Can your dog resist temptations or do they gobble up goodies at any opportunity?
Dogs are opportunists who seem to have bottomless pits where their stomachs should be. Drop a morsel of turkey, a cookie, or even a dangerous cooked bone or medication, and many dogs will eagerly snatch it up without any thought. This habit can be especially troublesome during the holidays, when visitors or children may not be as scrupulous in their efforts to keep the dog from catching goodies, and owners can be distracted among all the hub-bub.
"Leave it" is all about teaching a dog to control their own impulses and make a choice that we want them to make. Since dogs do what works for dogs, we need to teach a dog that ignoring something on cue is more worth their while than whatever the goodie on the ground might be. This, of course, takes practice. Work on teaching or improving your dog's ability to leave items alone now, well before guests arrive and the turkey is on the table!
Start off simple Get a supply of small yummy treats and an additional treat that doesn't crumble or smoosh easily (jerky or freeze-dried liver are good options). Take your dog, treats, and a clicker to a quiet room with few distractions.
Say "leave it" in a calm tone and place the extra treat directly under your foot. Your dog will try to sniff, lick and paw to get at the treat-- that's fine! Wait silently until your dog gives up. As soon as they look away, click your clicker and give them a treat from behind your back.
Your dog will probably go back to trying to get the treat under your foot. Again, wait silently until they decide on their own to stop trying to get it. As soon as they do, click and give them a treat. Click and treat your dog about 3-5 times for leaving the treat alone, then pick up the treat from under your foot and start again.
Say your cue just once, "leave it," and place the treat under your foot. Wait silently for your dog to make the decision to leave the treat alone, clicking and treating when they do. Avoid nagging your dog ("Leave it! I said 'leave it!' I mean it! Hey!") or forcing them to get off the treat by pushing or blocking them. We want our dogs to be able to make the conscious choice to leave things alone on their own accord!
Ask for a little more Once your dog is consistently ignoring the treat placed under your foot, you can start to raise your criteria. Again, say "leave it," and put it under your foot. This time, raise your toe up in the air a few inches so that the treat is uncovered. Be prepared to cover the treat again if your dog goes for it, but raise your toe in the air again as they catch on.
We are now asking the dog to choose to ignore something that is slightly easier to access, requiring more self-control. As they improve, you can rotate your foot to totally uncover the treat, move your foot back a few inches, place it in between your feet, and ultimately put the treat off to the side or drop it on the floor.
Practice makes perfect Try "leave it" all over the house, particularly in any areas that you suspect you'll need to use it such as the kitchen and dining room. Practice "leave it" while sitting at a table, in a chair, or standing at the counter as if you were preparing food.
If your dog is having trouble with "leave it" and consistently nabs the treat or can't stop focusing on trying to get it, go back to basics and make sure you haven't skipped any steps. Moving too fast in this process will only teach your dog that "leave it" is a meaningless phrase that humans say sometimes when yummy stuff is on the ground. "Leave it" should be a powerful cue that better stuff awaits your dog if they choose to ignore the stuff in front of them!
Here's a great video from trainer Nando Brown about teaching this skill: