Teaching an Automatic Leave It Behavior: Management

I’ll let you in on a little secret, I don’t care about obedience.  I don’t care if your dog can sit, or lie down or stay or come when called.  Actually if you come see me for a behavior concern and you tell me that no matter what if you tell your dog to sit and stay she will, I will cringe.

And now I can hear you, “What?!  But you’re a dog trainer!”  You’re flabbergasted.  “But I’ve come to you for training, I want to fix this problem!  I want my dog to be obedient!  If I say, “Sit!” I need her to sit.  If I say “Come!” I need him to come immediately.  When I say, “No!” I want him to stop doing that!  What am I paying you for?!”

Safety.  That’s what you’re paying me for.  To teach you and your dog how to feel and be safe.  And by being safe I mean a low bite and injury risk.  Some of the most obedient dogs I know are some of the  most unsafe dogs I know.

“But, Katrin, how can that be?  That makes no sense.  I’ve been told all of my life that an obedient dog is a dog under control, doesn’t that mean the dog is safe?”

Uh, no.  Let me tell you a bit about what I’ve observed over the years.  Dogs that tend to be welcome by people in places tend to meet 3 criteria.  Those are:

  1.  The dog has had a wide range of exposure and social history, to where they find very little truly novel or scary.  And if startled, the dog has excellent recovery abilities and skills.
  2. The dog has excellent impulse control and arousal control skills.  With a wide repertoire of safe coping skills.  A dog who says ‘No thanks I’m going to ignore your sit stay cue and walk away now rather than let this stranger pet me,’ is a safer dog than the dog who says, ‘You told me to sit stay here, so I’m going to tolerate this stranger petting me even though I don’t really like it.’
  3. The dog has an owner or handler who understands their dog’s communications, is attentive to their environment and who will advocate for their dog’s needs.

If you notice, responding promptly or consistently to obedience commands came into that list no where.

Sure obedience cues are often used as a form of helping teach dogs arousal control.  Giving dogs a more effective means to communicate their wants and needs to people.  For example how often is the recommendation ‘if your dog is jumping at people coming into your house, teach your dog to sit for petting and attention.’  Using obedience (teaching sit stay) to give the dog a way to gain the attention they want.  Sure, this can and does work effectively for many dogs and their people.  But there are other ways to accomplish the same as well (which I can go into in another post).  And I’m not saying I don’t ever use obedience to aid in teaching arousal control, I’m saying it’s not my primary go to.

My primary means of helping dogs gain an arousal control education is through what a client once jokingly termed, “The Ignore to Earn Program.” (1)  Meaning providing dogs many opportunities to embrace the concept of ‘if you really, really want something to happen (or not happen) the most effective way to enable that is to ignore it.’  Notice that I said the dog is doing this.  Not the owner.  Which on the outset can be sometimes confusing to folks just learning it.  Another way to define this is as an automatic leave it response.

Like many behaviors, this is easier to teach a young puppy who is just forming their relationship with the world, than helping an older adolescent or adult dog relearn more appropriate skills.  So my suggestion, if you have a puppy take the time to train this response from the get go.  And if you have a dog you are looking to retrain, take the time to train this and don’t rush the steps.

When I am teaching an automatic leave it, I think of it in a wide generalized manner.  I don’t compartmentalize the response to just a certain situation where I find the response problematic at that time.  I want the dog to embrace and generalize the way of life that means ‘stop and think first, not react first.’

So with that Step 1 involves:

  1.  A few training games
  2. High levels of structure and management so the dog has no or very limited opportunity to practice the now unwanted escalation response

In this post right now, let’s focus on part 2 of Step 1.  The environmental management and structure portion.  Since without it, progress will be inhibited.

Think about when you go on a diet.  When you first start the diet, you want to limit temptation and your chances of say eating a bag of cookies.  So you go through the house and throw out or give away all the tempting cookies and ice cream and chocolate bars in the house.  Right?  Because as your diet progresses and managed eating becomes your new learned normal, then you can start to add temptations back into the home.  Once you have learned the skills to manage your behavior so you can eat just 2 cookies instead of an entire bag of them at once.  But right now, at the start of your diet, having those cookies in the house would be too much and your weight loss goals would be more likely to fail.  Right?

photo 2
Using a baby gate when Zora was a pup to help her learn to give Tom a break.

Same with your dog.

If a person coming into the house is just too tempting for your dog and he will jump on that person.  At the early stages of training, don’t ask your dog to be right at the door as the guest enters.  Instead maybe have a baby gate up and your dog is now 15′ away from the door behind the gate.  Or your dog is in another part of the house, safely in their crate as the guest enters.  Then once all has settled, you bring your dog out on leash so you can help her make the good choice to not jump on the guest.  Makes sense?  Right?

Ok, so further examples of management to employ during this process:

  1.  Leashes are you friend.  As long as you remember: leashes are emergency safety devices not control devices.  So you use the leash to limit your dog’s ability to make a poor decision, but don’t use the leash to make the decision for your dog unless necessary from a safety stand point.
  2. Baby gates or other barriers are your friend.  Use them.
  3. Wax paper or window film is your friend if you have a dog that window watches or barks at passerbys out the window.  Use it.
  4. Crates are your friend.  Work to get your dog comfortable being crated or confined.
  5. Food is your friend.  Use it as needed to help your dog proactively practice a good response to a temptation.

The key to management: use techniques to limit your dog’s chance to practice the unwanted behavior.

Next post we will begin to cover Part 1 of Step 1: Training Games to help teach your dog the new desired automatic leave it response.


  1. I used to call it No Begging Begging.  After how when Monty 1st came into my life at the age of 2.5yrs he was a horrible visible beggar of food.  The old classic drool and push at you then if you left food anywhere he’d take it in a flash.  So No Begging Begging came to be.  Which became if Monty was quietly lying on his dog bed, curled up, relaxed and eye closed as if he was ‘sleeping’ a yummy food morsel just might be tossed at his head.  People would sit on our couch with a snack, and he will immediately assume this position and they’d go, “Oh wow!  He’s so good!  My dog would be all over me begging for this right now!”  And I’d laugh since Monty was begging horribly for that food right then and there, but the only begging behavior that over time was reinforced was the one where he lay quietly on his dog bed ‘sleeping’ (which was all an act, he wasn’t actually sleeping but really lying in wait hoping a treat would get tossed to him.) which most people do not associate as a begging behavior.

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