“Leave” is one of my foundation commands. Every dog should know it, and I point that out to every owner I meet professionally. Some proudly tell me that their pooch already understands the word, but when I dig a little deeper I find that in most cases “leave” stands for: “Sit and don’t touch your dinner till I release you” and “Drop that thing you have between your teeth”. With the latter, “leave” actually means “give” cause the dog already snatched it, and that inconsistency can be confusing for your frontal lobe challenged canine companion. Even the brightest pooch is neither a mind reader, nor does he understand that with one word you expect two different behaviors. This post is about leave; followed with one about give - in a week or so.
Using a cue word to teach food bowl manners is great, but imagine you could tell your dog to leave not just his chow, but anything he focuses on with whatever sense, anything he is interested in at any given moment, and BEFORE he chases or grabs it: Wildlife, poopsicles, a cyclists, a roaming dog, the neighbor’s cat and visitors entering your home. The piece of Easter ham accidentally dropped could make it safely back onto Uncle Bob’s plate, instead of Rover’s gullet.
Possible? Yes! Not just possible, but fairly easy to teach. Precision and generalization are the keys to success. Precision means that “leave” communicates only one thing: don’t focus with your eyes, nose or ears on whatever caught your attention, connect back to me, and wait for what I tell you to do next.
Step one happens in your home, with the dog leashed. Take a handful of small, yummy treats, step on the leash and toss one out. Say “leave” in a firm voice, not gruff and regimentally intimidating, but don’t plead: tell. Then do nothing. Most dogs will pull or lunge for the booty, but your foot on the leash prevents him from reaching it. Don’t say a word and don’t tug on the leash. That is why standing on it is better than holding it. Reflexively people jerk back when the dog strains forward, and we don’t want to give any information through the leash. Your dog needs to self-learn, to figure out that intense fixation, pulling and lunging is pointless and will not get him what he wants.
Whenever a behavior doesn’t receive a feedback, an organism will try another one, and if your dog has even just somewhat of a relationship with you, chances are he’ll look at you for help, information, an explanation. That checking in, connecting to you, is exactly what you are after, and the moment your dog does, reward – either with what he wants, or something else he finds pleasurable.
It is very important that you add a word to your reward. If you give him a treat from your hand you could use “take”, if you release him to the one you tossed say: “find”. The added word conditions your dog that eye contact alone isn’t enough, but that he must stay connected and wait for further instructions.
If you don’t follow offered attention with a word that redirects your dog away from the stimulus, and a brief interaction that replaces the behavior that he wanted to do, you leave him in a mental vacuum and he returns to the last behavior; fixates on the Easter ham, dog, or person, again.
Your dog will catch on in no time that only after he shifts his focus from whatever back to you when he hears “leave” he gets what he wants, or something even better. Once he made the connection between the cue word and food, generalize to other stimuli. You know when your dog is ready when you toss a piece of aforementioned ham and he won’t even look at it, like: “Yeah, I know what happens. You say leave and I look at you and then I’ll get it.” So, when your dog skips the eyeballing the loot behavior and smartly thinks there’s a shortcut to a reward, throw him a curveball and add something new to the game, for example a toy.
Then build on that. At one point you could have a piece of cheese, a bone, the ham, a tug toy, the leash that signals a walk and the ball handy, and your pooch looks at one thing, and you say leave and he checks in with you, and you release him to whatever you decide. Leave the ham but “find” the cheese. Leave the ball but “take” a piece of ham I give you from my hand, leave your bone but “fetch” ball, leave the tug toy – great, now we play for some 20-30 seconds or leave the tug toy and let’s go for a “walk”. You decide.
It is important that you vary your rewards. Don’t be so predictable. In real life a dog can’t always get what he wants. Releasing him to chase the cyclist or deer isn’t an option. In addition, a dog whose expectations manifest every time loses attention and simply goes through the motions, or becomes demanding and mighty frustrated if it, at one point, doesn’t.
Step by step, broaden your dog’s understanding that “leave” can be commanded anytime, anywhere, and in association to anything he focuses on. Add a person to the exercise, the cat, another dog and so on. Venture outside and practice around all kinds of environmental stimuli. Make sure you always get eye contact, and make sure it is offered and not prompted. If your dog looks at you, you have his attention, and only if he is attentive, he’ll be able to obey what follows “leave”, for example: “come” or “take”; “greet” or “play” if what you told him to leave turns out to be a friendly dog he can romp with, or a nice neighbor he can say hello to.
Your dog should NOT greet or sniff anybody outside his intimidate social group unless he has checked in with you first, and received a specific release command. There are always people and dogs who do not want meet your pooch, lovely and friendly as he is, so approaching a stranger should not be under his control, but yours.
If your social butterfly is not allowed to get up close and personal, reinforce his connecting with you with a game. Especially in that context be very engaging and throw a ball or stick for him to “fetch”, or toss a handful of small treat for him to “find”, or play catch-me-if-you-can and invite him to chase you with a “hurry” command, which, once conditioned, will serve as a nice cue anytime you want your dog to follow you speedily.
Ensure that when your pooch chooses to connect with you to a million interesting things that it is super rewarding for him. A dull good dog and pat on the head won’t cut it. Especially in the learning phase exaggerate your happiness and interaction, and your reward is that you get reliable offered, prolonged and voluntary, instead of prompted, coerced or bribed, attention. Your dog wants to be “on you” and that want to follow your lead is the foundation to everything else you do with him, and the only trail to authentic companionship.
Easy to train doesn’t mean fast success, but the effort and time invested is well worth it and obvious. With a reliable “leave” you control access to a resource from the distance, when you can’t body block, when your dog is off the leash. Resource access control is how a superior animal demonstrates that he is superior. A possession is rarely disputed amongst dogs (and wolves and people), but superior social members deny, withhold or permit access to it.
“Leave” puts the whole environment under your control, and you decide what your dog should be doing next. He still gets to have fun, play and socialize, but it happens on your terms, not his. It keeps your pooch out of trouble, conditions self-control, and strengthens the bond to you because you’re the one who makes all fun stuff happen.