Golden Retriever Training: The “Leave It/Look at Me” Combo


One of the greatest gifts you can give your Golden Retriever (and yourself) is to teach it how to manage distractions in any environment or “distraction” training. Distractions could be another dog, a child on a bike, a cat, or some food, garbage, or excrement on the ground. 

Ensuring the safety of your Golden Retriever in any setting is why it is essential to teach your Golden Retriever the commands of “look at me” and “leave it” separately and then in combination.

So, what is the “leave it/look at me” combo skill, and why is it so important? 

The “leave it/look at me” combo teaches your Golden Retriever to focus on you and to leave an object alone when asked. These impulse control skills make it easier to manage distractions in any environment. Your dog should look to you when it wants something, meaning you, not the dog, decide what is safe. 

In two previous sessions, we learned the “look at me” and “leave it” commands. Here we are going to combine the two. Now you may be wondering why it’s essential to combine these two skills when they were already taught separately? 

That’s because we want our Golden’s to learn impulse control, and combining the two skills helps develop that ability more rapidly.

We want our Golden Retriever to control its impulses and look to us for guidance on whether it can have or engage with something in its environment. In this way, we can keep our Golden Retrievers safe from potential hazards. 

Have you ever dropped a pill from a medicine bottle on the floor? Or, maybe a chicken bone gets dropped or some grapes. Or you’re on a walk, and a cat runs across your dog’s path. All of these are potential hazards to your dog.

Teaching your Golden Retriever to not pick up something on the ground or chase some animal or object (e.g., a bike) is what the “look at me/leave it” combo is all about. 

Bailey showing impulse control – the “Leave It” skill.
Followed by the “Look at Me” skill. What a champ!

The Training Session: The Leave It/Look at Me Combo

At the outset, you may think that teaching this combination is difficult. But, because your Golden Retriever actually knows both commands separately, training them in combination is actually not that difficult.

As with the other skills taught, teach this skill set methodically and deliberately. Be patient, and keep your training sessions short and frequent. Most importantly, stay positive and have fun. Training your Golden Retriever should be fun and enjoyable – for both of you. 

Before proceeding, make sure your Golden Retriever knows both the “look at me” and “leave it” skills. Your Golden Retriever doesn’t need to master those skills. Still, it should have a good understanding of the concepts and be able to perform them consistently. 

For a quick review on the look at me and leave it skills, check out these articles in the training series:

Golden Retriever Training Series: The “Look at Me” Skill

Golden Retriever Training Series: The “Leave It” Skill

You may feel more comfortable doing a quick session of each of the “look at me” and “leave it” skills before moving on to the combo. Once you’re ready, though, here’s how to do it. 

The Progression

  1. Hold a treat in your open hand and say, “leave it.” 
  2. Your dog should hesitate and not go for the treat.
  3. While your dog is hesitating, use the pointer finger from your other hand and move it from in front of your dog’s nose to your eyes while saying, “look at me.”
  4. Your dog should follow your finger to your eyes, and upon making eye contact, even for a moment, say “yes” and reward him. 

When your dog reliably can do this combo skill with an open hand, move on to dropping the treat on the floor, and follow the steps outlined with that skill. 

Did you notice this took fewer steps than the standalone skill of “look at me” and “leave it”? That’s because your dog should have some impulse control at this point and should be able to “leave it” and “look at you.”

So all you’re doing is combining them. Small, step by step progressions make learning easier for your dog.

If you find your dog is struggling with either of the skills, then stop and reset. Go back and review the previous skills or whichever one the dog is struggling with and come back to the combo once it understands the concept of each skill sufficiently. 

When you feel like your dog is getting it, then move on to the Three D’s discussed in the next section.  

Zak George teaching the “Leave It/Look at Me” combo

Proofing the Skill

Anytime we change the picture and train for proficiency in that new situation, we are proofing. We want to teach our dogs that whatever we train in one setting carries over to another.

Proofing can be a new location – for example, we move from the living room to the backyard, but proofing can also be other variables, such as objects. For example, does your Golden like to chew on a favorite pair of shoes? Does it have an interest in the TV remote?

Introducing a TV remote is changing the picture (haha, no pun intended). Training the dog to carry over the skill of “leave it” from a treat on the floor to that new “object” is teaching the process of generalization.

Of course, you can also start proofing in other settings once your Golden Retriever is consistently able to leave it/look at me combo in one location. You might progress from the kitchen to the backyard, the driveway, the front yard, and so forth. 

When you find your dog is having difficulty with a particular setting, such as a busy park, take a step back and keep reviewing the skills in a previous location where it was successful. Retest the challenging site again later until your Golden can do it in that setting as well.

Dogs are not good at generalizing. So, it will take time. Be patient and train consistently. Changing settings is the most difficult training scenario you will encounter with your dog.

The Three D’s: Duration, Distance, and Distractions

In the article on teaching the “leave it” skill, we introduced the Three D’s, where we move to advanced progressions once our dog has mastered the basic commands. 

Duration is the amount of time your dog waits in a specific command. 

Distance is how far away from your dog you go. 

Distractions are all the things in the environment that are going on around your dog. 

Duration 

First, start with the treat in your open hand or on the floor while asking your dog to leave it. Next, count to two or three, and once you have reached the allotted time, say “look at me” in unison with the hand single.

When the dog looks at you – even for a moment – say “yes” and reward. Increase the time intervals slowly by a second at a time.

As the intervals get longer, start using your intermediary marker of “good.” So, as your Golden is patiently leaving the treat alone, we say “good,” wait a few seconds and say “good,” and so forth. “Good” is telling the dog to hold the behavior until we provide the reward.

Distance  

Position your dog as you wish, drop the treat, and give the “leave it” cue. Step back with one foot, pause a second, say “look at me” in unison with your hand signal and then step back to your dog and feed the treat. 

Next, take two complete steps back, and then three, four, and so forth. Continue slowly, adding one step at a time. 

Remember to use the “good” marker to let your dog know to hold its position.

Distractions 

Distractions are anything, big or small, that happens around your dog while it’s being trained. Performing a skill with distractions is the most difficult for your dog to learn. 

Start with a low distraction setting such as the backyard. Work your way up from there to more distracting environments.

Moving to the backyard offers a familiar environment while adding an increased but manageable distraction level. Then you might slowly progress to the front yard, the sidewalk, the park, and so forth.

Start slow and review each skill separately in the backyard, then progress to the combo skills with duration and distance. Move to more distracting environments as your Golden Retriever gets each progression. 

Common Problems 

Initially, your dog may have problems combining the two skills.

For example, your Golden might be alright with leaving the treat alone but forgets to look at you when asked. That’s normal. The dog is so hyper-focused on the tasty reward and getting it that it fails to look up when requested. No biggie.

Just go back and review each skill separately again, then progress to the open hand. I also find it is helpful if I squat or kneel close to eye level for the dog, as it’s much easier for them to make eye contact. 

Next Steps

The Leave it/Look at Me combo is one of the most important skills you can teach your dog. This combo forms the foundation of distraction training.

Distraction training is simply teaching your dog how to manage distractions in any environment by listening to you. In this way, you can ensure what your dog interacts with is safe and in your control. 

In our next post, we’ll move on to teaching the first of the basic obedience skills. The first of the basic skills is the “sit” skill. 

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