Teaching an Automatic Leave it Behavior: Training Games

Alight, so now we get to play some games!  Yay!  Fun times!  These games are all about helping your dog embrace leave it as a way of life.  And without further ado, here we go.

Game 1:  Classic Leave It Base Game

The ducks are a big temptation for Zora

You will need-

  • You dog
  • at least 2 kinds of food/treats.  1 really high value to your dog.  the other not very high value to your dog
  • Your hands

To play-

Put the high value bit of treat in 1 hand, close your hand into a fist and put that hand hidden behind your back

Put the lesser value bit of treat in 1 hand, close your hand into a fist and hold that hand at you dog’s level.  You want it close enough for your dog to touch, nose, lick, paw at, etc

Now wait.  Say nothing.  Do not move your extended hand.  Simply wait.  And remember to smile and breathe.  This is important 😉  And remember, just like ignoring the ice cream in the freezer that you really want while you are trying to loose weight on your diet, leave its are really hard.  It’s hard to pretend something you know is there and want, isn’t there.  So have patience and think kindly about your dog and their efforts.

Your dog might sniff at your hand, lick it, paw it, bark at it, try to nibble on it, jump at you.  Ignore all of this.  Quietly wait.  Remember to smile and breathe.  And don’t pull your hand away.

Eventually your dog will try a new response.  It might take 3 seconds it might take 3  minutes.  Incredibly rarely have I had it take a dog more than a few minutes, assuming the handler is not pulling their hand away and just holding steady.

What we are looking for is any new response that is incompatible with escalation.  This may be sniffing the ground, moving their nose away from your hand, walking away, lying down, etc.  When your dog offers a de-escalation response praise and instantly reward your dog with the treat hidden in your behind the back hand.    Work to reward your dog with treat placement, so they are encouraged to move further away from the leave it hand to get their reward.  Do not!  I repeat do NOT! reward your dog with the treat in your extended leave it hand.

Why?  Well think about it.  The vast majority of things we want dogs to ignore and leave in life, they aren’t actually going to get.  You aren’t going to reward your dog for leaving the motrin tablet on the floor by giving them permission to then eat the tablet, right?  So from the start we want to introduce dogs to the concept of willingness to accept some other reward from the one they really wanted.  And by the hidden behind your back treat being of higher value, most dogs are willing to go, “Heck yes!  I’m willing to take this new treat in exchange for ignoring the other, this one is way better!”

Now after a couple of repetitions, many dogs start to ignore completely the extended hand and focus on the one behind your back.  A this stage, you simply change hands.  The one behind your back now becomes the extended.  And the original extended hand, now goes behind your back.

Depending on your dog, you can play this game for up to 10 treats per session.  If your dog is loosing interest or finding the game too stressful, then end before your 10 treats are gone.

Variations on Game 1:

Variation 1: once your dog has mastered this with your leave it extended hand closed, practice with the leave it treat visible in the palm of your hand.  If your dog tries to grab the treat, simply close your hand over the treat.  Once your dog ignores the visible treat, again reward with the behind your back treat.

Variation 2:  instead of a food treat as your leave it extended hand treat, use other objects your dog finds tempting such as a sock, or crumpled tissue paper, or your underwear.

Variation 3:  once your dog has mastered this game and variations 1 and 2 with the treat or object held in your hand, play by placing the treat or temptation object on the floor.  Begin with the object covered by your hand, then progress to it visible, and finally to it on the floor with you standing next to it.  And similar for the treat or object on a chair, on a table or on the counter, or in the trash can.

Game 2:

You will need-

  • Your dog
  • Some treats or toys your dog likes

To play-

Stand (or for smaller dogs sit in a chair) holding a treat or toy up at the height of about your ear

And patiently wait.

Again most dogs will try jumping, barking, grabbing, etc.  Ignore all of this.

When your dog offers a de-escalation behavior such as walking away, sniffing, turning their head away, etc (for me, sitting or staring at the toy/treat is not a rewardable behavior as they are still fixated on the stimulus), praise and throw the treat or toy!  Throw the reward so that your dog has to turn and move away from you to get the toy or eat the treat.

By tossing the treat or toy, you now have a chance to practice the re-engagement of the game with your dog.  And your dog learning to re-engage without jumping, or barking.

Again play for up to 10 reps per session.  Less if your dog is getting tired or stressed.

Variations on Game 2:

Variation 1:  Instead of throwing the toy or treat held up in your hand, throw another toy or treat you have hidden behind your back or other location.

Variation 2:  Hold the treat or toy lower than ear level.  Again if your dog offers a de-escalation behavior, toss the toy or treat as a reward.

Variation 3:  Have the toy or treat on the floor.  Ask your dog to walk with you away from the toy/treat.  Or practice calling your dog to you away from the toy/treat.  As their reward, run with your dog to the toy/treat and then play with them with it.  Vary the cued behaviors your dog can do while ignoring the toy/treat.

Game 3- The Leave It Come Game

You will need-

  • Some high value treats
  • A toy or chew toy that you can easily hold onto in your hand as your dog chews on it.  Examples that usually work: a kong with some peanut butter in it, a bully stick, an edible nylabone

Note: if your dog has a history of resource guarding objects especially food objects, do not play this game without first consulting with an animal behavior professional.

How to play-

Stand or sit in a chair

Hold a bit of the high value treat in 1 hand hidden behind your back on your right side.

Hold the chew toy in your other hand, having a firm grip on the chew and hold it on your left side.  At early stages hold the chew so only a small bit of it is visible, as your dog progresses over successful sessions of this game, you can have more and more of the chew available.

Now turn your head and your attention to focus on the floor at your right side.

Your dog should quickly realize you have a yummy chew in your left hand and start to show interest in it.  Ignore this.  Your dog can chew the toy, but again you continue to hold onto it.  Don’t give it to your dog, so they can’t take it and walk away.

As your dog is interested in the chew, with you again focusing on the floor on your right side, start to happy talk.  Encouraging your dog to leave the chew and come pay attention to you on your right side.  Don’t pull the chew away, don’t tell your dog to ‘leave it’.  We want your dog to make the choice to leave the chew and come find you on your right side.

When your dog decides that (again because not much is visible) the chew isn’t so interesting, and decides to come figure out what you are happy babbling about, praise and reward him for coming with the high value yummy treat behind your back.

Game 4: The Personal Space Boundaries Game

You will need-

  • Your awesome exciting self
  • Your dog

How to play-

Do whatever you usually do to get your dog excited.  Jump around, laugh, pet them, be silly

As  long as your dog keeps their feet and mouth to themselves, keep being silly with them

If your dog starts to jump or grab with their mouth at you, instantly freeze.  Cross your arms over your chest, and stare up at the ceiling.  Be quiet this entire time.

Now wait.

Soon your dog will stop jumping or grabbing.  The instant your dog has their body parts back to themselves, begin the silly fun excitement engaging with your dog again

Again as long as your dog keeps 4 on the floor and mouth to themselves, keep the sillyness going.  If your dog starts to jump or grab, you quietly freeze and wait for them to get themselves back under control

Variations on Game 4:

Variation 1:  Instead of starting the game already in the room with your dog, have your dog in the room and you enter the room through a door.  Practicing a set up similar to when you come home from work.

Variation 2:  Play the game while holding a toy or treat in your hand.  If your dog is able to be goofy without fixating on the toy or treat, not grabbing or jumping, then give them the toy or treat as a reward.

Variation 3:  Vary the clothing you are wearing.  For example play while wearing a winter scarf that is hanging and bouncing.  Or gloves.  Or a loose fitting shirt or sweater.  Many dogs find such clothing tempting to grab at while playing, and use this game to help your dog learn to ignore pulling at your clothing.

Variation 4:  Add in more running type movement to the game.  Instead of being silly but fairly stationary, add you running.  Which again many dogs find more tempting to grab or jump.  Practice with your dog to help them learn to not grab or tackle a moving person.

Remember in all of these games, to practice short sessions.  And break the pieces of the game up into sessions your dog can be successful with.  Leave it is a really hard concept for people and dogs to master.  Take your time, and have fun with it!



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