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Unleashed: Learning to let go

All of us have items which are valuable, be they expensive items or sentimental ones. We don’t want to lose them, which is why we may own a safe, and why we lock our doors. Dogs are no different and many are reluctant to give up a valuable object, whether it’s a favourite toy, your favourite shoe or even a tasty piece of eight-day old dead fish from the beach…

By Russell D Russell

Saturday 25 July 2020, 02:00PM

Using your dog’s favourite toy is one way to get him or her to let go of something else. Photo: Glen Carrie / Unsplash

Using your dog’s favourite toy is one way to get him or her to let go of something else. Photo: Glen Carrie / Unsplash

Some dogs guard their valuables fiercely enough to hurt anyone who tries to take them away and we call this “resource guarding”. It’s a natural, normal behaviour as keeping possession of valuables is an important survival skill. If you let someone take your food from you in the wild, you’re likely to die. (Much like someone trying to take chocolate from me.)

Still, we sometimes need to take things away from our dogs, especially something harmful such as a cooked chicken bone or a package of rat poison. With resource guarding, we don’t want to force or coerce our dogs into anything, as we’re likely to make things worse, by being physical, and drawing attention to an item that already holds significant value to the dog.

So teaching our dogs to “leave it” or “drop it” is therefore a very important skill, and the best way to do this is teaching them to trade instead. Ergo, we’re making it in their interest to give up what they have – which is of value to them, even if it isn’t to you – in order to gain something else.

Start by using something your dog already loves such as a ball or favourite tug toy, and engage your dog to play. I normally have the dogs on a leash to begin with, especially if your dog is used to keeping away from you when he has such toys. Encourage your dog to get the toy, either by giving it to him directly, or just throwing it a couple of feet in front of him. Let him enjoy chewing his ball, or playing with his tug toy for a few seconds, maybe even play tug with him if he’ll let you. 

Then offer him a high value treat in front of his nose so he can sniff it, then wait. At some point, he’ll drop the toy and as soon as he does, tell him “Good boy!” and drop a couple of treats a few feet to the side so he can turn to get them.

This is the important part as you want your dog to redirect away from the toy, and re-focus on the treats. It buys you time to bend down and pick up the toy, without him really seeing it. When he finishes the treats and comes back to you, present the toy and tell him to take it. If your dog is quickly eating the treats and racing to get the toy before you can pick it up, then you’re likely to reinforce the resource guarding you’re trying to prevent. He needs to be engaged in getting his treat, not the toy. 

If your dog is super fast, then try using two toys. Whilst my dog has her favourite ball in her mouth, I’ll present the second one, and tease her with it – bouncing it a couple of times in front of her. Now her focus changes to the toy that I have, she drops the ones she has and I immediately roll the second one away for her to chase. Whilst she’s getting that ball, I pick up the first one. 

At no stage am I asking my dog to do anything - there are no vocal commands. Nor am I trying to grab, or pull the toys away from them. I’m simply waiting for them to make a choice (to drop the object) and then immediately be rewarded – either with a treat, or a second toy. This makes our dogs much more willing to trade, and drop things because they know they will win in the long run. 

If your dog isn’t interested in the treats, use something of higher value. Some dogs will do this for kibble, others may need something tastier like cheese, or chicken. But once they start to work out you’re not trying to steal their resources, they’ll quickly co-operate and start dropping toys, because they know another reward is coming. 

Once your dog is quickly dropping items, you can wait a couple of seconds before presenting his reward. Over time, you’ll see it takes less time for him to return to you with his toy before dropping it, at which point he’s worked out the game: “I drop this, and I get rewarded and I get the toy back again!” At this stage, you can now add your “Leave it!” Or “Drop it!” cue.

If you would like some more information on canine training, or behavioural issues, then please to contact us on 091 654 1960, email, or check our website CPA is accredited with the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT), and as an American Kennel Club (AKC) Evaluator.ß

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