Self-control Training for the Family Dog

It’s anything but a normal time of year. As the weather cools, our activities tend toward being indoors. People come over. They bring goodies and gifts. It’s all wonderful unless you’re the family dog and unusual eats tend to end up with you spending the night in the emergency vet clinic.Behavior and Training

There is one nearly magical cue you can teach your dog in just a few minutes that will save the holiday turkey, the presents under the tree, all those goodies on the coffee table and perhaps an attack of canine pancreatitis!

The phrase is, “Leave it” – and if you think you’ve got this already, please keep reading as how this behavior is taught is so very important. It’s the difference between a dog thinking, “When you aren’t watching me, anything goes,” (aka: Bumpass hounds taking off with the unattended turkey) and “I heard ‘Leave It’, so there is no use trying to grab it – my winning behavior is to ignore that thing completely.” (Like baby Thor in the training video, below.) Do you see? The difference is the dog actually choosing to default to ignoring what he really wants in expectation of something better!

(It is an exercise in self-control for the dog that actually inspires me to get back to my healthier diet days when this video below was taken… but that’s a story for another day!)  Go ahead, watch the video – and then check back here for a quick outline of the training steps.

Leave It Starring Thor

The steps to train this are very simple.

  1. Put treats in both hands. Show your dog one hand with treats inside a closed fist. Tolerate any amount of licking, pushing, pawing and nibbling your dog offers. When he stops and pulls his nose away, quickly bring a treat to his mouth with your other hand. Repeat until your dog immediately turns away from your offered fist.
  2. Now open your hand and show him the treat. If he comes forward, close your fist promptly so he doesn’t grab the treat. If he waits or turns his head away, feed from the other hand. Repeat until he doesn’t take the bait, then switch hands to practice both sides.
  3. Now bring the treat to the floor and cover it with one hand. He may start all over with the nudging, pawing, nibbling. Just wait him out. When he stops and looks away, feed from the other hand. Repeat until he refuses to believe that covered hand will ever give him anything.
  4. Now do the clamshell game with the treat on the floor. I call this the now you see it, now you don’t exercise. When he dives for the treat, be quick to cover it so he can’t accidentally win it. Repeat until he believes diving for the treat never works.
  5. When you’d bet $50 the dog won’t dive for the treat as you place it, put the treat on the floor and say, “Leave it.” Here, you are telling him what the behavior is called. You want to pair the correct behavior with the phrase, not threaten him into obeying. There is no punishment if he gets it wrong- he just doesn’t win the treat! Repeat this until the dog begins looking at you when you say, “Leave it.”  It helps if your treat delivery from the other hand comes from up high, from your face.
  6. Practice steps 1-5 in different locations to be sure the dog understands the game completely.
  7. Once you can drop treats on the floor and say, “Leave it”, and your dog ignores those treats and looks up at you, you are ready to practice with treats on a chair, a table, in different locations, with different food, etc.
  8. Keep PAYING for good choices! Hard work should equal HIGH pay!
  9. Have reasonable expectations. Teaching a cue like, “Leave it” to fluency takes several weeks of practice. If you set out a platter of lunchmeats and eggnog for your aunts and uncles, tell your dog, “Leave it” and then take him with you as you exit the room!
  10. Practice makes permanent – keep up the practice even after the holidays to help your dog be successful at this great cue whenever it is needed.

Enjoy the process and remember, if you’d like a little real-life coaching and to practice with others, check out our Holiday Manners Tune-up class  (we have many sessions to choose from, some beginning this week!)  We’re here to help you enjoy your dog more and hopefully, get the turkey to your guest’s plate and the dog off the kitchen table!

Catherine Comden, CPDT-KA