When a dog arrives at a shelter, it can be hard to know exactly which cues they’ll reliably respond to. But when I met Belle soon after she arrived at the Potsdam Humane Society Shelter, it was obvious that someone had worked with Belle on the cue “leave it.” Here’s an example: Belle was bonkers over toys. The first day we met, as soon as I took her leash off in the yard, she dashed across the yard, made a leap and struck the bottom of the basket of toys with her nose. The balls went flying. Once I learned the basket was a hot spot, I used “leave it” when Belle even glanced in that direction. I learned my lesson, and Belle, who already knew the “leave it” cue, learned to apply it to the basket of toys.
I decided to extend on that strong base and teach Belle to “leave” small objects on cue. If you’ve ever dropped a pill and had a pet scramble to scarf it up, you know why teaching “leave it” for things that are on the floor can help keep your dog safe. I refined the strategy I use for teaching “leave it” for small objects with help from a pro, our beautiful boy Gudgeon, a Lab-Shepherd stray we took in years ago.
Although his early behaviors left a lot to be desired in other ways – zero impulse control and a need to bite tires – Gudgeon had the softest approach to taking a treat I’d ever seen. But then again, when I met him he didn’t know much about treats – the first time I took him to the vet the technician handed him a treat and it dropped to the floor. Gudgeon just didn’t know what it was. But Duncan, our black Belgian Shepherd mix, was more than happy to teach him the ins and outs of treats.
Under Duncan’s tutelage, Gudgeon became highly treat-motivated and went from a reliably soft mouth when it came to treats straight to snatching treats. Ouch! Extremely unacceptable behavior. I was myself pretty highly motivated – to squelch those bad manners – and the strategy I used with Gudgeon to ensure a gentle treat hand-off is part of the method I used with Belle to extend her understanding of “leave it.”
I started out by establishing a calm moment, let her see the treat in my hand, and set it in front of her.
At first I keep my hand close by so I can get to the treat before she does if she goes for it – the game isn’t who can get there first, but if it turns into that, I need to win it every time.
Belle lifts her head, distancing her snout from the treat – a signal I take to mean that she’s got her impulse to grab it under control, and I can move my hand further away.
Even though Belle lowers her head when I reach for the treat, she doesn’t make any move to grab it, and I find this behavior acceptable within the bounds of the “leave it” game. For something like a “sit,” I look for a perfect sit, no partial touchdowns earn a reward. But for “leave it,” what I’m looking for when we’re stationary, as we are here, is no grabs for the object. And if the dog is in motion, my standard for a successfully executed “leave it” is no prolonged gazing and no swinging closer to the object.
The moment I actually pick up the treat and begin to move it toward her is crucial – Belle’s “leave it” behavior has been excellent up to now, and I really want to top off this few minutes of training with full success. Belle and I have been partners in this game, and I need to be a reliable partner for her right up to the last minute. If I simply pick up the treat and hand it to her with my fingers, I’m leaving all the choices up to Belle: it will be clear that the treat is going to be hers, and her options for her end of the transfer are wide open. She can take it gently – success – or she can grab for it – not success. I’ll do everything I can to work towards success.
When I pick up the treat, I put my hand over it and take it up in a closed fist. As I bring my hand closer to Belle, I say “easy” in a soothing voice. If she shows any signs of excitement, I repeat “easy,” and if she begins to move her face towards my fist, I move my hand back. I used this closed-fist approach when I was training Gudgeon to take treats more gently – if he moved to take the treat before I gave him the cue, I withdrew my hand. It didn’t take many repetitions for him to learn that we were going to do the treat hand-off on my terms, not his.
Like Gudgeon, Belle is a very smart dog. She knows that the treat moving away from her is not a good sign, and she better go back to what she was doing that got it to move toward her. When my hand is almost under her snout – which happens only when she doesn’t make a move towards it – I turn my fist over, repeat “easy,” in the same confident, calm manner, and, if all is going well, open my fist.
Of course, what’s covered here in a few sentences and photos is an accomplishment Belle and I worked our way to from the moment we met. We did go from introduction to the task to success on the task in one training session, but it was a training session in which we knew each other pretty well. We’d worked together a couple of times a week for almost two months. We could read each others’ body language and facial expressions, and Belle knew the many intonations of my voice.
One day’s success is just the beginning. If Belle were my dog, I would work with her every day to expand her response to the “leave it” cue beyond this rigorously controlled exercise. But she’s not my dog, and I’ll be working with others. I’ll need to remind myself that progress is incremental, and I’ll need to be sure not to compare where another dog starts out with where Belle arrived after many sessions together.