While most people teach their dogs to sit, down, stay and come, some may overlook two of the most important commands that assure a dog’s safety and well being: the “leave it” and “drop it” commands. Both of these gain particular importance during the holiday season, when we not only have all kinds of particularly yummy food out, but also guests who may take our attention away from more closely supervising our pooches.
First, it’s important to note that Leave it and Drop it are different, not just in application, but in the way they are perceived by the dog. For this reason, I like to use different cues for them, and teach them somewhat differently.
Leave It: The dog has not yet taken possession of the item. This means that he is looking at something and thinking about approaching or taking it. “Leave it” means he should forget about it and look back to his owner. Note that Leave It may also be used to call a dog off of items that will not be taken by mouth, including other dogs, cats, and even people who may not want the dog to bother them.
Drop It: This is more difficult because the dog is to let go of something that is already in his mouth. This is often called “give”. The important thing about “drop it” is that the meaning for a dog is different: he already has possession so, in his mind, he already owns it. If you try to take it from him, he may growl, bite or run away to defend something that his instinct tells him is rightfully his. This makes “drop it” more complicated to teach, but just as important. What if he’s picked up something that is going to make him sick like that box of homemade fudge or walnut brownies?
When teaching the Drop it command, it is important NOT to force a dog to give something up (i.e. pry it from his jaws) as this could actually increase the likelihood of the dog “resource guarding” and becoming more unwilling to give the item up. (Of course, in an emergency, you may be tempted to force it, but bear in mind that you may be bitten!) Remember that resource guarding is not about rank or status, but about defending what they believe to be rightfully theirs – it is a basic survival instinct.
For dogs who already have resource guarding issues, I recommend taking it one step back, and teaching the word “drop it” without anything in the dog’s mouth. Simply say “drop it”, and then toss treats to the floor, pointing out the treats. Over time, you will work up to the dog having things in his mouth, starting with very low value items, and very gradually working up to higher value items. For a detailed demonstration of the process, described by noted trainer, Chirag Patel, check out this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndTiVOCNY4M
With both Leave it and Drop it, it is important to reward the dog in order to make leaving or dropping an item worthwhile. Simply taking something from a dog or forcing him to leave it by pulling on a leash may work with low value items, or when he’s on a leash, but often not otherwise. By trading for yummier treats, in both cases, the dog will learn that it’s worth obeying the commands.
If you have any problems in teaching these commands, particularly if your dog is exhibiting any amount of aggression, contact a qualified dog behavior counselor for additional advice.
Have a safe and enjoyable holiday season with your pooches!