Why I avoid saying “leave it!” (part one)

I’ll add my two cents in the ranks of trainers who don’t create a “leave it” cue that means, “here is a thing you want to have and I’m not going to let you have it.”

Ideally the cue “leave it,” would signal a reinforcement opportunity (just like “sit” “down,” “water,” and all our other cues). “Reinforcement” based trainers train it by rewarding the dog for “leaving it.” But how does this “leave it” cue function when we’re not training it, but when we’re actually using it? How is our tone of voice when we say “leave it ?” What if you don’t happen to have a chunk of steak in your pocket when you are cuing your dog to “leave it” the steak on the plate?

If we’re teaching a dog a verbal cue that tells them “you can’t have a thing you want,” no matter that we are delivering food reinforcement during training, we’re associating a cue with negative punishment during real life. The function of punishment is to cause behavior to shrink, and in this case, that’s what we’re hoping will happen. When we train “leave it,” the idea behind the lesson is to get the dog’s inappropriate behaviors around stuff they shouldn’t have to shrink. There are two types of punishment. “Negative punishment” is when an animal can’t have something they want, and “positive punishment” is when something aversive such as pain, discomfort, fear is added immediately after a behavior. So “leave it” seems to be associated with negative punishment. But both types of punishment have problem side effects, because dogs can (and generally do) seek to avoid punishment through escape, avoidance, stealthiness, aggression. And if we aren’t there to say “leave it?” Goodbye cheese platter?

Saying “leave it,” points out reinforcement the dog can’t have. For many dogs, the cue just creates a “forbidden fruit” that they will take when you aren’t looking. It can stimulate anxiety and frustration that can actually prolong the growth of undesirable behaviors!

Instead, what if I teach my dogs to trust, and relax and know that I am always on their side. What if, instead of drawing attention to opportunities they can’t have, I can teach them to search for and focus on opportunities they CAN have?

I like it when my dogs alert me to “interesting things” in the environment. We train in tracking, and SAR games, we go on adventures. My dogs’ senses help alert me to things our environment. Their focus (just like our own) is driven by the CONTEXT of what we are doing. I don’t want to draw attention to things they’re “leaving”. It’s want them to focus on what they are being cued to DO.

M’Ocean’s first party (at Peggy Dwyer’s!) So much good stuff!

My dogs think I’m a billionaire. They get everything they need from me. Distractions cue my dogs to check in with me. I don’t need to say “leave it.” I really notice this out on the trails, where thanks to our regular deliveries of reinforcements around surprises (BEFORE my dogs make a mistake), now my young dog senses something unfamiliar and looks at me (alerts me) with a face that says “what prize might this environmental surprise earn me today?” I don’t need to say “leave” anything because the distraction IS the cue.

Susan Garrett’s “It’s Yer Choice” games are genius, you should google, learn that game and follow her. Learning in “layers” (as she terms it) means dogs learn to focus on searching for reinforcement through you. I think of it as like learning how to drive a car. They know how you operate. Increasingly, I am able to leave treats all over the place. I don’t need to guard the treats. My dogs will choose to “operate me” (ie: perform behaviors I like) because it’s easier and plenty fun to get what they want from me rather than from chasing squirrels. This morning I had a big bag of homemade dog treats, all morning on the counter, easily within reach. I didn’t need to prompt “leave it.” I have bags of fish skins. The dogs wait for me to invent a fun reason to give it to them.

Every once in a while, I’ll need to tell my dog to “drop it,” or “go lay down,” or “off.” Those are behaviors you can picture, right? You could draw a picture of a dog performing any one of those behaviors. But the phrase “leave it” is abstract. Try to draw a picture of that. What does “leave it” behavior look like in “real life?” Different every time? If the dog grabs the crust of bread off the table, and you cue “leave it,” doesn’t it seem like the “leave it” cue is delivered late, after the dog has already made a mistake? Or if you delivered it just before the dog takes the toast, isn’t it drawing attention to something that you’d rather the dog ignore?

That’s a cue I don’t need.

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