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Ask a Trainer: How Do I Teach My Dog to “Leave It”?

A reader asks Dogster resident trainer Annie Phenix how to make her Beagle stop gobbling up everything on walks.

Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA  |  Aug 27th 2015


I recently received this question from a reader via Facebook:

When walking Watson, my 2-year-old Beagle, he grabs and swallows anything — grass, dirt, a hornet, worms. I’m training him to “drop it,” but my method of praise and reward isn’t working. Please help — I want to keep him safe!‬

— ‪Barb C.

Dear Barb,

Hello Barb, and hi to your Ultra Sniffer, also known as a Beagle.

Beagle by Shutterstock.

Beagle by Shutterstock.

I am sure you know that at the end of that leash is a Mighty Nose belonging to a talented rabbit hunter, right? All dogs go through life nose first, but with a dog like yours — bred originally to be a terrific ground sniffer and rabbit locater — those nose skills are elevated to a whole nutha level.

His turbo sniffer has at least 220 million receptors. You and I suck in comparison, with our puny five million receptors each. I’m sure you know that Beagles are used around the world to assist us because of our bad sense of smell. Here in the United States, for example, the USDA uses Beagle noses to find contraband in airports, usually food contraband. Can you imagine if those working dogs were then allowed to eat everything they found in suitcases? They’d be really fat by now, right?

What does a strong nose have to do with your cute little dog gobbling up everything he finds on walks? His nose finds these delicious items, and something that smells good must also taste good, so he scoops them up, and most of the time his nose, mouth, and then his tummy are all in happy agreement. The only one not in agreement is you! Ha! I can’t blame you for that, Barb.

Some of the things your dog ingests can indeed be harmful to him — even lethal. Not to mention smelly to us. So, we need to teach your Mighty Nose Dog a better way to leave such things alone. I will give you some pointers, but please do pat him on his cute Beagle head and let him know that you know he is a NOSE ATTACHED TO A DOG and that what he is doing by all that sniffing is a very, very natural thing that we humans bred into him.

Dog nose by Shutterstock.

Dog nose by Shutterstock.

I like to break down training into itty bitty steps and achieve success in itty bitty places before I take a dog to the outside, stinkified world. Here’s how I would begin with your Mighty Nose Dog.

How to train a dog to “leave it”

1. Work with him on leash (either tethered or try a hands-free waist leash or step on the leash) indoors, where you can control the environment. Don’t be mean, Barb, by working in the kitchen or bathroom! How about a clean hallway, although even that has smells from the outside world that we bring in via our shoes?

2. Have two treats on hand. The first is a decent-smelling treat, which will be of interest but not so yummy that your dog loses his mind over it. That mind-losing treat goes in the bait bag.

3. Grab a chair. I like to do this next step, at first, sitting down. I sit on a chair and have my leashed-dog’s attention (because it’s boring in the hallway). I hold out the less attractive treat in a covered hand. I am quiet and permit the dog to sniff and lick and do what he can to get the treat. I wait like a patient human, and the second he takes his nose away from the treat, I say YES! or click my clicker, and he looks up at me, and then I reach into my bait bag and give him the super-primo yum-yum treat. Often I use a dry treat for the lesser one and meat for the yum-yum one.

4. Be gentle. I am not saying in a gruff voice as I am teaching this: “LEAVE IT!!!” It isn’t necessary. Don’t be a screamer. I get the behavior of him completely ignoring the treat in my hand or nosing it and removing his nose and then looking at me for help at least 10 times before I ever put a cue on what he’s doing. Also, since you mention you’ve been trying to teach him this to no avail, I’d use a new cue for this. It can be anything — just please use a different cue since the one you are using hasn’t done what you want it to do. How about: “Adios!” Just a suggestion.

Meaty treats by Shutterstock.

Meaty treats by Shutterstock.

5. Be quick. Once the Mighty Nose Dog gets what I am asking and will leave a treat in my open hand, I then stand up. I drop the more boring treat on the chair, just at Beagle nose-level. I have to be quick here, Barb, and I will cover the treat with my hand should he move toward it. I want the same behavior from him: Ignore that which I just dropped and look up at me. CLICK! And he gets the good stuff.

6. Drop it. Next I move to dropping the boring treat on the floor. I’ll cover it with my foot should he want to investigate it. I want the same thing here, too – that he looks away from what I dropped and up at me.

7. Head outside. After we get this very, very fluid in the boring hallway, I might take my Mighty Nose Dog outside on leash and work on a paved driveway. You might have to start again at the beginning steps of sitting in a chair and asking him to ignore the boring treat in your hand. Why, Barb? Because the outside smells can overwhelm him and be of greater interest. This is why I head to a concrete area and keep him on leash. Don’t be mad at the little cutie if he can’t concentrate — remember his millions of smell receptors! If he can’t focus, go back inside and work more there, incorporating other areas of the house as he masters each space.

8. Add the cue. Finally, I start putting the word “leave it” on whatever object he is headed toward. In the beginning, I am a treating maniac and treat A LOT to let him know: YES! That’s right! Later on, I will mix in praise and petting (if he likes petting), but I do keep great food training reinforcers in the mix to keep it worth his while.

Before you and your Mighty Nose Dog head out into the world overrun with delicious smells, test his ability to really and truly leave it. Put out some items a few feet apart on your driveway – include some food items or anything he likes to pick up while on walks, but also include some boring things. Ask him to “leave it” or “adios!” for each item. When he does leave it, click and treat him looking up to you for direction.

We want him to understand that leaving that stinky thing gets him something he truly loves, which is not only a happy owner who now can resume walking him but also a meat morsel from said happy owner.

You can do this, Barb. I have faith in you!

Read more by Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, on Dogster:

About the author: Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force-free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She takes her highly trained dogs with them everywhere dogs are welcome because of their exceptionally good manners. Join Annie on her dog-training Facebook page.