Extending “Leave it” to Small Objects: Belle’s Good Behavior Gets Even Better

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.

Belle demonstrates just how well she learned that when it comes to the basket of toys, she should “leave it.”

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.

Gudgeon arrived into our lives a 65 pound, untrained stray.

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.

Duncan, eager to teach other dogs how to play, wasn’t averse to passing on a bad habit – a tendency to snatch 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.

Introducing the treat.

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 considers her options.

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.

When I reach for the treat, Belle lowers her head – but she doesn’t reach for the treat.

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.

A crucial moment is the hand-off. My closed fist helps send the message, “not yet.”

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.

“Yes!” Reward delivered.

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.

Fine tuning: Working with Jumping Dogs

Rowsey just needed to learn the value of keeping four on the floor

In my last blog post, I talked about my strategy for getting a dog who jumps up to not jump – turning my back on them and saying out loud something like “Nope, that’s not going to get you what you want.” This communication is key. But I didn’t mention timing as another important element of my use of the strategy: when I turn my back, I plant my feet and wait. I give the dog time to start wondering what’s next, then I turn back to them with my “this is serious stuff” face and gauge their reaction. If they make a start on jumping, I turn my back again, repeat my statement, and wait. With some shelter dogs, turning my back once has been enough to stop the behavior for the duration of the visit.

But a third key element is patience. Take the sweet boy above. In the first few minutes of our first encounter, I turned my back to him three or four times before he was convinced I was not going to interact with him till he kept his feet on the ground. He tested the waters a few more times during that first visit . . . but turning my back once was enough at that point. It took a couple of visits to really dial that behavior down to zero. I learned he was really smart, good-hearted, and eager to work for treats. He wasn’t a persistent jumper because he was bad, he was just super excited: he really, really wanted to do a meet-and-greet. He had a whole lot of affection to share and it was busting out all over. But that great meet-and-greet he wanted couldn’t happen till he quit jumping. Turning away from him communicated that.

Once the dog has gotten the message that jumping doesn’t get him what he wants (I’ve turned my back, made my statement, waited, turned around and the dog doesn’t respond by jumping), what comes next also requires timing. Although other people might give the dog a reward quickly for not jumping, I don’t. In every other situation I offer the reward without delay, but in this case I take the time – a few seconds – to share a good look with the dog. I want to be sure they’re committed to staying down before I say “yes” and give them a treat. I take that moment because I don’t want them to think, ‘I jump, she turns and gives me a treat, therefore jumping got me the treat.’

And that’s where the timing really comes in – if I turn and see the dog is excited and might jump but it looks like I have a little window of time, I quickly give them an alternative behavior. I choose the cue ‘sit’ if the dog seems too excited to respond well to ‘come,’ and that’s often the case on a first visit with a shelter dog. Why that cue? Almost all dogs past puppy hood know the cue “sit,” and even if they don’t, if they are interested in a treat at all, it is very easy to guide them to comply. With a dog who calms down pretty quickly and clearly has no thought of jumping, I say “yes” and treat, then move right to ‘come,’ because greeting, is, after all, the point, and I’ll be reinforcing a calm greeting.

On a first visit with a shelter dog, I can’t be sure if he knows this cue. So I “lure” him in with that first use of it, showing him the treat and bringing it down in front of me so he steps forward to get it. I want to create optimal conditions for him to follow through on my request, and the lure serves that purpose. (If you want to learn more about “lures” versus “rewards,” McCann Dogs has a very clear article and podcast about it. They use a misleading title to attract attention, but its great info: Why Food Fails in Dog Training

With clear communication, timing, and patience, a dog who jumps can be taught that ‘four on the floor’ is the greeting that gets rewarded. And Rowsey? Someone else figured out what an excellent dog he is – he’s been adopted.

Next up, Teaching “leave it.”

Getting to Know a Shelter Dog: Belle

Belle – Sort of

When I first met Belle, I was pretty new to navigating the safety-latch of the kennel doors at the Potsdam Humane Society. The trick is to release the lever in one direction and carefully inch the door out just enough to get the lever in the right location for the door to swing in. Then the trick is getting into the kennel without the dog getting out. Belle’s a medium-size dog, but strong, and the door opening – in either direction – was the signal to try to scramble her way through it. From that point on, it was my legs blocking the way of a very determined dog as I tried to get into her kennel without her getting out. Once I was inside the kennel, I might as well have been on the moon for all the attention she paid me – getting out that door was her sole aim. In that moment, I would have said the photo above was an accurate portrayal of Belle: focused and impersonal.

But in our visits I’ve gotten to know more about Belle. For instance, I learned that she came to the shelter already knowing some verbal cues. She knows “leave it,” and she performs “sit” as though she invented it. She is highly treat-motivated and very smart: training is a game she’s eager to excel at. Which isn’t to say she doesn’t test the waters to see which behaviors get her what she wants.

During our first meeting she tried jumping up several times. There are different theories about why dogs do this and how to stop it. For my money, here’s the test any dog training theory needs to pass for me to give it a try:

Does the theory help me guide my behavior in a way that –

a) helps the dog understand and meet my expectations, and

b) does this in a way that develops rather than hinders our relationship.

Based on these qualities, theories that focus on dominance don’t interest me. In the case of jumping, the theory I like is, “dogs jump to get close to your face, because that’s how dogs greet.” Following that theory guides me to turn my back on the dog and say to her something like, “Nope, that’s not how to get what you want.” The reason I say this out loud isn’t so much that Belle will hear that I’m displeased, although I’m pretty sure she does, but that it will remind me of the message I want to convey – greeting me by jumping doesn’t work. That reminder serves as a way to coach myself to focus – and I’m convinced this focus helps me use more effective body language to get my message across.

Turning my back has worked well for me with some very committed jumpers at the shelter, and it worked well with Belle: she jumped up several times on our first visit, and only once since. To those who would say that dominance training would get a result on the first interaction, I can only shrug. I’m a teacher and I think repetition is the key to learning. I also think learning needs to happen on both sides. Belle’s response to patient repetition has taught me a lot about her, and she’s reminded me to keep my expectations high.

Of course, Belle’s still pretty excited when I go to get her from her kennel. But we both have a much easier time of it. And when we get back to the kennel, rather than looking for an opportunity to sneak back out, she does that perfect sit and waits for me to toss a treat for her. Things have changed.

Here are two portraits of Belle that are more like how I see her now:

Soft eyes, ready to join me on whatever small adventure I can cook up for us.
Soft eyes, waiting. ‘Cause getting paid to wait is a pretty good game.

Belle, as it turns out, is a pretty lovable dog. I’m glad I’ve had time to get to know her, and I hope that someone who can offer her a home – not just a couple of visits a week – will see in her what I see.

If you want to know more about Belle or about the other adoptable animals at the Potsdam Humane Society, check out their website or check out their petfinder link.

If you’d like to get an email notification when I post about dogs, head over to the contact page. Put “dogs” in the comment box, and I’ll be sure to send you an email notice.

Hanging out with the Shelter Dogs

The Potsdam Humane Society finally opened up its training sessions for volunteers in April. To say I was ready to spend some quality time with the pups would be the understatement of the year. Almost every week since then I’ve spent a few hours hanging out with the dogs. Today I met Angel Joleen.

Angel heading back to get a few more butt rubs.

Angel spent lots of her time just standing next to me while I petted her. I sat on the ground and started at her shoulders and moved my way down. When she figured that was enough she’d turn around so I could do the other side. Occasionally she’d head off to investigate the rest of the enclosure, and she was glad enough to chase a tennis ball a few times, but it was never long before we got back to the real business – a full back massage followed by a butt rub. At six and a half years old, her age might make some people overlook her, but with that beautiful brindle coat and that sweet disposition, I’m hoping someone finds their perfect match when they meet her.

Here’s another girl at the shelter: Belle.

Belle at rest

Belle’s two year and a half years old. I’ve visited with her five or six times. At the beginning of the first session she did a bit of jumping up, but she gave that up when I simply turned my back on her. Two facts to know about Belle: 1) She is a dog that sees one of her missions in life as destroying any toy she can get her teeth into – at the shelter they’ve hung the laundry basket that’s full of balls of all sorts high up on the chain link fence of the outdoor exercise yard.The first time I brought her there, I unhooked her leash and she bolted to the other end of the yard, leapt, and bopped the basket from underneath. Half-inflated basketballs and soccer balls and a couple of tennis balls went flying.

So, how’d I get a photo of Belle sitting calmly when there was a basket of balls to destroy just a few feet away? Fortunately, here’s fact: 2) Belle’s other mission in life is to figure out how to get treats. A food-motivated dog can be a thing of joy, and Belle fits that bill.

When I met her she already knew how to do a perfect “sit.” We’ve been working on adding “wait” to her catalog of commands. The best case scenario of training a dog is frequent, short training sessions – ideally, training would be interspersed throughout the day. But Belle and I don’t have all day – just 20-30 minutes. Given that on the first day she’d sit perfectly and then stand right back up, I’m pretty happy with our progress. Now, after asking for some super short wait times to remind her of the game, I’m able to move up to taking a couple of steps away and returning to her – or calling her to come to me – without her breaking from the sit.

Belle waiting for the release word (come) or for me to return to her.

Today I started working with her on “back up.” I do this simply by stepping close in to her and when she scoots back, giving the command “back up” and giving her the treat while I say “yes.” She caught on to this very quickly, although I’m not sure how I’ll get a good photo of that.

At the end of any visit, I try to create a few moments of calm. After 20 minutes of figuring out how to get treats, Belle’s ready to lay down and hang out. But I can tell she hasn’t forgotten about the treats.

Belle’s pretty sure she knows where those treats are

Our shelter does a great job matching up good dogs with good people, and I know the dog I work with today might not be here the next time I visit. Of course, that’s more than okay – it’s always good news when a dog’s been adopted. So for today, hats off to Angel and Belle: two sweet girls trusting us to find them good homes.

Book Review: Two Good Dogs

Apparently, given how many books she’s written, I’ve come late to the game of reading Susan Wilson’s work. Yesterday, I was browsing library shelves, wondering how I was going to find a comparable title for my own novel, when I saw the word “dog” and pulled Two Good Dogs from the shelf. I skimmed the back cover and the beginning of the front flap copy and plucked The Dog Who Danced from the shelf as well.

At home I settled in with the more recent book first. A few pages into 2GD, I wasn’t optimistic. The writing itself was more than adequate, but the pace at which plot lines came at me was daunting. I don’t need a slow-poke start, but I was too clearly reminded of novels that rocket along in this way all the way to the end, throwing characters and complications in right up to the last chapter. I was looking for a book to relax with, not keep up with. I was very glad, then, when the story line settled down. The world-building had done the job, and I could relax as the story unfolded.

There are complications of modern life to be had here: teenage addiction, dog-fighting and dog rescue, parent-child wrangling, economic woes. So this isn’t a sappy book. But there is the reassuring sense that things will turn out all right: a big dose of realism meets an equally big dose of good fortune. Is that escapism? Probably, but in a world that is going, as my grandmother might have said, “To hell in a hand basket,” I, for one, can use the break. I’m 14 chapters into the book, and I’m glad to keep going.


What does Spring look like?

When I signed up in January to take two online writing classes back-to-back, 10 weeks straight of weekly reading and writing deadlines, I thought, “This will take me right through Winter and into Spring!” The last due date was yesterday, and here’s this morning’s view of the path through the backfield. Blog_March 26 2018 Snowy walk

That black dog in the first photo is Gudgeon. He doesn’t much like the very cold temperatures, but this version of snow is a favorite. It has softened during the sunny days, then firmed up over night: he can walk on top of it and flop for a good back rub.


Then he’s ready for a walk . . .