“Leave it” — Not an ideal solution for managing canine aggression

CONTRIBUTED BY CATHY CANTU and JOHN PARKER, M.D. — If there is one command that sparks significant emotion and a strong opinion from me, it is the “leave it” command. In my opinion, “leave it” is often misunderstood and misused. In the subsequent text, I will specifically address the misuse of the “leave it” command as it pertains to the control of animal focus, intensity, and aggression.

The “leave it” command is commonly used to communicate to a dog the handler’s desire for the canine to abandon interest in something. “Leave it” is best used for items that may be, or sometimes are, perfectly acceptable for the dog to have. For instance, it is appropriate for my dog to eat the treats that I offer, but I would prefer he “leave” the treat that accidentally fell in the puddle of disinfectant on the floor.

Using the “leave it” command for objects that are routinely forbidden is not an ideal use of the command. For instance, I wouldn’t expect to say “leave it” every time my dog passed by the garbage receptacle in the kitchen or bathroom. These objects are forbidden all the time. There is never a time when I want my dog’s snout in the garbage! Therefore, if my dog shows new interest in an inappropriate object, I will begin with light tugs on the collar that can evolve into legitimate leash and collar corrections to demonstrate that I don’t approve of this interest.

If you prefer, a handler can verbally communicate disapproval with a verbal reprimand (prior to a correction), such as no, nein, or pfui (fooey). Verbal cues can be utilized during the training stages as each forbidden target is identified, but verbal commands should only be uttered on the very first encounter with the forbidden target. Repeating “leave it” multiple times is pointless. Once the handler’s disapproval of the target is known and clearly understood by your dog, then a leash and collar correction is the appropriate reaction to the dog’s persistent inappropriate behavior.

We aren’t strong advocates for the use of verbal reprimands because handlers have a tendency to use the reprimand as the consequence. Inevitably the handler gets louder and louder once they discover the reprimand/consequence is ineffective. Many handlers have come to use “leave it” in the same manner. When this happens, the “leave it” command evolves into yet another empty, meaningless verbal reprimand. When the first verbal cue fails, we would suggest putting your energy and effort into more direct consequences with a leash and collar correction.

I understand why a handler would prefer to first verbally communicate with their dog, but as the dog’s training evolves this really shouldn’t be necessary. If a handler prefers to give a verbal reprimand, limit it to one reprimand in a calm tone. If your dog ignores the reprimand, follow it up with an immediate leash and collar correction. Remember, we don’t expect you to say “Nein” with each dog you encounter on a walk, or with each garbage can you pass. Giving a verbal reprimand with the first dog (or trash can) on your path is sufficient. The key is to remember that these objects are always forbidden.

On a related note, using the “leave it” command to manage canine aggression crafts an imperfect solution to a complex problem. Managing canine aggression and its precursors (dog focus and dog intensity) is a huge undertaking, which is why Matthew is very busy writing Eight Facets of Canine Aggression with an entire chapter dedicated to this topic. It is not possible to solve your dog aggression problems with this blog, but I will touch on several training scenarios that can be problematic. I would like to provide a few pointers that may help you in simply taking your canine companion for a peaceful walk.

  1. Practice. Practice the training guidelines provided in The Ten Natural Steps To Training The Family Dog. Matthew wrote this comprehensive book for the sole purpose of being able to enjoy your dog. If your dog is straining on your leash and ignoring your commands, then you don’t have a chance to convince him to leave other dogs alone. The “leave it” command is certainly not going to be helpful.
  2. Be Aware. Once you have your dog’s attention and you can enjoy a short walk, be very mindful of your dog’s first sign of redirected focus to an inappropriate target. Often times well meaning handlers don’t recognize (or won’t acknowledge) where their dog’s focus is directed. This may be because the handler is afraid or unwilling to deal with a behavioral issue. Unfortunately, the handler may not realize that the moment of the infraction is the easiest and most appropriate time to extinguish a developing problem. Early action and awareness is the distinction between a professional handler and a casual handler? Professional handlers are always observing, always aware, and always ready to act when we see a small ember rather than waiting for a full-blown forest fire.
  3. Understand. We know your dog never showed aggression or focus towards other dogs before. Understand that as a dog matures, interest in other animals, focus, and aggression can arise. Your canine may begin to express the genetic potential he was born with. So while he was cute and cuddly a month ago, he is growing up and starting to enjoy feeling like a “top dog” by giving other dogs a piece of his mind. He isn’t bad; he is normal. For what it is worth, Matthew has never owned a dog that didn’t have this “top dog” mentality.
  4. Leave it. Yeah, that is right, leave the “leave it” command out of it. It isn’t helpful in many instances, and it often redirects your energy and efforts away from meaningful action. If you are giving commands and your dog is ignoring them, you are ultimately undermining your own authority. Keeping yourself calm is also very important in these potentially emotional situations, so don’t escalate the situation with empty, incessant reprimands.
  5. Reward. When you are successful at convincing your dog that focusing on a forbidden target earns him nothing but an unpleasant consequence, and he redirects his focus to you, reward him. Don’t beg him to redirect his focus from the forbidden target by presenting treats. This is grossly ineffective. Dogs are intelligent, and while a dog can be easily persuaded to jump through hoops for food, very few rewards exceed the pleasure some dogs get from expressing aggression towards another dog. So keep the treats in your pocket until you have effectively dissuaded him from inappropriate expression of aggression.
  6. Buffer. If your dog is explosive, you should create a buffer zone (distance) between you and the target. This will reduce your dog’s emotional intensity to a manageable level for you to provide dissuasive/effective corrections. You can work yourself closer to the target as time (days, weeks, months) goes by.

It goes without saying that in extreme cases you should seek professional help, but that isn’t always practical for a variety of reasons. This was one motivator for Matthew to start White Fang Ventures and provide dog-training services online. Matthew is one of the few trainers in the country proficient, comfortable, and experienced enough with the management of aggression to change the lives of dogs and their handlers.

This blog started out as a piece about the misuse of the “leave it” command, but it has evolved into a discussion on dog aggression. I realize that dog aggression is an emotional issue and that many people feel helpless dealing with it.

Interestingly, and I promise the timing of this blog wasn’t planned, Matthew is hosting a members only dog aggression seminar Saturday, June 30, 2012. We will film the seminar and make it available for members to view on our website, www.whitefangventures.com.

Go do some good.

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Matthew Duffy is well known for his renowned dog training services, books and DVDs, and online video training sessions through memberships. Matthew uses "genuine control without the rigidity of formal commands." Bring on the dogs!