Updated: Jan 4, 2021
When you are training your dog, communication is key! That means cutting down on confusion by being very clear and concise with what we want. Staying consistent with what we are asking for goes a long way toward making our words meaningful and that helps us train successfully. There are a lot of words that many of us end up using interchangeably, but they don’t mean the same thing. Down and Off, Stay and Wait, and most commonly Drop it and Leave It. This can lead to inconsistencies and frustration between us and our dogs. If that is the case, then what is the difference between Drop It and Leave It?
In their simplest terms, Drop It means ‘get that out of your mouth,’ while Leave It means ‘don’t put that in your mouth!’ Drop It is used after your dog has picked up something they shouldn’t have, and Leave It is used before they get there. So they are similar, but they accomplish two different things. They do both have a few important things in common though.
First of all both of these behaviors can be potential life savers or, could save you a trip to the vet or, at the very least, save your new sandals or prevent some seriously stinky breath. Swallowing, chewing, picking up or rolling in things they shouldn’t be, are all things we obviously want to avoid, and having a dog who is excited to Drop It or Leave it when asked can be invaluable. Unfortunately, the other thing these two behaviors can have in common is many dogs learn to dislike and ignore these words. It can be easy to teach our dog to run away when they hear Drop It or to pull towards the thing and gobble down whatever we ask them to Leave. Why does that happen and how do we avoid teaching our dogs to ignore these things and train those oh so important behaviors properly?
Teaching your dog a solid Drop It cue can be so useful, especially for puppies! Dogs explore the world with their mouths and that can get them into trouble no matter what age. A lot of dogs unfortunately learn that Drop It is a cue to be avoided, and hearing those will make them either run away or swallow whatever they have. This happens for a few reasons.
We tend to chase a puppy who gets into something they shouldn’t have. It is often just our natural reaction to go get that thing from them. Unfortunately that teaches them that all they have to do to get a fun game of chase in, is to go steal that shoe or sock or whatever it may be.
The second mistake people often make is forcing a dog to drop something and not giving them anything in return. This can be scary for dogs and make them fearful and more likely to run away when they see you coming for them or hear the words "Drop It." When we work with our dogs we want to find ways to make them want to do the things we are asking of them. That means making it fun and worth their while. When teaching your dog Drop It, it is important to always be trading up. I see your shoe and I raise you this plush squeaky toy. I see that dead frog and raise you some cheese and a fun game of chase! If they never get anything better than what they picked up when we ask them to Drop It, why would they listen? If they feel it isn’t worth it to them, they won’t.
One of the best ways to introduce Drop It is during play.
Engage your dog in a game of tug of war. Before they get too involved in the game, but with the toy still in their mouth, take a treat and put it right in front of their nose. Once they drop the toy, say, “yes!” and reward. Immediately engage them in play again.
Once they are used to dropping their toy for a treat, introduce your verbal cue. While tugging, say ‘Drop It’ and bring that treat right to their nose. Once they drop it say, “Yes!” and reward. Repeat that several times.
Once they are used to that, just say the words ‘Drop it’ without taking the treat out. If they do, say “Yes!” and reward. If not, it probably means you have moved a little too fast. Take a step backwards and repeat several more times with the treat in front of their nose before trying again.
This teaches your dog that Drop It is actually pretty awesome. (Watch our video to learn more about drop it.) here. Not only do I get a tasty snack but we just start playing again. Not bad! Now some dogs will disengage with play after a couple repetitions and that is fine! Keep these sessions short and sweet. If your dog has resource guarding, growls, or snaps at you when you get near them when they have something that is a little different. Give us a call and we can help you with that too!
Now for teaching Leave It. As mentioned above, ‘Leave It’ is for situations where there is something that your dog wants but hasn’t gotten to it yet. It can be extremely helpful for dogs who like to find smelly things to eat or roll in. It can also be helpful for dogs who find it very difficult to leave a good smell alone while out on their walks. The thing to keep in mind here is that Leave It means you can’t have that, and you can never have that. There are some common mistakes that can lead our dogs to either hate hearing those words or, to be confused as to what they mean. Similar to ‘Drop It’ we can accidentally teach our dogs to hate hearing those words, leading to them completely ignoring them or actively fighting them. This often looks like a sudden lunge toward whatever they are trying to get to or just them pulling even harder to try to get there. This happens because, once again, we need to make it worth their while. They should get something equal to or better than what they are leaving once they do so. Or else why would they? It’s just not worth it! As with most things, teaching Leave It is best taught away from real life distractions.
Start out with treats that aren’t particularly amazing to your dog such as a kibble or biscuits. Present them to your dog in a closed fist and just wait. As soon as your dog does anything besides trying to get that treat out of your hand, say “yes!” and reward from your other hand.
Now this part is very important. Remember, Leave It means you can never have that. That means they can’t have that treat. If you reward them with what you are asking them to leave, that turns it into more of a Wait. In your dog’s mind, Leave It will start to mean, ‘I can’t have it yet, but soon I’ll be allowed to!’ That makes the Leave It unreliable. So remember, always reward them with your opposite hand.
Once they are starting to leave your hand alone, introduce the verbal cue, ‘Leave It.’ Say it as soon as you present your fist. Repeat the steps above until your dog understands the behavior.
Then start opening your hand, little by little, and lowering your hand closer and closer to the ground until finally you can leave the treat unattended on the ground. Once they can do that consistently, you are ready to take this out into the real world!
So there you have it. The difference between Drop It and Leave It. Two behaviors that will make your life easier and help to keep your dog safe. So go out and get training. Keep us updated on your progress inside of our free Facebook group (Click here to join!) reach out with any questions, and most importantly have fun!