Does Your Dog Really Know the Leave It Command?

Have you ever watched helplessly as your dog swallowed something disgusting or dangerous?

Like, you’re out at a park and he’s suddenly crunching on a dead bird?

Or, you’re out walking and before you know it your puppy has a cigarette butt in her mouth!

This is where the “Leave It” command (meaning, Do Not Touch!) comes in handy and can even save a dog’s life.

I thought my dog understood “leave it,” but just the other day we were out walking, and before I had a chance to stop him, he’d picked up and swallowed what I *think* was part of a sandwich.

My attempts to firmly tell him “leave it!” were ignored.

And after he’d swallowed his find in one gulp, he looked at me and wagged his tail.

“Oh? Were you saying something?”

It pissed me off.

But mostly, I was worried my dog had eaten something unsafe.

I realized I need to work on a more-solid “leave it” command with Ace so he’ll listen to me when it matters. (“Drop” is another good one.)

2019 update: Ace has passed away.

Sure, he’ll obey “leave it” in the living room, but not necessarily in “real world” scenarios such as if he’s off leash and about to eat or roll on a dead fish.

Dogs …

With this post, I thought I’d briefly go over how to teach a dog to “leave it.” Then I’ll cover some ideas on how to get to a higher level of training.

How to teach your dog the command ‘leave it’

(I use “leave it” to mean “do not touch that object.” I don’t use “leave it” to mean “leave that other dog alone,” as some people do. How about you?)

There is more than one way to teach a dog “leave it,” but here’s what I did:

  • With highly valued treats on hand (like real chicken), place a lower-valued but tempting item on the ground (like a dog biscuit) and say “leave it.”
  • If your dog moves towards the treat on the ground, block him and calmly say “no, leave it.”
  • Wait about 2 seconds, then reward him with one of the higher-valued treats. Really praise him!
  • Over several days and weeks, slowly add more distance between you, your dog and the item and wait longer before rewarding your dog.
  • Over time, eventually ask your dog to “leave it” for more challenging items like jerky treats, ham slices or a raw knuckle bone.

For my retrieving nut, a stack of tennis balls is a good challenge.

Leave it 2

Challenging your dog with leave it

Since my dog will “leave it” for anything in our living room but apparently not in all real world situations, I came up with these ideas for continuing to work on this command:

1. Practice “leave it” in different environments – every room of the house, outside in the yard, on walks, during play, etc.

2. Practice “leave it” when your dog is excited and less likely to “listen.” Like, in the middle of play. Just make sure you’re able to follow through and block your dog if necessary.

3. Avoid using “leave it” if you know your dog won’t obey.

4. Practice “leave it” on walks by placing high-valued items on the ground in advance. Weird, how’d that sandwich get there? 🙂 And of course, reward with something just as good!

5. Practice “leave it” with real-world items you are most concerned about. You know, like garbage, rabbit poop, manure, dead fish. Yep, you might have to actually seek out some disgusting stuff!

6. If it’s safe, reward your dog with the original item! I believe Dr. Patricia McConnell wrote about this in one of her books. She had asked her dog Tulip to drop a dead squirrel, and the dog obeyed! So McConnell rewarded her dog by letting her have the dead squirrel! Talk about positive reinforcement!

7. Get in the habit of rewarding with something better so your dog will automatically “leave it” to get a potential reward. “Good boy!” just won’t cut it sometimes.

How about the rest of you?

What are some good tips or tricks for reinforcing the “leave it” command?

What is something disgusting your dog has eaten or rolled in lately?

Check back tomorrow for my post on using “leave it” to mean “ignore that other dog.” Read it here!

Related posts:

How to stop a dog’s possessiveness

How to teach a dog to drop something

My dog is possessive of toys at the dog park

29 thoughts on “Does Your Dog Really Know the Leave It Command?”

  1. Great picture of Ace peaking out from behind the tennis balls. That must have been hard for a retriever.

    Little Leave It was actually the first thing we tackled at our Level 1 obedience class. We held a treat in front of our dogs and rewarded them the moment they gave up going after it. We didn’t say anything at the beginning, just moved the treat away when the dog tried to grab it. Then, we rewarded for looking away, then for looking at us. They all caught up fast and we progressed to Big Leave It, with the treat on the ground.

    I’m guilty of saying Leave It to break my dog’s focus on another dog. Is there a better command for this? Leave It for me meant “ignore it”, “don’t even think about it”, “don’t touch it”.

    My mutt likes to eat crunchy coyote poops and play with dead snakes. Leave It is very important to me, ha ha.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      I like how you guys taught leave it. Sounds like it worked well for the dogs in the class.

      I’m curious what others have to say about “leave it” for ignoring other dogs. I think it’s a stretch for dogs to make the connection, assuming they’ve been taught “leave it” means to ignore a treat/toy/etc. But maybe I’m wrong. I have a post planned for tomorrow on that very topic.

  2. I never really taught Haley the “Leave It” command, but I taught her “Off” which kind of serves the same purpose in her mind. It was so easy to teach “Off” by holding a treat right in front of her nose but holding it in a way the she couldn’t take it. After a moment when she got frustrated and turned away even the slightest bit, I would give her the treat. At first you’re just rewarding even the slightest movement away. She caught on so quick, that I just use the “Off” command any time I want her to back away from something. The “Leave It” or “Off” commands can be real lifesavers!

    I’m glad Ace was okay. I worry about these crazy people that leave poisoned-laced meatballs or food in parks for dogs to eat.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      That makes sense! I used to use “off” for past dogs that would jump on me, and for Ace I use “back up” and boy does that come in handy when he’s too close and in my space.

      And yeah, I worry about people leaving poisoned food out as well. 🙁

  3. I have taught dogs “leave it” before in a lot of the ways you describe. As I’ve grown in my understanding of how dogs learn and what behaviors I actually want to encourage, I am not sure that “leave it” is all that useful a command.

    When most people say “leave it,” what they mean is “No.” So…why not just teach your dog no?
    And if you typically do not want your dog picking up random things or needing you to say no, then you need to train a default behavior of always no, unless you ask for permission and I say yes (this can be very hard when bringing in a dog who has already learned they may have whatever they want).

    Anyway, the way I have taught the commands in the past, drop = immediately spit out that thing in your mouth and leave it = ignore/do not pick up that object you do not already have (but I can see you have interest in). Unfortunately, this leaves some questionable gaps. One dog will drop things on instinct but then try to immediately pick them back up when the temptation is too great. One dog tries to grab and eat sidewalk food as quickly as possible (and sneakily) because until you say leave it, it wasn’t disobeying. If it swallows fast, then there is nothing to drop. Etc.

    So I have moved away from leave it in favor of default = no and if you try to pick something up from the ground being a no. The only place where I think leave it can be helpful is for “sometimes ok” types of things. This typically applies to dog toys or chews – things I leave around the floor. Sometimes, we go places where these things appear but are not ok for the dog to pick up (or something resembling these toys/chews is around but it is definitely not for them!). I think having a “leave it” may be more kind to your dog, because it means “hey, I know you want this but it belongs to a toddler, so leave it, even though are typically ok for dogs” rather than “no, you are mistaken that are for dogs” (which makes you seem unfair and inconsistent if you’re not actively training these different contexts for your dog). But that is a really narrow band and probably not worth a lot of investment in having a dog understand leave it as its own command, as compared to working on the basics.

    1. I agree that the command “no” is pretty universal and useful. My dogs know what it means whether I’m talking about leaving something alone, dropping something they had in their mouth, not barking, not pestering the other dog, to stop drinking out of the toilet, and so on. Using a single universal command would probably be easier for someone who has just gotten their first dog too. A newbie is going to have a difficult time distinguishing between drop it, let go, and leave it, making it difficult for the dog as well. I think the tips Lindsay suggested are still good to apply, but perhaps it would be easier to use one command and apply it to several similar situations.

      1. Lindsay Stordahl

        Yep, I think there is a lot of truth to that as well. Why use more commands than necessary? My dog understands “no” to mean stop what you’re doing. It’s a pretty clear way to communicate with him.

  4. I make all kinds of excuses, but I really haven’t bothered to teach my dog leave it at all. He’s not very food driven, so he pretty much never picks something up as we walk by, even a chicken bone or something (it’s a different story if we linger in a spot). When he does go for something, a firm “uh-uh!” pretty much always makes him back off. I think I’m really lucky, because I’ve never met another dog who was so easy with this particular problem. It’s making me lazy!

  5. Just recently on a walk, Pierson picked up a chicken bone. Without thinking, I yelled, “No! Drop it!”. And to my surprise, he did. It is surprising because I haven’t specifically taught him a leave it command when it comes to something of high value. He will drop toys on command but there has been no formal training on treats. I know this is something I should really work on. Thanks for the training tips.

  6. Yeah. Lambeau is a lot like Ace. Absolutely perfect in the house. We can put a plate of steak juices on the floor, tell him to “Leave it,” and he does. For as long as we can stand watching the drool! Outside? Like he’s never heard it before. He has, in the past, eaten a dead bird. I also pulled a dead mouse out of his mouth. And last week, we had the Drop It, Leave It battle with a dead chipmunk. We need to practice more out of the house, on walks, at the park, all of that.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Haha, yep. Ace is perfect in the house too. He won’t touch the cat’s food bowl if it’s on the ground. He won’t touch are food if it’s at his eye level and he won’t steal anything from the counters.

      But outside … he always seems to find stray food on the ground and gulps it down immediately!

  7. Majority of our walks we hear, drop it, leave it, drop it, leave it. Bailie picks up everything, she drops it and leaves it when asked, but it does get old hearing it over and over.

  8. Storm know’s leave it in the house but not so much in the real world. On walks we don’t usually come into contact with anything too gross; the backyard is a different story. Amy was chewing on a dead bird a few weeks ago and they killed a snake last week. Not disgusting but it gave me the willies.

  9. K&N have a pretty good leave it. One time I saw Norman chowing down on something at the park, I yelled leave it, he spat it out & walked away. When I went to inspect, it was a slice of pizza completely covered in ants. He also always ate the horse poop on a trail we used to go to. It was both disgusting & hilarious to watch him spit it out.

    Recently I saw Kaya running along with a bushy fox tail coming out of her mouth. I thought she picked up part of a carcass! I shouted drop it & to her credit, she dropped it mid run. Again, I had to inspect & it was just a dog toy with a fake fox tail. I then felt really bad for making her drop so I told her to get it again. It lasted a few minutes. 😉

  10. I never taught leave it. If my dog is doing something incorrect, such as sniffing my sandwich or focusing on a dog, I will just tell him no and either give him something else to do or move him along so he is set up for success. But this is also how I train, if he does something wrong I correct his behavior or tell him no (and also reward what I want). As a puppies I teach dogs to ignore most of the things dogs usually pick up that we don’t want them too, without me having to say anything, so an implied leave it.

  11. In my opinion, Leave it means don’t touch it ever….drop means leave it and you will get it back if your good. Thankfully Leave it does actually work outside…..90% of the time. I think its my tone as I do say it quite seriously! However, there is the odd time where the big piece of poo Chip is munching on is just too good to listen to me. She knows what I want her to do but still ignores me sometimes.

    If I say drop, she drops and wags her tail because she thinks she’s getting it back. So she definitely understands the difference between the two.

  12. We taught leave it using the block technique with our trainer. Baxter pretty much knew it before we enrolled in the class and he’s not food motivated, so that made it a really easy command to teach. When we tried it in class, I put out my hand to block Baxter from the treat and I realized he didn’t care about the treat and he’d just been coming over to me to say hi. Whoops! He was so traumatized that he kept about 3 feet away from the treat from then on and looked super pathetic like he felt like he was the worst dog ever. We use it leave it for “don’t eat that” but also “stop sniffing that and let’s move on.” Both seem to work.

    Just an aside, I read on another blog where she teaches her dogs “take it.” Her reasoning is that if a bottle of pills falls on the floor and she’s not there, her dogs know leave it needs to be their default reaction.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      I like the idea of teaching “take it” instead of leave it. Something to think about. Thankfully Ace naturally seems to know not to grab things that fall on the floor at home. My cat Beamer, however, will make a mad dash towards anything that falls and he’s tried to eat a birth control pill, a dog’s medication and Advil! He’s horrible! He actually got to the Advil and was a very sick kitty.

  13. I think that as for helpful tips you pretty much covered it. There is a big difference between teaching a cue and proofing a cue. That comes to about any command. Like, “seriously, you want me to leave this perfectly good chunk of sandwich?” 🙂

  14. Like others have said my Bailey is a total ‘Star’ with the leave it command indoors. Let loose and faced with that ultimate delicacy fox poo is another story completely.

  15. somewhere around 2 weeks to a month ago I was taking Okami for a walk with my mom, and on our way home at the corner there was a dead bird on the ground (I think it was a bluejay or similar) Okami noticed it first and grabbed it, I told her no, drop it. and to my somewhat surprise she immediately dropped it and looked at me. with a sort of wait why can’t I have that expression, then walked on. of course it never got cleaned up, so she occasionally tries to grab it again.

  16. Thanks for sharing this great topic and advices. I am a novice in dog training; Sean’s sayings are what I use “… in favor of default = no and if you try to pick something up from the ground being a no.”

    I am wondering that increasing the voice volume and pitch like a military drill seargent does when saying “leave it” or “no” might also make a difference; I am also imagining that if the voice is dramatic enough, like calling for help in an emergency or like expressing to the dog that you are in danger, the dog might have your attention.

    1. sort of: with that said dogs are really good at getting tone and assigning meaning to it.

      I have fairly consistently trained 2 “general” approval /disapproval tones with at least my last 2-3 dogs (at least) a kind of uh huh click on a rising tone as a kind of good do that encouragement (also used on walks as a move along when she stops and sniffs for “too long”

      the other is a kind of click of the tongue on a falling tone as a more mild no or don’t do that.

      its subtle, and quick so after a while you kind of to it automatically and subconsciously.

      its kind of like Okami has a tendency to “nibble” on me and other people when she gets too nippy I say “ouch” which she has learned means stop, that’s too hard, she does even when she looks confused because she “knows” she didn’t bite hard enough to break skin or anything.

  17. Sandy Weinstein

    yes, i definitely need to work on this with my girls. however, when they hear no, uh uh, they usually stop and leave it. my problem is that they take treats from my oldest gal, who is very slow, deaf and almost blind. so i have to watch when i give out the treats. i get very nervous abt this when i have dropped a pill, or something they should not eat. i stomp my feet and say no loudly. i have tried the leave it but they dont seem to get the concept as well. so we need work on this. i have tried working on this with treats and sometimes they listen but not always. i like drop better, they seem to do better with 1 syllable words

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