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The “leave it” skill is one of the most important skills you can teach your dog. This skill ranks right up there with “stay” and “come” in importance. The “leave it” skill, in combination with the “look at me” skill, forms the foundation of distraction training.
So what is the “leave it” skill, and why is it so important?
The “leave it” skill teaches your Golden Retriever to ignore objects when asked. Teaching the skill ensures your dog does not pick up items or interact with distractions in the environment that could be potentially harmful. It means that you, not your dog, decide what is acceptable and safe.
Ignoring distractions in the environment upon cue are vital safety skills for your Golden Retriever to learn.
Leaving things alone when cued to do so could literally save your dog’s life. In fact, the goal is to have this skill become the default or automatic behavior for your dog, so it looks to you first for guidance on whether something is safe or not. In this way, we decide what is safe for our dogs to engage in the environment.
For example, maybe some chicken bones are on the ground, or a cat or squirrel crosses your dog’s path. Having your dog refrain from picking up the chicken bones or chasing the furry cat or squirrel can literally prevent the dog from getting in harm’s way.
Ignoring distractions in the environment requires a high level of obedience and impulse control from your dog. Teaching your dog to do this is called distraction training.
The “look at me” skill is the first skill taught in distraction training, and you can find it here:
The Training Session: The Leave It Skill
So, let’s get started.
Teaching the “leave it” skill is slightly more complex than marker training and the “look at me” skills, but well worth it.
However, if you approach teaching this skill methodically and deliberately, and with patience, then you’ll be fine. Keep in mind, though, that “methodical and deliberate” does not mean you can’t have fun. You should make it fun.
Start With a Treat in Your Closed Hand
- Sit, kneel, or squat in front of your Golden Retriever. It doesn’t matter if your dog is standing, sitting, or lying down.
- Hold a treat in your closed fist out in front of you, and make sure your dog knows it there.
- Your dog will sniff and lick, trying to get at the treat. At some point, your dog will either lose interest, give up, or become distracted – this is your timing window.
- When your dog loses interest in the treat, you IMMEDIATELY say “Yes,” open your hand and quickly give the dog its reward.
Reset and repeat for a few repetitions.
Once your dog understands the concept, add the verbal cue. Extend your hand with the treat, and the moment the dog hesitates, say “leave it” then “yes” and reward.
Notice the distinction in step 7? In step 5, we used the marker of “yes” only. In step 7, we add the “leave it” cue while we’re extending the hand.
Because we want to get the desired behavior FIRST, so the dog understands what it is we’re looking for. “Leave it” to your dog means nothing initially, so saying it is just a bunch of meaningless words to your dog.
So, we have to show the dog first what it is we want. Once the dog understands what we want it to do, we then label it with a verbal cue. The verbal cue then becomes conditioned to the behavior.
In other words, the dog first learns the behavior we want (NOT to eat the treat), and by doing so, the dog will earn a reward. Then we name that behavior with a verbal cue (leave it). After some repetitions, the dog then learns to associate the verbal cue with the behavior.
Progress to an Open Hand
- Hold a treat in your open hand and hold it out in front of you.
- Slowly open your hand and say, “leave it.” Each time your dog tries to get the treat, close your hand and say “nope” calmly and nonchalantly.
- When your dog loses interest in the treat, gives up, or becomes distracted, you IMMEDIATELY say “Yes,” open your hand and give the dog its treat.
Reset and repeat for as many repetitions as your Golden Retriever needs to do the behavior consistently.
Notice how we’re moving methodically and deliberately in small steps, and we build upon previous concepts learned. We only advance to a slightly more complex skillset only when our dog understands the previous concept.
All progressions are always small, with only one variable being changed (closed versus open hand).
Treat On the Floor
- Drop a treat on the floor directly in front of your dog while saying, “leave it.”
- If your pup or dog tries to get the treat, cover it with your foot while casually saying, “nope.” When your dog backs off, slowly remove your foot to reveal the treat again.
- When your dog shows the slightest hesitation, IMMEDIATELY say “Yes, and quickly reward the dog with a treat from your hand.
Reset and repeat for a few repetitions.
One key point to keep in mind. Do not let your dog eat the treat off the floor- feed them a treat from the other hand. The whole point of the exercise is to teach your Golden Retriever NOT to eat things off the floor when told to “leave it.”
I used a combination of training methods. That’s because it took me some time and experimentation to find a process that was comprehensive and used science-based, positive training techniques. Also, I’m not a big fan of aversives, especially for beginners or laypeople, so that was one of the main criteria for me.
Proofing the Skill
What is proofing?
Proofing is the process of changing a variable and re-attaining proficiency in a skill until the dog can generalize that desired behavior to any setting, situation, or environment.
Simply, it’s testing a dog to see if it has learned the skill and generalized it to other situations and environments. It means your Golden Retriever understands the skill and will do it when asked, anytime, and in any setting.
Generalizing skills to different settings takes more time, so don’t expect this to occur quickly.
For example, drop a treat on the sidewalk while walking and ask the dog to “leave it.” If the dog does it, that skill has been tested and “proofed” in that situation and environment.
How do we employ proofing in our dog training? By using the Three D’s.
The Three D’s: Duration, Distance, and Distractions
Once you have successfully taught your dog to leave it, you are ready to move to advanced progressions as part of the proofing process. Dog trainers refer to these advanced progressions as the Three D’s: Duration, Distance, and Distractions.
Duration is the amount of time your dog holds a specific command before being released.
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.
All skills taught from hereon will follow the progression of the Three D’s.
One key point to remember in proofing. Change one variable at a time.
For example, don’t expect a dog to be able to leave something alone at the park when there are lots of people, dogs, and squirrels running around. Instead, start with duration, then distance, and then increasingly more distracting environments.
Duration is the first progression, and it’s the amount of time your dog leaves the treat alone. Leaving a tasty food morsel alone when asked takes a lot of impulse control for a dog, so we start with short durations, first progressing to longer and longer duration.
First, start with the treat in your open hand or on the floor while asking your dog to leave it. Count to three, and then say “yes” and reward. Increase the time you ask your dog to stay by two to three-second intervals.
As the intervals get longer, start using your intermediary marker of “good.” So, as your Golden is patiently leaving it 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.
If your Golden grabs the treat, that’s no problem. Just reset and shorten the duration back to when your dog was performing the skill successfully, and slowly work up to a longer and a longer time.
Moving away from your dog is referred to as distance, and it is common for owners to rush this phase of training. Teaching distance happens literally a step at a time.
Position your dog as you wish, drop the treat, and give the “leave it” cue. Step back with one foot, pause a second, then step back to your dog and feed the treat.
Next, take two complete steps back, then return to your dog for the reward. Continue slowly, adding only one step at a time. As you add steps, you can also include duration – a distance/duration combo if you wish. Remember to use the “good” marker to let your dog know to hold its position.
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. It takes an incredible level of impulse control for your dog to listen when there is a host of sights, sounds, and smells.
It is essential to have a strong foundation of the “leave it” skill taught first with duration and distance before adding distractions.
Start with something manageable that your Golden can get relatively easy. Work your way up from there to more distracting environments.
For example, 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.
Early on, the most common problem is that your dog will take the treat from the floor before it’s given permission. Often this occurs when you’re asking for a longer duration or are at a distance. Remember, leaving a tasty morsel alone takes a lot of impulse control for your Golden Retriever.
If that occurs, go back and start again from the treat in the open hand. Continue to increase the duration of the open hand and then progress to “leave it” on the floor. Doing so helps reinforce the previous concepts for your dog, and it builds confidence.
Regression is when your dog seemingly forgets a skill that it has learned previously. Regressions are typical and expected in dog training. It’s part of the learning process that all dog trainers must go through.
The key is taking smaller steps. Some dogs catch on to certain skills slower and need smaller baby steps in their progression.
The next issue will be when you introduce distractions. Progress slowly with distractions. If your Golden is having a difficult time with more distractions then move into a less distracting environment and keep repeating the behaviors.
Leave it training is one of the most important skills you can teach your dog. A well-trained and ingrained “leave it” skill means that you can be confident that what your dog eats or engages in within its environment is decided by you.
In our next post, we’ll move on to teaching the “look at me and leave it” commands in combination. Once introduced, you’ll be on your way to better managing distractions and hazards in the environment.