How to Teach Your Dog to “Leave It” with Positive Reinforcement Training

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I was on my out onto our deck to enjoy a bowl of chips, when the whole bowl slipped out of my hands and the contents spilled onto the deck. Right in front of 7-month old Maggie. I was so surprised, that I didn’t think to say anything. She sat, then she lay down and looked away from the temptation. I’d been working hard on “off” because she was soon to return to her own family with 4 kids and a Mum recovering from a severe physical setback. I was thrilled to see this reaction, since I hadn’t even got to the point of testing her with high value treats on the floor.

Self control is one of the most critical skills that a dog needs to learn. One area where this comes into play in many different scenarios involves refraining from picking something forbidden that appears within reach. Some examples that come to mind include: dropped medication, chicken bones, the hamster, dead birds, granny’s hearing aid, Susie’s favorite stuffed toy, the last remaining baby soother…

Many people train “off” as a command with its associated threat: “Leave it or else”. The trouble is, once the dog has swallowed the light bulb (I am not making this up) or the $3000 hearing aid, the ensuing “or else” does not do much to remedy the situation. It is not as if we can dock the dog’s allowance or extract an IOU to pay for the costs of his transgression. Experienced clicker trainers and especially those whose training goals require an exceptional degree of reliability (guide dogs, service dogs, bomb detection dogs etc) know that training cues rather than commands produces a dog that can be counted on even in very difficult situations.

Cue vs Command

It is important to understand the difference between a cue and a command before we continue our discussion of the positively trained “off”. A command implies a threat: “do it or I will make you”, it is given before the behavior is learned and it can be enforced if the dog does not comply. “Off” is commonly trained as a command by placing a temptation near the dog and holding him back, or tugging on his leash and saying “off” in a stern tone of voice. If the dog does manage to grab the prohibited item, the command is repeated while forcibly removing the item from the dog’s mouth. This is stressful for the dog, he may not learn much and in many cases this approach may place the trainer at risk of being bitten.

A cue is completely different. There is no threat implied with a cue. A cue is like a green light that tells the dog that now is the time to do the behavior for the chance of reinforcement. A cue is attached to a specific behavior only after the dog is offering the behavior on his own. The “sit” cue for example is only given once the dog has learned to sit and so is not associated with anything other than the act of sitting.  If the dog does not respond to a cue, the trainer knows that further training is required and does not assume that the dog is intentionally misbehaving and must be forced or helped to do the behavior.

Getting the Behavior

A common and very reasonable question about teaching cues is “how do you get the dog to sit or do the goal behavior in the first place so that you can click/treat and eventually add a cue?” There are lots of ways to get behavior without using any force or coercion.

So how do we get the dog to offer the “off” behavior so that we can click/treat and eventually add a cue? A popular method is to hold a treat in your closed fist and allow the dog to sniff, lick, paw, whatever he wants to do to try to get the treat (thanks to Carolyn Clark, who first described this in a CAPPDT news article long ago). Keep your fist closed until he backs off for just a fraction of a second, click and open your hand to give him the treat. Alternatively you can click when he backs off and give him a better treat from your other hand. Avoid the temptation to say anything, scold or otherwise tell him not to pester your hand. The dog learns best if he figures it out for himself without fear of reprisal. If the dog is too frantic to get at the treat, then use something less tantalizing to start with. If the dog loses interest and does not try to get the treat, use something more tantalizing. Raise criteria gradually so that the click/treat comes only after the dog is moving his head deliberately back several inches from your hand. Raise criteria again so that the click/treat comes only when the dog makes eye contact with you after moving away from your hand. Gradually require longer periods of eye contact until the dog backs off from your hand and maintains eye contact for 3 seconds. Now you can add the cue “off”. Show the dog your fist containing the treat and when he looks away from it and to you, say “off”, click, offer the treat and say “take it”. Teaching opposite cues in pairs like this is a really effective approach. From now on you will always say “take it” when you give the treat after the dog responds to the “off” cue. Practice with increasingly smelly treats. Add difficulty by holding your fist out to the side, higher, lower, on the ground, on the table etc. Once you have a reliable cue response (the dog looks at you right away and maintains eye contact when you hold out your fist and say “off”) it is time to increase the difficulty again.

Practice in different locations with increasing levels of distraction until the dog responds to the “off” cue under any circumstances when you offer food partially exposed from your closed fist.

Making it Harder

Now your dog on hearing the “off” cue will back off from your fist containing a partially exposed high value treat and give you 3 seconds of eye contact when you show him the fist placed in any position and he will do this in any location inside and outside of your house no matter what is going on around him. You are ready to make it harder. The next steps should go quickly since the dog now understands the “off” cue.

Take a treat and hold it tightly between your thumb and fore finger. Ask your dog to sit. Show him the treat and give the cue “off” before he gets a chance to get up and come to investigate. If you do not think he is ready for this, separate yourself from him with a fence or baby gate so there is no chance of him snatching the treat. Give the cue “off” and click/treat when he looks at you. Gradually increase the duration of the eye contact until you are back up to 3 seconds. Increase the difficulty incrementally as before by using bigger and better treats and by holding the treat in different positions and working in difference locations.

It may be tempting at this point to try offering a treat in your open hand, or placing a treat on the floor to see if the dog will respond to the “off” cue, being ready to cover the treat if the dog tries to grab it. This is not a good idea and you run the risk of having to start all over if the dog snatches the treat. This may teach him that it is a race to get the treat and if he is fast enough he might (and probably will) win. Your goal is to have a dog that calmly looks at you waiting for direction if temptation appears, not a dog that is waiting with anticipation to try to race you to the goody. Your dog needs to be firmly convinced that the best way for him to win is to ignore temptation and to look at you for guidance if temptation comes along.

Up until now there has been no chance for the dog to anything more than possibly lick at the treat and by this point in the training he will have no interest in trying this strategy since looking away from the food and at you has won him a click/treat every time.

Change it Up

It’s time to move to training “off” with items that are on the floor or the table or otherwise more available to the dog. Start with something neutral that your dog will not care about – a small box for example. Let him sniff the box to see that it is of little interest. Ask the dog to sit. Place the box on the floor out of reach, give the “off” cue and click/treat when he looks at you. Push the box closer and repeat. Increase the difficulty by repeating this process with objects of greater and greater interest to the dog. The more interesting the item, the further away from the dog it should be to start with. You could put a treat or toy in the box to make it more interesting without giving the dog access to the treat or toy. When you get to the point that you will use his favorite toys or your best leather shoes, you can prevent him from making a mistake by putting the object under a clear plastic tub, on the other side of a baby gate or out of reach with the dog on leash. The purpose of the leash is simply to prevent the dog from moving close enough to the temptation. The leash should not be used to tug or correct the dog. Ideally you will increase the difficulty for the dog in small enough increments that he will never bother to go to the end of the leash and the leash will be loose at all time during this training. Use your imagination to prevent the dog from making mistakes and grabbing the item, while at the same time giving him the best chance to succeed in responding to your “off” cue.

Once you have progressed through an array of objects on the floor, table and counter and the dog will reliably respond to the “off” cue even with high value items, you can repeat the process using food. Start with the food at a distance and covered and move towards uncovered food at close range, raising criteria in baby steps as always. By this time the dog will most likely have become conditioned to intentionally ignore temptation by looking away from it and toward you even before you give the cue. Your training will go very quickly at this point.

Make it As Easy as Possible for the Dog to Succeed at First

You may structure your training differently from what is described here. This is just an example for guidance purposes. The main thing to keep in mind is that your goal is to make it as easy as possible for the dog to get it right and win a click/treat. You also want to establish a very strong reinforcement history with the “off” cue. The more times you click/treat, the more reliable the behavior will become. At the same time you want to set things up so that the dog does not get a chance to snatch the treat and earn reinforcement for an undesirable behavior. You also want to avoid a situation in which you need to race the dog to cover the food or use physical force to stop him from getting it.  The best way to avoid this is to increase your criteria in baby steps and to develop a strongly offered behavior or a strong response to the “off” cue before increasing the level of difficulty. Some trainers may add the cue early in the process and some may wait until the dog shows the ability to back off from a high value treat in plain sight. This is a matter of personal preference and individual training style and also depends on the personality of the dog. Some dogs do better with direction and some dogs do better if they figure out all of it on their own. If the dog shows signs of frustration such as barking, lying down, scratching, yawing or excessive lip licking, then you have made things too difficult. The dog cannot learn well when he is stressed and anxious. Reduce your criteria, make it easy for the dog to win a click/treat, end the session and start your next session at a point where you know the dog can succeed.

Careful Stepwise Training = Reliability

This may seem like a lengthy process using much more time and effort than simply giving the dog a good yank and yelling “off” at him. Careful step-wise training without short-cuts is more time consuming that any quick fix method, there is no question. Reliability comes with consistency, raising criteria in baby steps and establishing a very deep reinforcement history. Training a positive “off” cue that goes into action whenever anyone drops something on the floor is worth the effort, since a ruling adult is not necessarily right there to provide a threat when this type of thing happens in a busy family. This type of training is fun for you and the dog and helps build a strong bond of trust. Each cue that you teach lays a foundation for future training and the dog will learn each subsequent cue more quickly than the last. The time and effort you put into training “off” and other cues properly will pay off over and over as you enjoy life with a well-adjusted, reliable dog who looks to you for guidance when temptations arise.

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