Why it's so hard

There are a great many things that your dog might find appealing. They might want to sniff it, eat it, roll in it, grab it, run off with it, chase it, jump on it, flatten it etc. This might be okay if all they're doing is chasing a leaf in the garden. But it becomes a safety issue if they're about to pull a roast chicken off the cooker, or chase a squirrel into the road, or flatten Grannie when she comes to visit, or grab and eat a pair of socks from the linen basket. It might also result in unpleasant consequences eg if they roll in fox poo, or eat discarded food or the poo of another dog. 'Leave' really means 'don't touch it', so it can be used for a lot of different items and situations. If your dog has already run off with something, that's now about 'fetch' and 'recall' because they already have it in their mouth. If your dog has already begun to chase a deer or cat it's too late because they already have their own reward - this is about the emergency stop, and a solid recall. But if you can predict what they're about to do, and use the cue 'leave' you can then prevent them doing the wrong thing, and can reward them for staying put and not interacting with the trigger (whatever that happens to be). 

Leave can be rewarding

Traditionally 'leave' was taught by telling a dog off and getting quite cross about the whole thing. Although this might work, there are better ways to achieve it. Teaching leave with food rewards (or play) means your dog will work hard to listen and respond to the cue because you'll praise them lots and give them great rewards. 

Control of rewards is key

If they are successful in grabbing, chasing, running off or consuming an illegal item, they will have rewarded themselves for doing so. That's why prevention is so important, especially in the early days of retraining. If your dog regularly runs off with the tea towels in the kitchen, stop keeping them within reach unless you are doing a specific training session. If your dog is likely to chase squirrels, keep them on a short lead when walking in this area so you can practise leave without a chase being possible. When you stop other rewards, your dog will focus on the rewards that are on offer eg your attention, food and toys.

The stages of leave training

It takes a lot of training for a dog to willingly comply every time they’re asked to ‘leave’ something.

Here are some possible stages in this process:

  • Food in a closed hand. If your dog tries to take it (using their mouth or paws) say ‘leave’. If they wait patiently and just look at it, open up your hand and say ‘take it’ and allow them to eat it.
  • Food in an open hand. Place the food in your palm, and hold it near your dog’s nose. Say ‘leave’. If they try to grab it, move your hand away, then start again. If they remain still, and wait patiently, say ‘take it’ and move your hand towards them so they can eat the treat.
  • Food on the floor. Ask your dog to sit or lie down. Hold a piece of food between your thumb and finger, say ‘leave’, and move the food towards the ground (not too close to your dog at first). If your dog gets up, start again. If they stay still, give them the treat.
  • Stay near food for longer. Ask your dog to sit or lie down. Say ‘leave’ and place the food on the floor about 30cm (1ft) away from them. Count to 5. If they move before then, start again. If they stay still, pick the treat up and give it to them, or say ‘take it’ and allow them to get it themselves. Gradually build up to 20 seconds.
  • Stay while you walk away. Ask your dog to sit or lie down. Say ‘leave’ and place the food on the floor. Take a step back. If you see a muscle twitch, remind them to ‘leave’. If you think they’re going to try and grab the treat, move towards them to stop them getting the treat. If they stay still, say ‘take it’ and allow them to enjoy their reward. Gradually increase the distance you can walk away from them.
  • Walking away from food. With your dog on a short lead, place food on the floor. Ask them to ‘leave’. Then take a step back, and ask them to come to you (i.e. a short recall). If they do this willingly, give them a treat from your hand. Ask them to sit and (if they’re waiting patiently) say ‘take it’, and let them have the original treat. Practise until you can do this off lead as well.
  • Walking past food. Do this on lead in the beginning. Set up a course of foody temptations. Walk your dog through these obstacles. If your dog looks at the food, or tries to get to it, say ‘leave’ and use the lead to stop them getting to the food. If they walk nicely, without pulling, then reward them with treats from your hand. At the end, ask them to sit, and reward them. Keep practising until you can do this off lead. At the end of the session, remove some of the temptations, then allow your dog to eat the rest of them.

Real world training

Once all these stages are working well, it’s time to practise in the ‘real world’. Ask your dog to leave discarded food, other dogs, people who are nervous of dogs, animal poo, stagnant water, and anything else you would rather your dog didn’t go to! Reward them with treats when they respond to their name, stay close to you, or respond to the ‘leave’ cue. Keep them on lead in the beginning to prevent mistakes.

(c) Sarah Crockford 2024