Do You Use ‘Leave It’ to Get Your Dog to Ignore Other Dogs?

I see this a lot:

Someone’s dog is reacting aggressively on a leash towards another dog, and the owner scolds, “leave it!”

Or sometimes, it’s “leave-it-leave it-leave-it-leave it-leave-it” as they quickly move away.

You’ve seen this, right? Or maybe you’ve done so yourself?

Both variations never seem to actually stop the dog’s excited behavior because in most cases the dog hasn’t actually been taught that “leave it” means “ignore that other dog.”

If the dog has been taught that “leave it” means do not touch the food/ball/dead bird/etc., it’s too much of a stretch for the dog to transfer that concept to mean do not touch the moving dog.

Tell me if I’m wrong.

Plus, most dogs have never even been taught that “leave it” means anything at all. It’s just a phrase their owners latch onto when their dogs get excited on a leash.

For some dogs, I’m sure “leave it” actually means “look for the dog.” It actually gets them more riled up!

Of course, I can relate. I’ve walked plenty of reactive or excited dogs, and it can be very frustrating and embarrassing. You feel helpless sometimes, and saying “leave it” at least acknowledges to other dog owners that you’re trying.

Also, I’m not saying you can’t use “leave it” to mean “ignore other dogs.” It’s just that dogs need to be taught what we mean by this.

If any of you have successfully taught your dog that “leave it” means “ignore other dogs,” let me know what you did in the comments. This would be very helpful info for myself and others.

So what should dog owners do instead?

Hopefully some of you will chime in with what works for your own dogs.

Here’s what I usually suggest:

1. Teach your dog “watch me.”

I’ve spent years as a professional dog walker and rescue/shelter volunteer, and I recommend teaching “watch me” or “watch” to encourage your dog to look at you, making eye contact. You’ll have to use highly valued treats at first, and you’ll have to work without distractions while your dog builds his skills.

And yes, of course you could teach your dog that “leave it” means “look at me.” It’s just confusing when we use the same phrase to mean don’t touch the food/dead bird/toy. They’re two different concepts.

It’s like when people use “down!” to mean “stop jumping” and “lie down” depending on the situation. It’s confusing.

2. Teach your dog to heel.

I also recommend teaching your dog a traditional “heel.” Meaning, he walks nicely at your side.

This takes many months (OK, years) to perfect, and we can’t expect our dogs to heel all the time but it’s a valuable concept to teach.

I’ve written many posts on loose-leash walking and heel. I’ll link to them below.

Some of the main tips I recommend include:

  • finding the right training collar
  • enrolling in an obedience class so your dog can practice with distractions
  • using highly valued treats like pieces of real chicken
  • walking at different speeds, zig-zags, figure 8s, etc.

Helpful posts:

OK, enough rambling from me. I’m mostly curious what your take is on all this. Perhaps most people will disagree with me, and that’s fine too. I guess I’ll find out!

Do you use ‘leave it’ to get your dog to ignore other dogs?

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24 thoughts on “Do You Use ‘Leave It’ to Get Your Dog to Ignore Other Dogs?”

  1. I’ve seen people go up to a dog they have never even met and say “leave it!” then look genuinely offended when the dog doesn’t stop chasing another dog or put its toy down. I’ve seen people do this to dogs they KNOW have no training and be confused at the dog’s lack of mind-reading. It’s kinda weird. I’ve never attempted to teach “leave it” to mean “stop embarrassing me in front of that other owner and heel, damnit!” (because that is what anything I say in that moment means, technically, to me!) The command I do use for this situation is “this side!” I invented it on the spot at some point. It just means, “heel on my other side so my legs are blocking your view of that dog you think is the reincarnation of Hitler.” I give the command again once we’ve passed the offending dog and he goes back to my left side.

    1. You’re so right- one of the greatest obstacles to proper training is people understanding that no, your dog can’t speak English! I’ve seen this plenty when people give their dogs completely new commands and expect them to understand them straight away, whilst I stand watching, completely baffled!

      1. Its also quite funny how we do teach our dogs English without even realising. If I am ready to do something (i.e. go for a walk, get out of the car, put on their lead), I have noticed myself say “now”. Its out of habit and basically means (and its directed to myself…not the dogs) “ok im organised, lets go”. But the moment I say “now” both dogs perk up, tails wagging and expect me to do something. I can imagine its similar to how Jessicavy taught her dog “this side” only because she probably said it in frustration, corrected the dog and in turn, the dog learned the word “this side” means I heel.

        Another example is if I am leaving the house and not bringing the dogs. Naturally they start moving thinking they are coming with me. I say to them “no, you stay here” and they instantly know that they are not coming with me and calm right down. I in no way trained them to understand my English but they do.

  2. We use “on by” during our walks. Its more of an acknowledgement that I know something, someone, dog that is really interesting is over there but I want to keep moving. Charlie has taught D.O.G. and working on the girls, a “watch them” cue. Its more of a bark cue, be on alert cue. So watch me is way too similar. I have to do eyes or look if I want attention. Or just hold the frisbee or toy. 🙂

    I also try and do long walks a little later in the evenings when we don’t have a lot of people or dog traffic. Staying out of prime walking hours helps. However it does not always help when going to a dog park.

  3. I used “leave it” and every other command possible this morning when the “other dog” was a coyote. Baxter lost his mind. The coyote just went on his merry way, but Baxter’s sole mission in life became to follow the coyote. I couldn’t even get him to look at me when I reeled him in and got in front of him. #dogownerfail We never worked on “look” or “watch me” because in most instances there aren’t coyotes around and he’s a calm obedient dog. We’re going to have to do something. This is our first coyote sighting during our morning walk (and Baxter had pretty much ignored two deer already this morning), but his prey drive or need to chase or whatever you call it makes me so nervous to have him off leash.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Oh my gosh, that would be a challenge! I’m not sure what Ace would do if he saw a coyote either! If I were holding a tennis ball, he wouldn’t even notice a coyote, but without a ball I bet he would try to chase a coyote as well.

  4. I love the concept of “watch” that seems like a great way to get their attention in any situation. Thank you for these applicable tips. It is truly embarrassing how much we expect dogs to read our minds.

  5. You said, “You feel helpless sometimes, and saying “leave it” at least acknowledges to other dog owners that you’re trying.” That is so me! 🙂 Seriously, though, when I use “look” in order to get Pierson to watch me instead of the other dog, it works most of the time. The only time it doesn’t work is when the other dog reacts too.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Haha! I think we’ve all been there in one way or another, even if we don’t use “leave it” as our phrase. I’m glad “watch me” works for Pierson most of the time.

  6. I have never seen a dog successfully trained to understand that leave it means ignore another dog. That doesn’t mean it cannot exist. Just that I’ve never seen it.

    I have seen plenty of owners who say “leave it” to their dogs in that context, and then do something to “enforce” this untaught command. What do I see? Leave it + dragging a dog by the collar in the other direction or leave it + a scolding tone that makes the dog know that they are being corrected/told no (independent of the words). These are not dogs who understand leave it as a command, and these are not people who have taught their dogs a command.

    Also, telling a reactive dog to “leave it” – unsurprisingly – does not resolve reactivity. I understand the temptation to show the public that you are aware/sheepish/embarrassed about having a reactive dog. Maybe it works on less experienced people, but when I see a person with a reactive dog telling the dog to “leave it,” it does not give me confidence that this is a person with understanding or any handle on reactivity. What have I done when it’s me with the reactive dog? Sometimes, I tell the person “Fluffy has problems with reactivity, we are still working on it.” (Hello, Captain Obvious!). Sometimes if I’m trying to get Fluffy’s attention, I will speak to Fluffy and say something like “Fluffy, please ignore that other nice dog, we have to go this way” – basically anything that communicate the tone I need to work with Fluffy (if Fluffy doesn’t have an alternate command like look or watch), yet saying aloud “I am aware my dog is being reactive! Sorry if it inconveniences you!”

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      I don’t think I’ve ever seen it work either. I like your idea of talking to the dog in more of a happy, upbeat voice and basically turning and going the other way calmly and happily. That is a good approach.

  7. Sometimes we do, but we use it mainly when we try to pick something up or when we want to go after a critter. It works pretty well.

  8. I do! But based on your examples, I can certainly see why reactive dogs would need a different command & a whole extra set of training skills.

    But in our context I use it when we are off leash, usually hiking & need to walk past a leashed dog or a dog they shouldn’t meet for some reason. I first ask them to come, then heel, then as we are approach the other dog, I add a “leave it” to reinforce that I want them to stay in the heel as we pass the other dog. Ya, if their heel was more solid they wouldn’t need the “leave it” but they do seem to get it. They usually look up at me & walk a bit slower when I say it.

    On a side note, I also use leave it when they are licking too much. Kaya especially. Sometimes she gets into neurotic, nudgy or relentless licking(on herself, Norman, people, me, inanimate objects) and “leave it” always does the trick. 🙂

    1. Reading Sean’s post just reminded me of another situation where I’ve used it for Norman off leash as well. Often when we see dogs at a distance I don’t want him running off to meet them because he can be nervous around certain dogs so I like to be close by to manage his interactions. But I can see him perk up and sometimes get ready to run off when he spots another dog so I tell him “leave it” and he relaxes and comes over to me ’til I give him the go ahead to see the dog or we keep walking. No lies though, I always have treats in my pockets. 🙂

      1. Lindsay Stordahl

        Great examples! Sounds like you’ve found lots of great ways to communicate with your two, and I know they really listen to you! They are such good dogs!

        I realize what I do when Ace is off leash and about to charge up to another dog. I say “no” and then “come!” It works well most of the time. Treats or a tennis ball obviously help too. 🙂

  9. We have a 15 month old pitbull mix. When walking him he pulls alot even when I give him 6ft leash. He will not take treats from me at all, I have tried everything including string cheese. He’s a good dog know other commands just the dog walking is the issue. We got him so I had someone to walk with, we live in Philadelphia and hes a beautiful dog. He is strong weighs approx 95 lbs. so I need to be able to control him. Any suggestions.

    1. Nancy Pumphrey/ Ridgeback Momma

      Hi Denise, Gentle Leader makes a head harness and also an Easy Walk body harness. Both are very helpful. ( You use one or the other) We had our son’s 130 lb mastiff pit mix for 18 months. Short pit legs and mastiff body. Low center of gravity made her pulling difficult. Both of these products made our walks fun and safe.

  10. Nancy Pumphrey/ Ridgeback Momma

    I practice leave it with high value treats. I can drop them in front of Shaka and Bella and they wait until given my release “break time”. I also use leave it for any number of things but also at the dog park. If I don’t like the attitude I see in another dog I will ask mine to “leave it” and they return to my side. I have found it to be very effective. When several dogs are getting excited at the park, I can call leave it and both my dogs will turn away and return to me. We also practice “watch me”. There are times when you need their undivided attention. I have 2 Rhodesian Ridgebacks. The male is 100 lbs and female is 70 lbs. They need to listen. Although they are good with small dogs, not everyone at the park is happy about my big goofs approaching their 15 lb baby. I can ask either of them to leave it and they do. On leash I use leave it so they don’t go after strange food wrapper or anything yucky. I’ve never used this in an “on leash” situation regarding another dog. I just say “follow me” and both dogs generally walk past bad canine actors without too much concern.

  11. Sandy Weinstein

    i have tried the watch me and leave it, but my girls do better when i say uh, uh…or no or i just raise my finger pointing at them. we have worked on both….however, when food is involved with the middle child, she will not look at me for any reason, she is a real foodie. her daddy was that way. food, food…. i also use the drop it. i work with their treats and other objects, such as toys. the 2 younger girls will try and take treats and food from my older gal, i tell them drop it, sometimes they will, but not always…they listen better when i say uh uh…we are working on these. i have tried the watch me, the youngest child will look at me and listen but not the middle child when food is around.

  12. We have always used leave it with our 6 month lab and she understands it. We sometimes use it to leave other dogs but another dog owner today got really offended and thought we were callings his dog ‘it’ ! I feel really annoyed and a little upset. Should I still use the leave it command or change it so it doesn’t offend people

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