This cue is used to give you control in situations when your dog is way too interested in another dog, or something icky or just questionable. The easiest way to ensure that your dog can't access the things you don't want him to access, of course, is through management... because sometimes it's just not reasonable to expect him to disregard Really Cool Stuff, like deer droppings, unattended garbage, and strange dogs.
The "leave it" cue is fairly simple to teach, and a wonderful accompaniment to the other manners commands. The following set of instructions can be used to stop counter-surfing, simply by placing the "bait" food on the counter, and using the really good treats as the decoy.
Note that in order for this to work, everything hinges on:
1. the dog trusting in the system of reward; and
2. his not gaining access to the rewards on the counter, unless they come from your hand.
Get out two types of treats: one is the "bait" treat (like dry kibble) and one really good (like cheese or liverwurst). Show the bait treat to the dog, and when he goes for it, close your hand so he can't get it. The dog will start to "mug" your hand, and will continue doing this for a while and then just give up. When he backs off, give him the good treat. This type of training is called “doggie zen” (in order to get the good stuff, you must give up what you want... trusting in the system of reward). When you teach this way, your dog will be looking for that better treat, and he’ll learn to give things up quickly!
When your dog gets to the point where he consistently waits for the good treat rather than mugging your hand for the bait treat, the next step is to put the bait treat on the ground (or counter) but be ready to cover it if necessary. If your dog shows interest in the bait treat, start using the cue "leave it", then in that instant when he attention comes to you, immediately give him the good treat. When he becomes consistent with focusing attention on you with the cue, start giving the "leave it" command, wait a few seconds, then treat. When he's really good at this step, start incorporating distance into it -- give the "leave it", move a step or two away from the treat, and immediately give him the really good treat. As he gets better at this phase, you can get further away from him.
The next phase is to let the dog see you putting out the bait treats on the ground. Using a companion heel, walk him past these, near enough that he can reach them if he really wants to -- if he goes for one, use the "leave it", and give the really good treat for listening. If he passes one with only minor interest, jackpot him! By now, the "leave it" cue is fairly well-installed so that you can use it if you need to, but if you find yourself using it regularly, you may want to back up a step in the game plan -- the goal is to teach your dog not to eat the nasties (or the goodies on the counter) whether you are there to tell him or not.
You can use better and better treats to enable stimulus control in high-distraction settings, so that this lesson is a well-learned one. Then, start working on using the "leave it" with dogs as bait, so that your dog will only show interest in another dog when released. If your dog has doggie friends, arrange a play-date, let them play for 15 minutes, then put them on leash and practice the Leave-it cue for 5 minutes. When they do well, a good treat is the reward. When they do REALLY well, playing for 5 minutes with that other dog as the reward…. Remember to inject distance as criteria when the dogs seem too interested in one another, then gradually lessen the distance. I think these kinds of play-dates are so fun!!
Brenda Rushman, CCBC