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Teaching Your Dog to “Leave It”

Dr. Pamela Reid, ASPCA

Have They No Taste Buds?

If given half a chance, dogs eat some pretty disgusting things. I’ve seen my dog gobble down a stale bagel, a McDonalds hamburger wrapper, a piece of rotten cheese, and a used tissue. He appeared to relish each item much the same as I savor a bowl of Haagen Daz Vanilla Fudge ice cream! Have dogs no taste buds?

Teaching Your Dog to "Leave It"


Dogs actually do have discerning palates. That same dog will reject an olive, an orange, or a sip from my wine glass. Dogs really dislike bitter tastes but beyond that, virtually anything goes. Like humans, dogs have a powerful sweet tooth, which explains their predilection for doughnuts, ice cream, and other calorie-laden vices.

Dogs possess eating patterns they inherited from their ancestral relatives. Dogs are prone to binging. Their ancestors couldn’t rely on finding regular meals so they evolved the ability to eat large quantities of food in one sitting. When you’re lucky enough to obtain food, the rule is stuff in as much as possible because hard times could be ahead! So it’s no wonder that dogs will swallow as much of whatever they find as quickly as possible! Dogs are also scavengers. They like nothing better than trotting along, nose to the ground, sniffing for any morsel of remotely ingestible material. Dogs come by this trait honestly. One theory of how and why dogs evolved was that their ancestors survived and thrived feeding off human waste and refuse. Indeed, the majority of the world’s dogs are not pampered pets, they are feral creatures that hang around human settlements cleaning up the garbage. Dr. Ray Coppinger jokes that dogs aren’t man’s best friend; they are man’s best scavenger! So it’s perfectly understandable that dogs find treasures in things that turn our stomachs.

Despite being traits that increase survival of the feral dog, scavenging and binging can be problematic, especially for the city-dwelling dog with a sensitive tummy. Dogs possess very powerful digestive systems and a dog that is accustomed to surviving on garbage can eat just about anything without paying for it later. But a pampered city dog that scarfs down a package of rotting sandwich meat on the street or that inhales a package of Tums stolen from your purse can suffer from GI distress. Some dogs will simply vomit before the ingested material causes problems but other dogs will hang on to their prize only to suffer nausea and/or diarrhea a few hours later. Chicken bones are a real find for a dog but cooked bones splinter easily and can cause damage in the GI tract. Dogs that aren’t accustomed to eating bones sometimes swallow a bone virtually whole, especially if they suspect you might take it away, and large pieces of bone can become lodged and cause an obstruction. This can sometimes require risky and expensive surgery. So, despite the fact that dogs appear to gain tremendous enjoyment from scavenging their way through the neighborhood, it is a dicey pastime for them.

Steps to Preventing Scavenging
The best way to minimize your dog turning into a street cleaner on walks is to carry a plentiful supply of very tasty treats with you on walks. As you walk along, frequently say your dog’s name and, when the dog looks up at you, smile and say “yes” and pop a treat in his mouth. Continue walking. Do this every few seconds in the beginning; if your dog likes the treats you’re offering, he should start volunteering to look up at you. Then you can stop saying his name and just wait for him to do this on his own. Each time he looks up at you, smile and say “yes”, and give him a treat. Pretty soon, you’ll have a dog that walks along, looking up at you frequently. You’ve accomplished two things with this training: (a) your dog is focused on you rather than the ground, and (b) your dog has learned that you are a reliable source of yummy food. Why bother searching the sidewalks for crumbs when you can get sirloin steak or chunks of cheese for gazing adoringly at your owner?

If you have your dog enrolled in training classes, make sure you never reward your dog by placing or dropping treats on the floor. If other students drop treats on the floor during class, avoid moving your dog into those areas. It is perfectly appropriate to ask the instructor to encourage students to attend to tidiness for everyone’s mutual benefit.

Avoid Competing with your Dog for Scraps
Want to know the best way to teach your dog to become totally obsessed with scavenging? Pounce on your dog and rip the offending morsels from his mouth. From your dog’s perspective, it looks, for all the world, like you want the crumbs all for yourself. Most dogs deal with this by becoming extremely efficient at grabbing and swallowing garbage before you can get it. I inadvertently taught my first dog to grab and inhale just about everything in a nanosecond so I never had any idea what he was ingesting.

I learned from that mistake and I now teach my dogs a completely different lesson. I suggest that you teach your dog that you are simply curious about what he’s found. When he picks something off the street, ask him what he has (“whatcha got there?”) and offer him one of your tasty treats. When he drops the item to take the treat, you get to visually inspect what he has. If it’s a half eaten bagel or a pizza crust, point at it and encourage him to eat it. Or pick it up when he drops it (if it’s not too gross) and hand it back to him. If the item is not safe to be eaten, even by a canine scavenger, feed treats as you walk away from the dropped item. You need to keep feeding until your dog has forgotten his lost prize.

If you can’t bear to permit your dog to eat any refuse of unknown origin, it’s still possible to teach your dog this valuable lesson: just take a solo walk along your route and drop pieces of food for your dog to discover later. Take your dog for a walk so he’ll find the “baits” and proceed as above.

Teaching “Leave It”
It’s very helpful to teach your dog a phrase that means he should refrain from picking up a particular item from the ground. Begin this by holding a treat in your closed fist. Hold your hand out to your dog and say “leave it” (in a friendly conversational tone of voice, you don’t need to sound threatening). Most dogs will sniff the hand, maybe mouth or paw at it. Possibly the dog will bark at you. Be patient and wait. Eventually the dog will give up and pull away from your hand. Immediately say “yes”, open your fist, and reach to offer your the dog the treat. Put another treat in your hand and repeat the process. About once every 3-4 repetitions, hold the treat in an open hand and don’t say “leave it”. This teaches the dog that it’s only when you say “leave it” that he needs to pull away from the treat. With sufficient repetitions, your dog will resist reaching for your hand when he hears “leave it”.

The next step is to teach your dog to look at you in order to earn the treat. Hold the treat in your hand, say “leave it” and wait. When your dog doesn’t hear “yes”, he will probably look up at you. At that instant, say “yes” and offer the treat to him in your open palm. Perform at least 40 more repetitions until your dog makes direct eye contact with you when he hears “leave it”. He has now learned that the way to get you to give him a treat is to look at you. To refine this behavior even more, you can delay your “yes” by a second or so at a time until your dog will stare at you for as long as 5-10 seconds before earning the “yes” and the treat.

The next step is to transfer from having the treat in your hand to placing it on the floor. When you reach this stage of training, use so-so treats for the bait and really amazing treats for rewards. So, for instance, you might place a piece of kibble or dry dog biscuit on the floor and use pieces of chicken or steak to reward your dog. Place the bait on the floor and say “leave it”. Cover the bait with your hand. As above, wait until your dog stops trying to get at the bait. At the moment your dog looks at you, say “yes”, remove the bait from the floor, and give the dog a really tasty treat from your other hand. Repeat this exercise at least 40 times until your dog no longer tries to get the bait from the floor but just looks up at you instead. Progress to the next step: hold your hand an inch or two above the bait on the floor. Repeat as above. It is imperative that you do your best to make sure the dog does not get the bait from the floor! Occasional mistakes happen, of course, and, if your dog does manage to snatch the boring treat from the floor, say “oh too bad”, show him the tasty treat you had for him (you might even want to let him sniff it) and eat it yourself!!!! (Please note that some dogs may become aggressive over food placed on the floor, as though once it is on the floor, the dog “owns” it. If you suspect your dog might do this, you should seek guidance from a certified behaviorist, veterinary behaviorist, or CPDT certified dog trainer.)

When you reach the point that you can hold your hand about six inches above the bait on the floor, place your dog on a leash and stand next to the bait. Tell him “leave it” and, if he tries to snatch the bait, use your foot to cover it. Wait for your dog to look at you, say “yes” and give him a tasty treat from your hand. With sufficient repetitions, you should be able to walk your dog up to and past baits on the floor and, when the dog hears “leave it”, he should look up at you in anticipation of a really yummy treat. Be advised that if your dog is straining at the end of the leash to get at the bait, you need to repeat earlier training steps until your dog has the idea thoroughly entrenched in his brain that he should ignore what’s on the floor and make eye contact with you instead.

The final training step is to generalize your dog’s training to the outside world. Place baits in obvious places along your walking route and then take your dog for a walk. As you approach a bait, point at it (if necessary), tell him to “leave it”, and keep walking. If he strains at the leash toward the treat, stop, out of range of the bait, and wait for him to remember that he’s supposed to look at you. When he looks at you, say “yes” and give a few tasty treats while you move the dog along. Your dog will continue to improve and, as long as you do your homework and help him practice, he should respond in exactly the same manner when you come across real garbage.

Worth the Effort
I realize this is a lot of training but just think how much more relaxing your walks will be when you’re accompanied a dog more interested in you than in what’s lying on the ground. It’s a genuine pleasure to walk along, knowing that you’ve put in the effort to teach your dog that scavenging isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

© 2003 ASPCA

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