Here's how to teach your dog to "leave it" -- without using a cue!

Teach Your Dog to “Leave It” Without Using a Cue

With this “leave it” training method, the thing you want your dog to leave alone or stop obsessing over becomes the cue for him to look at you.

The ultimate goal of any “leave it” exercise is teaching your dog that he can glance at something in his environment that he finds stressful or exciting, but that if he then looks back at you, you will reinforce that very good choice very richly. The Engage - Disengage game teaches him to do this without a “leave it” cue from you.

Almost 20 years into my dog training career, “Leave it” is probably one of the cues that I say the least – and yet, how to train a dog to “leave it” is one of the most-wanted behaviors that people wish their dogs could learn. Why do I not teach the use of a “leave it” cue? Because by the time you can even verbalize the word “Leave,” your dog has likely already made the decision to go for whatever “it” is; the cue is often too delayed. Moreover, the “leave it” cue is often over-used and under-rewarded.

Over-use of a cue leads to learned irrelevance – which means that the cue means nothing to the dog – or an unreliable behavior, with the dog deciding each time he’s been cued whether it’s more rewarding to just go for “it” than to “leave it.” I often see people repeating “Leave it! Leave it! Leave it!” – and when the dog does leave it, I rarely see the dog rewarded for his effort.

But “leave it” is absolutely a valuable skill for dogs to have in their behavioral repertoire. Instead of teaching it with a verbal cue, though, I teach it by using the sight of the stimulus (the trigger, object of interest, or thing that you want the dog to “leave”) as the dog’s cue to disengage with the thing and check back in with you.

For example, to teach a dog to not chase a bird, I use the sight of a bird as the cue to check back in with me. In my experience, teaching “leave it” this way is more successful than with a verbally cued “leave it.”

Identify the goal or end-game behavior you want

As with all training, the first step is to be clear about the behavior you want your dog to display in a given situation – the “end game” or target behavior. For example, when my dog sees a bird, I want him to disengage from the bird – to refrain from chasing it – and make eye contact with me. My goal is to build and reinforce a “check in with me” behavior that will replace his natural response of fixating and chasing birds that he sees. However, I want my dog to offer the check-in behavior without any cues from me; in this case, ultimately, the cue will be the sight of a bird.

Eye Spy: Teaching your dog to check in with you

To teach this, I start by playing a game called “Eye Spy.” To play, start indoors, with your dog in front of you. Place a small (pea-sized) treat halfway between you and your dog and centered between your feet and their paws. Allow your dog to eat the treat and wait, watching your dog. Almost always, your dog will look at you for more information: “Are there more treats?”

The moment your dog makes eye contact with you, mark it with a clicker or the marker of your choice (such as the word “Yes!”) and then place another treat in the same spot as before. You want the treat between the two of you, so that it’s easy for your dog to take the treat and then look up at you. This prompts a pattern: Your dog looks down (at the treat) and then up (at you), down, up, etc., on repeat.

Keep marking (click or “Yes!”) and putting treats down and repeat about 10 times. Now try the exercise in three new locations.

Teach the first step of “Engage-Disengage” (Engage)

This is step one of the “Engage-Disengage” exercise. We add a novel stimulus (in this case, a pet pig) close enough to capture our dog’s attention, but we mark them far enough so they not already over-threshold with excitement. They'll naturally look at the stimulus, and when they do so, we mark that moment of engagement with the click of a clicker or a verbal marker, such as “Yes!”

Next, teach your dog to “engage” as the first part of the classic “Engage-Disengage” game (also known as “Look at That”). I prefer to use a novel stimulus to initially teach this, but you can use anything your dog is unfamiliar with. This could be a kid’s toy, a remote-controlled car, or even food on a paper plate. In this game, to “engage” means to look calmly at a novel stimulus.

With your dog on a leash in front of you, place (or have a helper place) the novel stimulus perpendicular to where you are, so that your dog must swivel his head 90 degrees to look at it. You can do a “temperature check” at this point (see sidebar below) or you can wait for your dog to look at the novel stimulus. Either way, mark the moment that your dog looks at the stimulus (click or “Yes!”), and then feed your dog a treat in the opposite direction – ideally by tossing the reward away. By tossing the treat away from the stimulus, you start to add “movement away from the stimulus” as part of the target behavior.

At this juncture, use a 1:1 ratio of reward to behavior for each time your dog looks at the stimulus; this means your dog will receive one reward every time he looks at the stimulus. As with the Eye Spy game, mark each behavior (looking at the stimulus) and feed for position (give him a treat in the opposite direction as the stimulus). Repeat for a minimum of two sets of 10 to 15 repetitions.

The second phase of Engage-Disengage (Disengage)