Teach Your Dog to “Leave It”

Teach your dog to back away from spilled food, dangerous items, and anything else you don’t want her to go near.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #19

Biologists generally agree that dogs evolved as scavengers near human settlements. The scavenger’s rule of life is, if it smells like food and it’s lying around, eat it. So our dogs snarf our fallen sandwiches at home and dive for fast-food wrappers on the street. Sometimes their spot cleaning of the kitchen floor is, well, convenient. But sometimes we need to back our dogs off from items that are valuable, dangerous, or repulsive. This week, how to teach your dog to “Leave it.”

The cue I use when asking my dog to leave something alone is “Leave it,” so that’s what I’ll use in this episode. Your cue can be “Off” or “Back up” or “Banana peel” -- your dog won’t care.

How to Start Teaching “Leave It”

To begin teaching “Leave it,” you’ll need a hard, fairly boring dog biscuit and an array of fingernail-size, delectable treats: something in the meaty-fishy-cheesy-soft-and-stinky line. The dry biscuit will tempt your dog; the delicious treats will reward her for resisting the temptation. Wear closed-toe shoes -- why will become obvious in a moment. Keep lessons short and fun; 10 or 15 reps is plenty for most dogs. If you feel ambitious, add more training sessions rather than longer ones.

Have the deluxe treats handy, perhaps in a waist pouch or on a nearby table. Show your dog the dry biscuit and put it on the floor. Cover the biscuit with your foot, so your dog can smell it but can’t get her mouth on it. She will probably paw and push at your foot, trying to get at the treat. (This is why you’re wearing closed-toe shoes.) Say nothing, because the words will mean nothing to your dog. Just quietly watch her and wait. Sooner or later, when she can’t get to the temptation, she will back off.

Watch for the First Backing-Off Behavior

This first backing-off behavior may be so tiny and fast you barely see it. Your dog may turn her head away from the biscuit for a moment, or take a half step backward. Try mightily to catch that instant when she’s doing anything other than trying to get at the biscuit. Immediately say a happy “Yes!” and immediately deliver one of the superdeluxe treats.

Start Again

Show your dog the biscuit again, and again cover it with your foot. Again, wait quietly till she does anything other than mug your foot. Mark that behavior with a “Yes!,” and deliver a treat. Many dogs start getting the picture after four or five repetitions. They’ll refuse to go after the biscuit at all; some make a big production of looking away from your foot or even turning their whole body aside.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).