Several years ago I was hired to teach group obedience classes through a local community centre. (Note: They are called obedience classes because that’s what the public understands and believes they need.) To prepare, I reviewed various dog trainers’ websites and resources to see what a typical entry level class would look like. I had also taken basic obedience/manners classes with my own dog, so I looked back at class descriptions and handouts from that experience. This helped me to build an 8-week curriculum geared toward people of varying skill levels and experiences and dogs of all ages, breeds, and sizes. It looked great on paper!
It wasn’t until I got into the classroom to observe, listen, and reflect, that I realized I was way off track on a number of fronts. I had put far too much emphasis on what is typically done in these basic obedience classes, and not enough on what should be taught. This is a phenomenon that frequently occurs in the education sector — e.g. academics adopt a lecture delivery model because that was how they were taught, and so it perpetuates. I’ve spent a good part of my life coaching educators to design learning. How had I fallen into the trap of replicating methods without examining them critically?
In one of my first classes I followed a plan to begin teaching “leave it”. I followed instructions available in many basic and reputable dog training resources.
- Put food in your closed hand
- Place hand close to dog’s mouth
- Wait for dog to give up trying to get it for 1 second
- Pay from the other hand
Repeat with hand open (closing hand if dog goes for it). Although there are variations on this protocol it usually looks like this:
One of the students in my class cried out:
“Hey, my dog is biting me. This is exactly what I don’t want him to do!”
Was the student being uncooperative and contrary? My first impulse was to say “trust me, it works”. Thankfully I didn’t! I was haunted by that moment all week. It also hit me that I had never even taught my own dogs “leave it” in the sense that they should learn to back away sometimes from something I regularly offer: food in my hand.
What do I actually do in my own practice?
- Use a cue “take it” to let the dog know she can get something desirable. This is very practical for tidbits that fall on the floor in the kitchen!
- Interrupt at the moment the dog is going toward something that is desirable to them but not to me. Liquidy cow pies are in this category! Starting out I definitely had the wrong idea about how to train that!
Both of these scenarios are highly reinforced. However, they don’t address the issue of a dog being overly enthusiastic about food in your hand. It’s not an issue I’ve ever had and I think it’s because I don’t tend to test my dogs’ limits. There is so much to reinforce before they reach desperation!
To this day I don’t use this standard “leave it” protocol. If you analyze the steps there are several aspects we as trainers should be working to avoid:
- You are teaching your dog that approaching your hands is an error...but only sometimes. This is surely confusing to the dog.
- Rather than setting the dog up for success from the get-go, you are beginning a training session with negative punishment. Why start near the top of the humane hierarchy roadmap?
- You are then allowing the dog to persist in getting the food from the hand, something the dog has done successfully and enthusiastically in the past, and was highly reinforced for it. This is extinction.
- As the student in my class proclaimed, you are welcoming a behaviour puppy owners have worked hard to avoid: hand biting!
If one goal of this exercise is to teach your dog NOT to mug you for food it begs the question:
Why ask the dog to do something you don’t want him to do as a way to teach him not to do it? It even feels convoluted trying to type that!
There are more elegant ways to achieve that goal. Read this article by Kay Laurence over and over again; there’s a lot packed in there. But if you’re pressed for time go straight to the Smell chicken fetch person section of Kay's article for some training steps and video demonstration.
Finally, I’m not convinced the standard “leave it” exercise sets the dog up for the ultimate ask — to leave that cow pie alone! I believe that is a different protocol entirely.