One of the most useful, versatile and even life-saving cues to teach dogs is “leave it.” If it is taught and used properly, dogs can learn not to pick up dangerous items off the ground, not to eat the slice of pizza you just dropped and even not to touch your dinner when you place it on the coffee table. But when “leave it” is not taught correctly or used for other purposes, “leave it” can be ineffective or even detrimental.

A few years ago, I watched a novice dog trainer as he taught a dog how to “leave it.” He first put the dog into a sit-stay then he threw a couple of treats on the ground and told the dog to “leave it.” The very smart dog did as told – he didn’t touch the treats, however, it was not because he was told to “leave it.” It was because the man had placed the dog in a stay! I asked the man to try “leave it” again but this time, without a sit-stay command. As predicted, the dog did a nosedive for the treats.  He had not learned how to “leave it” and in a real-life situation when the dog’s owner needed to use the cue, the dog would not have responded. To learn how to teach “leave it,” read my post from January 14, 2011

I’ve also seen people use “leave it” for the wrong reasons which can and will have detrimental repercussions. I worked with a young couple who had a dog that liked to lunge out the front door and bark at anyone who walked by. The couple had worked with another trainer before calling me. This trainer put a choke chain on the dog and advised the couple to shout “leave it” to the dog and yank on the chain whenever he saw a person. As predicted, the dog’s behavior did not change and in fact, it grew worse. The dog was not originally aggressive to people but because of the negative association of getting yanked and shouted at whenever he saw a person, he became more agitated and tried to bite passersby. The better advice would have been to work on getting the dog to calm down and associate good things with seeing other people. And skip shouting “leave it.”

“Leave it” is best as an emergency command, that is, only use it when you really want to get your dog’s attention. If it is overused, the dog will become desensitized and may ignore you.  But used correctly, it’s a beautiful thing.