Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Self Controlled Canines (Part One: Leave It)

Many dogs seem to know that if
they look at the object of their desire
they won't be able to resist taking it,
so they actively look away instead!
Behind every dog that has learned to ignore a squirrel, stop jumping on guests, or cease relentless barking, there is one valuable lesson at work: self control. Believe it or not, this is even harder for dogs than it is for humans. Humans can immediately rationalize the benefits of practicing a little self control (even if we don't always follow through) but dogs have to really have it spelled out for them. After all, if they weren't living with us then their entire lives would be ruled purely by instincts and impulses. Chasing, barking, and even enthusiastically greeting are all normal dog behaviors. When curbing those behaviors we have to not only teach the dog what we want him to do but also help him learn how to control the irresistible urge to act on impulse.

Certain lessons in your average obedience class are fantastic for practicing this. My absolute favorite is "leave it." If you're not familiar with this cue/command you can think of it as teaching your dog the meaning of patience. You start off just teaching him to leave a treat in your hand or on the floor until you give him the cue to take it. Very simple stuff, just follow these steps:

1. Hold a yummy treat in your closed fist, making sure that your dog first knows it's there.
2. Do NOT let the dog taste or grab the treat (hence the closed fist).
3. Keep your fist held out toward your dog so that he can inspect it. Expect lots of licking/pawing/frantic searching for a way to get to the food but do NOT move or jerk your hand away. Be patient and allow your dog to figure this out on his own. It will happen.
4. The very instant that your dog backs away or looks away from the treat, click (or say YES!) and offer the treat. You can say "Take it!" as you give the treat to your dog.
(Note: Usually I would advise against adding the verbal cue before the dog has caught on to what you want as he doesn't know what it means yet, but in this case you can sometimes use the tone of your voice as you say "leave it" to give your dog a bit of a clue if he's not catching on at all. This doesn't mean to yell at him...if anything you should just calmly say this to kind of redirect his thinking. And be sure to NOT repeat the cue over and over and over again as he'll only learn to completely ignore the words.)

Once you're positive that your dog has caught on to this trick you can increase the difficulty a bit by offering the treat in an open palm instead of a closed fist. It will feel as if you're starting all over but as long as you're fast enough to keep Fido from snatching the treat right out of your hand (remember, close your fist, don't jerk your hand away if you can help it), he'll figure it out without much trouble. If he does manage to sneak past you, just aim to be quicker next time. You'll get pretty skillful at looking for that little glint in his eye right before he pounces! It really is like a game and a score is being kept. In order to solidify a behavior you need to make sure that you win by a landslide, not by a hair. Every instance where your pup manages to sneak the treat away without "leaving it" is an instance where he begins to think that that's the best strategy to use! Prevent this as much as possible.

Once Fido has mastered leaving treats in your hand, start placing them on the floor a good distance away from him. Make sure you're on top of things and can cover the treat with your hand immediately if he tries to snatch it up. Again, be quick and win this game by a landslide! When he backs away or just stops actively trying to get the treat then instantly click and treat (or say YES! and treat). 

"Leave it" with other dogs is especially appreciated by
the other dogs.
"Leave it" will become more than just a cute trick with food. I've successfully used the principle of this cue to eliminate food aggression as well as reactivity with other dogs. These uses will be discussed in later parts of this series of posts and I highly suggest practicing the basics in the meantime. I've yet to meet a dog who didn't benefit from a good, solid understanding of "leave it."

If you do decide to practice this week (and I hope you do!), here's a great tip: Our ultimate goal is not just for your dog to look away or even step away from the food, but to bring the focus back to you as well. Anytime you catch a good "leave it" that also involves eye contact from your dog, make sure to be extra enthusiastic about reinforcing it. That will be the key going forward.

If you practice correctly your dog will quickly catch on. Remember that we're basically teaching two things here: 1) Stepping away from the tempting food is REWARDING and 2) trying to take the food simply doesn't work. Your pup will try really hard before finally giving up, but be patient, it will happen!

Good luck, and feel free to email with any questions!


  1. I can't wait to hear more! I use 'leave it' a lot in training, but I've never thought to try it for food aggression. Good post!

  2. I've been working on my Titan with "leave it" too, especially when it comes to seeing bunny rabbits or stray cats wondering around when we walk. He wants to pounce, yet I tell him leave it and then he just stares. A second "leave it" and we're off walking again. He does pretty good with treats too but sometimes he just can't help himself. ;) Great post!

  3. We need to put this into practice. Great info!