I see it a lot and admittedly, I used to do it myself. And if I’m really honest I sometimes still do it, when I have my dog mum hat on instead of dog trainer. It’s one of those things that we do by instinct, and can take a while to break the habit.
On a nice walk, bimbling along, the dog suddenly lurches, yanking the lead, and belatedly we spot something which might once have been food on the floor… “Leave it” we exclaim. And obviously our dog immediately stops trying to get to this fabulously tempting morsel, and turns to us for his reward.
Except… not. Because this is the real world, and although our dog will leave a bit of dry cracker for some cooked turkey when we’re in a training session, we’ve yet to build up to the lure of a box of chicken bones from the local KFC knock-off, or a left-over bit of ham sandwich. We’ve also not yet generalised to being outside, when he’s not focussed on the prize of the reward – or he is, but in this case his prize is the festering food on the floor – not the sub-par treats we save for walks (why do we do this??).
So, on he pulls to the food, increasing his strength and determination a hundred-fold in seconds. “Leave IT” we command again. To no avail, he gets hold of the… we-don’t-know-what and starts to munch (There’s no crunching so it’s not chicken bones at least). “LEAVE it” we almost shout, as he swallows it and then looks to us for the reward he kinda thinks he deserves.
Spot the Error
Now, where do you think the biggest mistake lies – ignoring the fact that we haven’t yet taught a solid “Leave it”. Arguably it’s not keeping vigil on what’s on the floor to manage the situation and keep him away. But we’re human, we’re not going to spot everything every time. And let’s be honest he has his nose to seek out treasure, and we only have our eyes. And eyes that are far less interested in putrefied food than his. What I’d say is the biggest error here is the “Leave It” AFTER he has the food in his mouth.
It is no longer “Leave it” territory. We have now entered the land of “Drop it”. Now you may be wondering what difference this makes, we just don’t want him to eat the thing. But for the dog there’s a world of difference. “Leave it” or, how we teach it “Not Yours”, and “Drop it” are two very different things.
Not Yours, aka Leave It
For “Not Yours” we teach him to ignore things that will never, ever, EVER be something he’s allowed. There is to be no confusion on this. If we declare “Not Yours” on something, be it a new pair of temptingly fluffy slippers, or the piece of bread we drop in the kitchen, he will not ever be allowed it. And for leaving it he will be rewarded with something else. Teaching this you start off with a reward that’s WAY fucking better than the thing he’s not touching. Not hard, when we generally start off using an old business card for the “Not Yours” item, building up the temptation of that item slowly, rewarding with cooked turkey. Before then slowly lowering the quality of the reward. But mix it up, make the reward super awesome at times. Makes up for the times when you’ve got really shit treats (think old stale kibble you found in your pocket when out for a walk).
“Drop It”, or “Drop”, is for when he already has something in his mouth and you want it. IT might be a toy, it might be a piece of food – you might not know what it is that he has, but you want to check. WIth “Drop”, he will sometimes get the thing back, and sometimes won’t. In fact you want it to be the majority of the time that he DOES get it back. It turns it to a fun game – he gives up a thing, he gets a reward AND he gets the thing back again. The few times he doesn’t get the thing back, you can distract him with reward or play, and he’ll be happy. But again, this takes practice. The way we train it, he doesn’t even have a thing in his mouth to start with – he just associates “Drop” with rewards and good things, so it’s a positive association before we even start trying to take things away. And when we do, again we start with low value things.
Choice of Cue Words
So circling round to the words we use at The Office Dog. We use “Not Yours” and “Drop” rather than “Leave It” and “Drop it” – and that’s a conscious choice. For one, using the cue words with ‘IT’ on the end, are too easy to say sternly and angrily. We don’t want our dogs to be scared about these cues, we want it to be a promise of something fun. Also, “Not Yours” reminds us that it’s not just about not taking something, it’s that that thing will never belong to the dog.
Sorry, Not Sorry
I feel like I need to apologise now, you have two things to teach your dog, but taught properly, but it does mean you’ll have two far more solid cues than one that doesn’t ‘work’ properly, because it’s poorly implemented.
And just to throw a bigger spanner in the works, “Wait” as in waiting before taking dinner or a treat, is something different altogether…