Should I Tell My Dog “Leave It” When He Gets Distracted?
“Leave It” is one of the most popular things for people to say to their dog when they are distracted, but it is generally ineffective as a long term solution, even if taught right. If we have a dog in for training who is overstimulated by squirrels or people on roller skates, we never give them a specific command to ignore that distraction. Ignoring distractions, no matter how stimulating they may be, is part of the larger picture of obedience training.
When we first start training a dog, we do not immediately jump to the type of environment you see in our videos. Dogs running around and people coming and going are a hard thing for a dog to contend with if they do not have the tools to work through these distractions. We start in a lower distraction environment, and teach the dogs what we want from them. They have a high reinforcement rate with whatever makes them motivated, be it a toy, food, or praise. Then we gradually start adding in distractions. If the dog is motivated, it will often choose to do it’s obedience for us rather than interact with, say, a neutral dog in the yard. If the dog does choose to ignore a command to interact with the distraction, we will mark it with “No” and give the dog an appropriate correction.
Telling the dog “Leave It” would be ignoring the real facts of the situation. The dog was performing a behavior that it had many repetitions of doing, and the dog had the option of staying in the behavior and earning a reward. The dog also understands negative consequences when it makes a mistake, so it understands what it means when a correction occurs. Instead of making the correction about the distraction, the correction is about breaking out of an obedience behavior. I don’t want the training dog to dislike the neutral dog. In fact, I want him to be able to switch on and off with interacting and playing with that dog. But I want the dog to ignore his buddy whenever I ask him to do a behavior.
“Leave It” means that the dog is allowed to get distracted and interested in something, it just has to break off when you ask it. A better strategy is to teach your dog that they are never allowed to abandon an obedience behavior unless you have released them from it. Healthy curiosity is allowed, but not to the extent that it prevents the dog from doing the behaviors that we need them to do. Hold your dog accountable to his training, and train to a standard where you do not have to be constantly calling your dog off of things. It will make your everyday walks far more enjoyable, and will create a better relationship between you and your dog.