Pet parents often tell me that they have searched the internet or other avenues of dog training information for “how to teach your dog to leave it” but have been led to the same useless advice.  According to the majority of internet findings, leave it, is often practiced by holding a treat in your hand, fingers closed around the treat, and not releasing it until your dog backs off. Then, seconds later, the dog is given the treat. Within the confines of this controlled experiment, your success rate may be quite good. But what happens when your puppy is outside and picks up leaves, mulch, rocks, twigs, and anything else that he can put in his mouth? Does that sound familiar? How does withholding the treat for a frozen, ideally conditioned moment in time, help when the reality that all puppies pick up anything they can, shows its face?

This amusement park of discovering new and fun things to chew is not limited to the outdoors. As difficult as it may be to get something out of your pup’s mouth while on a walk, you still have the advantage because your puppy is on a leash. Reclaiming confiscated shoes, eyeglasses, tv remote, or socks from your puppy, while inside your home is a whole different ball game.  In fact, it is actually a way for your puppy to manipulate you into a game of chase. What other choice do you have? How fun is that?

The other side of this puppy pickup conundrum is what to do once your puppy has an undesirable object in his mouth. Like all good pet parents, you gently pry his mouth open, stick your fingers in and blindly feel around for whatever doesn’t belong there. I know. I’ve done it many times.

But no matter how many times we retrieve something from our puppy’s mouth while pleading with him to drop it, we taught our puppy nothing.

Do we resort to bribery? Do we offer the puppy a treat? Aha!  That works you say. But within a short time, your pup will find another item of interest on the floor and you’re off to the races once again. Think about this for a moment. Remember the game of chase, and how your puppy has conned you into playing? Well, now you have validated and reinforced that behavior by rewarding your puppy with a treat. Not only have you conditioned your puppy to manipulate you into a game of chase, but you have always conditioned your puppy to manipulate you into giving him a treat or toy as well. So in the end, your puppy was rewarded for picking up something he shouldn’t have.

You must understand the concept of leave it before you approach it head-on with well-intentioned but misguided efforts.

Here’s another example of an ineffective leave it lesson. You have your puppy sit, stay and wait while you place his breakfast bowl on the floor.  You repeat, leave it, leave it, over and over, and pick the bowl up if your puppy attempts to get his food before permission is granted. This is a great exercise in impulse control but does not relate to leave it.  Understand that it’s not because the words being used to describe the exercise are incorrect. They are incorrect, that is true but think of the cause and effect or chain of events. That is where the problem lies. Teaching your puppy to leave it, when the “it” is a treat, food or toy is just a momentary delay until he is allowed to have it. Leave it is reserved for items that will not be offered to your puppy any time after the command is given. “OK, you can have it” should never follow a “leave it” lesson.

Many lessons for your young puppy will begin to overlap with another lesson. Come-when-called should begin with teaching your puppy to come when you use his name. See “Name Moves The Dog” in another post. Don’t wait for your puppy to grab an item you don’t want him to touch. Set up a “Dress Rehearsal” and choose two or three items to practice with. These are items that you would not want your puppy to have. Put the item on the ground and wait for your puppy to approach it.  Armed with a small water spray bottle, say ”NO” in a firm voice, followed by “leave it” in a softer voice. When your puppy hesitates for a moment, call him to you and away from the item. Reward with lots of praise, or a belly rub. If “NO” doesn’t deter him, use your travel-size water bottle to spray a mist of water between the puppy and the item, while repeating ‘NO, leave it” again.

Some puppies are persistent and will have almost no impulse control preventing them from grabbing a random item. Bitter Apple is a deterrent for chewing furniture, leashes, and such, but can also be used to deter your puppy in a ‘leave it” lesson. Do all of the above-mentioned steps but this time, spray the item with Bitter Apple. NEVER spray Bitter Apple directly at your dog!

As you progress with this indoor practice, you will be able to move to “leave it’ when outside. That will be the next lesson, flowed by “drop it”—coming soon.

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