands cause the dog might bite when she forces it out of his mouth.
My advice is the opposite: to begin with something the pooch is interested in, but that’s not all too important. Let him have it for a bit, and then wave an item in front of his nose he cares a little more about. Chances are Fangs drops what’s in his jaws to grab the better thing, and that is a good time to combine the give command with the behavior. Repeat that several times, always trading up, and end the game with giving him something of high value he can keep. In other words, hand him the last resource, then tell him “all-done”, check out and leave him in peace with his booty. Repeat often, daily, several times a day, whenever you have a minute or two. You are instilling resource security, and once your dog has that he won’t object if you have to take something away from him without trading it in for something else.
If toys float his boat, a variation is to pretend that you have an incredibly good time with one his other toys. Let’s say your dog has a ball or Frisbee he doesn’t want to give up. Have an identical one ready, or a squeakier one, or a new one, and seemingly mesmerized toss it in the air, talk to it if you must, or sniff it, all the while ignoring the pooch. I bet he’ll join you in a flash to get in on your game, and will drop whatever he has to make room in his mouth for your, at that time much more desired, toy.
Another way to teach "give" without force, especially if you eventually want to tug with your dog, is chase‘n’catch. Many dogs resist releasing the tug toy, something prey-like they have in their mouth, and if the human insists and pulls back, or tries to pry the mouth open, the interaction becomes competitive. Depending on personality, the dog either finds that super rewarding or, if he feels powerful enough, seriously challenges you. Tug getting out of control doesn’t happen if the dog learns that catch’n’give leads to more chase’n’catch.
The game begins with you dragging a long toy, or a toy attached to a light rope, behind you. Almost every dog’s interest is instantly keened when something is in motion, and he’ll be highly motivated to catch it. As soon as he is about to lay his teeth on it, say take it, stop moving and toss a treat out. In all likelihood, especially if you have something super yummy, your dog will let go of the toy to snatch the bait. When he does, you again combine behavior with a “give” command, then run away again dragging the toy behind you. Releasing the toy becomes doubly rewarding for your dog because he gets a piece of delectable food and a continuation of a prey-chase game, and that’ll motivate him to release again when asked. Grabbing and giving happens in fast, repetitive successions until your dog understands and obeys the take and give commands. You can test that by dangling the toy in front of his face - he should not grab it until told so. If he does, don’t jerk the toy up, because it increases arousal and entices him to jump. Let him have it, but disconnect from the action and ignore him completely. The fun with you stops abruptly and entirely, and life becomes boring for your dog if he doesn’t play by your rules. As soon as he drops the toy, reward, pick it up and start playing again.
Once giving on command is a habit, you don’t need the treat distraction any longer. Continuation of the game is the sole reinforcement.

Releasing a treasure into the boss’s hands requires a certain amount of trust. That has to be established by you, and fun, rewarding training is the way to do it. Once your dog is convinced that whatever he possesses is safe with you, he’ll bring and give it up instead of running away from you, including something he finds or catches on his own.


  1. Not sure if I have been doing things right, but I have been using "leave it" for for both toys (playing tug) as well as when we are out on our walks and they get into something I don't want them to. I also have been using it if Taffy starts to react on the end of the leash, or approach somone (dog or human) that I don't want her to approach. My question is after reading your post is am I over using "leave it" and should I be using more commands? I have used "trade" for toys at times which is not much of a problem as neither dog is super toy crazy. My dogs are EXTREMELY food motivated and I'm wondering how realistic it is for me to be able to get them to "give" or "trade" something they value so highly, especially, if it is something that could be dangerous like chicken bone? I usually have to act quickly and I end up reaeching in and grabbing it out of their mouth asap for safety sake. They have long floppy ears which can hide their face when they're into something and it can be hard to tell if it's something OK or not. I feel sometimes like I'm at them all the time and that they can tune me out at times. SO, is it better to keep it simple with one command or be more specific? Sorry for being long winded.

  2. Marjorie, in my opinion you have to be specific. Dogs, clever as they are, don't understand that one command can mean two behaviors. Leave for me means don't take it in the first, don't continue to look at it, and shift your focus back to me.
    Give means whatever you have in your mouth, release it. So two distinct behaviors and need two distinct commands. Of course you can use any words you like - trade, or release, or drop.
    Regarding food trading - same idea. Start with lower value and trade up. Also, since you are already reaching in, if they have something that is not harmful, reach in, remove and give it right back to them.

  3. Thanks, that does clarify things. THe food trading is going to be a big challenge. Trying to get them to not do the pelican gulp and then look for the "trade" treat. Maybe I'll have to start with raw broccli or string beans and I guess hair trigger timing would also be helpful.

  4. You can also use something bigger and have them nibble on it while you keep it in your hand. Blow in their face (caution to my other readers - don't do that unless you know your dog and never have kids do it) - and I almost guarantee they will let go. That's your moment to combine it with the command and supply several small really yummy treats.