Leaving things alone does not come naturally to puppies. You might think it should, but it really doesn’t! Our cute puppies are just inquisitive little bundles on fluff wanting to explore anything and everything.

Having a dog who can leave things that they shouldn’t have is something we tend to take for granted, and think they ‘should’ do even if we haven’t trained them to do it!  

Teaching your puppy to ‘leave it’ is super useful, but it definitely does require training, an understanding of what you’re asking them to do, along with knowing that it might not always go to plan in certain scenarios! 

Essentially, ‘Leave’ means ‘Leave that I’ve got something better for you’ or ‘Leave that because I don’t want you interacting with it, please focus on me’. 

Sometimes, if a puppy has something they feel is hugely valuable, either because it is (Think bone from your sunday roast ) or because we’ve made a big deal about them having it (chasing pup around trying to get your shoe back) they more than likely are not going to want to ‘drop it’ or give it up… what’s in it for them? and if not handled carefully we can end up with some resource guarding on our hands. This is where the ‘leave’ cue is really useful as before they have even got to the thing we’ve been able to ask them to leave it alone. 

fluffy puppy
Photo by Wai Siew on Unsplash

Sounds pretty complicated doesn’t it? Never fear though, we’re here to teach you all about how to teach a puppy to leave it and this article will also help you understand

  • Why it’s important to teach your puppy to leave and ignore items
  • A step by step guide to teaching your puppy to leave
  • As well as our top tips on successful puppy leave it training

We have a step by step Leave it programme as well as information on Resource Guarding in our Zigzag puppy training app, if at any point you’re concerned that your puppy may not be able to leave or drop things, you can reach out to our trusted team of Zigzag puppy coaches for help and advice.

Why is it important to teach your puppy to leave it?

Just imagine you drop a huge bar of chocolate on the floor, we all know it’s dangerous for dogs right? Teaching a puppy to leave it is an important safety exercise, you may not want your puppy interacting, eating or sniffing various things for all manner of reasons. 

It’s also a great exercise in Self Control and teaches them to use that thinking brain to figure out what they should and shouldn’t interact with.

People often want puppies to leave 

  • Chicken bones on the street – these could choke your puppy 
  • Discarded dirty tissues – or lately disposable face masks (yuk!)
  • Other animals – because who wants your puppy chasing squirrels or saying hello to horses
  • Cyclists and joggers – fun for puppies to chase, less fun for the person being chased

Encourage your puppy to check in with you when they see certain objects they might want to interact with. This teaches the foundations of leave it and is by far my favourite way of initially training the exercise. I don’t want to have to keep asking my puppy to ‘leave’ when I’m out in the park, or having to be on high alert walking down the street, I want them to learn that ignoring the ‘thing’ has value in itself and will be rewarded. 

beagle looking up at treat
Photo by Marcus Wallis on Unsplash

How to teach your puppy to leave it

There are many ways to teach leave it, we’re a kind bunch here at Zigzag so we’re going to start with the easiest possible method so you have the highest chance of success. It’s important that this method gets worked through properly and that your puppy learns that ‘leave it’ is actually quite fun!

First, we’ll teach our puppy to leave things automatically without cues, then when they have the concept we’ll keep increasing the difficulty. This is really great for working through a puppy’s frustration tolerance and self-control without us using our voice or any verbal corrections which might stress our puppy out. Once they’ve got the idea then we can attach a word to what they’re doing and label the behaviour of ‘leave it’.

Got it? Let’s get going and all will become clear!

Get prepped to teach your puppy the leave exercises

When thinking about teaching your puppy to leave it you’ll need a few simple supplies such as a treat bag, some of their dry kibble, or if they’re fed on wet food or raw, any low-value treat or kibble will do, and have a pot of some medium and high value puppy treats sealed up for later on in the exercises. 

Sit yourself down in a comfy chair with some kibble in your right hand

Hold your hand on your right leg in a fist with your palm facing up, Keep your hand closed as your puppy will likely be trying to get the food out! 

Don’t say a word!

It’s really important your puppy learns that scrabbling at or licking/mouthing your hand isn’t going to get you to give up the food. It’s tempting to stick the leave cue in already, but they won’t understand what it means, and we run the risk of getting cross! Better to let them problem-solve and learn the game first.

As soon as they leave it say ‘good’ and reward

Yep that’s right, as soon as they pull away from your hand you can give them their marker word and some instant feedback that they got it right. To reward open your right hand, pick up the food with your left hand and give it to your puppy. 

Repeat the steps above several times!

You will need to keep repeating the above steps until your puppy automatically backs off and doesn’t attempt to get the food out of your hand. For some they pick this up really quickly and stop bothering to take the food (at which point you are still saying ‘good’ and rewarding them for leaving), others can take a little while longer. Either way is fine as they’ll all get it in the end.

Once your puppy is not trying to get the food start to open your hand a little

Try opening your fist just a little, if your puppy jumps up to take the food, keep your hand on your leg and just close the fist. 

You don’t need to say anything, they’ll figure it out.

puppy sat on floor looking up at owner
Photo by Jairo Alzate on Unsplash

Now keep your hand open 

Your puppy should now be automatically leaving the food in your hand, safe in the knowledge that if they leave it they still get it. 

‘You get what you want by not trying to get what you want’ is the motto here.

Repeat several times to be sure your puppy can automatically leave it and really understands.

Time to up the difficulty by bringing your hand to the floor

This is where the leave it exercise gets a bit tricky… You’ll be doing exactly the same as you did above but a little closer to the floor and worryingly closer to being grabbed by your puppy. Take this step quite slowly, and don’t rush. If your puppy goes to take the food, simply close your fist before they can get to it. Wait, then try again with your hand a little higher up.

When to add your ‘leave it’ cue.

Pop the food on the floor and cover with your hand, say the cue ‘leave it’ in a normal voice, we don’t need to be gruff or sharp, just a regular tone is fine, then uncover the food on the floor. Puppy leaving the food? Good job, say your marker word and feed them a treat from somewhere else don’t let them take it off the floor. 

They didn’t leave it? Make sure you cover the food before they snatch it and keep working on the automatic leave so that they get rewarded more for not trying to take the kibble.

Up the levels of difficulty and generalise

Once you’ve done all those parts you can start to experiment using different food items, low value on the floor rewarding with high value, changing over to toys and other items, setting up a temptation alley, and changing the locations you train in so that your pup generalises.

You can learn all about this as you progress through the Zigzag puppy training app

Useful extra tips for teaching your puppy to leave it successfully

  • Remember the goal is to never let your puppy get the kibble. If they learn that ‘sometimes’ they get it then they will keep trying!
  • Experiment with different items your puppy may struggle with. Set up little training sessions with your own takeaway cartons so you know exactly what’s in them and reward your puppy for leaving them. You can start quite a distance from the cartons and be walking back and forth with your puppy, all the time rewarding them for ignoring the delicious smelling paper bag and boxes. Do this on lead to be sure of success.
  • If you have a discerning or fussy dog who isn’t into kibble, try using a different brand, or switching to medium value treats. Similarly, if you have a very foodie puppy you may be better to stick with kibble for a while, as they might struggle with anything more tempting! 
  • Own a small dog that can’t reach your knee? No problem. If you have a little dog then a fist on your knee won’t really work as they won’t know it’s there. Instead, start off with your hand lower, but still a bit of a distance from their face (so they can’t dive straight in, and so that more importantly it doesn’t look like you’re offering them food).

We hope you’ve enjoyed reading through our guide and have started teaching your puppy to ‘Leave it’. It’s really worth working through a whole Leave it training programme so that walks are fun, and hoovering the streets for tasty morsels becomes a thing of the past! 

Why not download the Zigzag puppy training app and start training today? We have a Leave it and drop programme as well as a whole range of other exercises to help your puppy become the best dog around! 
While you’re here, why not check out our top tips for Puppy Recall Training?