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Sunday, July 15, 2012

“Leave It” What Does It Really Mean?

"Hello, my name is Steeler and I am
 a food~aholic."
"I first got addicted to food  as a pup" 

"I will watch the food for now, as told to.
But watch the video to see what happens" .

As a Therapy Dog Evaluator and a Canine Good Citizen Evaluator part of the testing requires that your dog obey a “Leave It” command.  For this portion of the test a yummy treat, usually human food, is dropped to the ground in plain sight of the dog. The dog is then walked over the food with a leave it command in place. If the dog struggles to get the food, or seemingly can’t take an eye off of the food, like he is fixated on it, the dog may fail the test.  Previous to 2012 the dog would only have to walk around the food in a close proximity but the rules have changed and the dog must now walk over the food.  (for therapy dog testing) Many owners will practice training the dog to leave the food alone in order to pass the test, but is that enough? And is training the dog to walk over the food really teaching him what leave it means?

  Recently I  had some questions asked of me regarding a problem dog.The owner wanted to know how they could stop one of their dogs from tormenting another family dog and how could they stop the dog from barking at other dogs while on a walk.

My suggestion was to teach and use the leave it command so trouble could be averted before it even started.  This means the dog must know what this command means and that it has more of a meaning than to only ‘step over that piece of food so you can pass the test' and here's why; 
What if the dog has no interest in food? Surely he will walk right over it and not bother it, does that mean he has learned what leave it means or is he just not interested in it? What if the dog is toy motivated would he be able to leave a toy alone when told to do so? There are so many variations and it is important when you teach this command that you teach it for everything the dog may love or encounter which includes chasing birds, squirrels, horses, cars, and kids on bikes.

I have to admit that when I was training my Newfoundlands who are food hounds to leave the food on the ground alone so they would pass the therapy test, I had not really given much thought to teaching them to leave everything alone that I asked them too. Somewhere along the line in my anticipation to have them be Therapy dogs I thought that leave it would mean to not delight in that muffin on a patient's hospital tray because let's face it their mouths could easily grasp a muffin off  even the highest of trays in a hospital setting with one swipe of a tongue!   I did not take into account the full magical and various uses of what the leave it command had!  I did indeed have to learn this the hard way.

The 'leave it'  command does not just mean to leave that treat on the ground alone, it means "leave everything you have your mind on at this time alone and put your focus on  me"  

As stated above, it could be that the treat on the ground you are asking the dog to leave alone is what he desires at the time, but if he does not desire the treat you will have a dog that pays no attention to it. This confuses many who believe because their dog did not look at the treat that the dog has a good solid leave it command, but really the dog simply does not desire it at that time.   The dogs that are real food hounds and desire the treat will be the ones that pull to get it or keep their eye on it until you've walked around the treat three or four times and gotten the message through to them that they cannot have it.  If you have a dog that is extremely toy motivated then you would put the toy in front of the dog and ask the dog to leave it which might be a better test for a non food motivated dog.   

Below are examples of me learning the hard way of what the leave it command really should mean and why it is important to teach this in many different situations.

Steeler, my third Newfoundland to be tested for Therapy dog work had learned very well to leave the treat on the floor alone even though he is a food hound. This means that he knew what the command leave it meant right?

Wrong! Really, really, really, wrong!

 One fresh spring day I thought it would be nice to take Steeler for a walk through town for continued socialization. I had no idea that he was suddenly going to turn into Cujo on a stick when a motorcycle turned the corner and Steeler stood staunchly at the end of the lead as the motorcycle came up the street.  So at that instant what Steeler truly desired was to go after the motorcycle and clearly leave it to him did not mean anything other than to leave that piece of food on the ground alone!

I could see a great amount of work still needed to be done! Granted I should have known better than to feel comfortable  exposing  Steeler in such a manner because he  did not grow up in my home rather he was brought back to me at the age of 3 years, so I did not have any idea what his triggers might be.  This may be a lesson learned for future shelter dog adoptions, tread slowly when exposing the dog to new things.

To get Steeler to understand that leave it means "leave everything you have your mind on at this time alone and focus on me " I had to work a little harder, first at home so he was in a non distracting place and with different items. Then gradually I had to build up to more distracting places. When I thought we were ready I then had to put him in that circumstance of the busy street again only this time  I had to up the reward ante from hot dog to chicken pieces, so that hopefully his reward was a greater than the reward of chasing the motorcycle or other loud vehicle. Since he is food motivated I purposely did not feed him beforehand as I wanted him to be really, really, hungry. After all, if a 175 pound dog wants to chase a motorcycle there is very little one can do to stop it short of tethering him to a steel pole!

 Once a dog truly learns what the leave it command means you do not need to lug a fully cooked chicken around in your pocket, however, I always suggest that when you are going into new situations of which you are not sure of, that you have a special backup treat handy! This I learned after the next experience I had with Steeler which was at one of Pennsylvania’s largest fairs. We were working at our County Animal Response Team’s booth, which is stationed in front of the horse barn and right near the road that leads to the grandstand where the hot rods and horses race around a track.  As our volunteers stood there giving the patrons information on our organization and with Steeler greeting people as our mascot, there suddenly came a line of horse and buggies trotting up the street next to us to go to the track.  I had no idea that a horse would be something Steeler would take great interest in!  Hubby had Steeler on lead greeting patrons while I talked to potential volunteers and customers and suddenly Steeler broke lose from hubby and came nose to nose with one of the horses! I am told since I missed the whole dramatic scene play out, that both Steeler and the horse stood nose to nose for a brief few seconds before hubby finally grabbed a hold of Steeler's lead and brought him back to the CART trailer. I don’t know what would have happened had more time passed before Steeler’s leash was grabbed, but I did not want to find out at such a public event!

  Knowing the horses would have to make their way past us again to return to the barn, I sent hubby off to buy a few hot dogs from one of the food vendors. As the horses came by I had Steeler on lead and I held that hot dog in my hand so that he could continuously nibble on it as the horses trotted by all the while repeating the command leave it until they passed.  

Days later when the horses came by again along with the loud hot rod cars to follow later in the day, we all knew better, and anyone that had Steeler’s lead used the ‘Leave it’ command as soon as they saw the horses or cars coming up the road and continued to say the command until they passed our booth just to be sure Steeler understood what we wanted. Over the week’s time we were successful with Steeler understanding the leave it command and in the end his reward was nothing more than an ordinary peanut butter biscuit.  Success!

It is up to us as the owner to scour the situation as to what our dogs may desire at a specific time and use the command before that situation is right upon us.  If we wait too long to use the command the dog's mind might already have  moved too far forward  and it may not be possible to get the attention  back.  I say this because we are ordinary people and we train our dogs as ordinary people would. We are not training our dogs for something like police work or guide dogs where every command is vital to the team. However for those of you who do go above and beyond I salute you for a job well done!

 So if you know that a squirrel, a bird, a bike, or another dog  is going to get your dog moving and pulling try these few steps in training before putting the dog in the situation.

1) Make sure the dog is hungry.

2) Take your chicken & go out to the yard and hold the food in front of the dog letting him nibble it all the while saying ‘leave it’ as he eyes the squirrel. (I would make this a treat  that the dog only gets when he obeys this command so it has more meaning to him) 

3) Keep it brief to start, seconds to minutes then take the dog back in the house. Gradually you will build up the time you spend outside.
By doing it slowly you are setting the dog up for success not failure. If the dog fails at something too many times, eventually it means nothing to them. There is no praise, no reward, so why forgo the fun of chasing that squirrel because if they can catch it, then they have succeeded in rewarding themselves!    

4) Always give a release when you think the object is okay to get. So if you put the food or a toy on the ground, and the dog obeys the command of leaving it, then give a release command that tells the dog it is now okay to have it.
 If you don't give a release, such as in the instance where Steeler wanted that motorcycle, the dog should understand to stay in place, leave the object alone and wait for the next command. 
Don’t be surprised if you find yourself picking the item up and putting it in the dog’s mouth with a release as sometimes they learn so well not to touch it they forget about the item they wanted as Steeler demonstrated in the above video!

Until next time happy training!   

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