How to Train Your Dog to Let Go

Medium
1-10 Days
Behavior

Introduction

Some commands have the potential to save your dog's life. One of these is "Give" or "Leave It", where you teach the dog to relinquish an object on demand. Imagine the scene where your dog raids the Christmas presents beneath the tree. Unfortunately, one of those gifts is a large bar of chocolate which he's intent on eating. 

With most dogs, this means entering a battle of strength, where the owner tries to prise the dog's trophy from his clenched jaws. This is going to end badly, most likely with the dog eating a toxic amount of chocolate, a trip to doggie ER, and the owner getting bitten into the bargain. 

How much better would it be if the dog knew and obeyed a command to let go of the ill-gotten-gains? But the advantages don't end there, because you can use similar methods to teach a dog to let go while playing tug. This is an important way of allowing him the thrill of tug, but in a way that has him yield to you without argument. 

Defining Tasks

Teaching a dog to let go means the dog learns to release objects from his mouth on command. However, the words "Let Go" are a poor choice of cue word because they sound a lot like "Let's Go" when you're walking. To avoid confusion, it's best to choose a different cue such as "Give" or "Leave", which are less confusing to the dog. 

A dog is never too young to start learning "Leave" and done correctly, it makes a fun game for even a puppy to learn. Of course, always work to the principle of making training fun and rewarding the dog when he performs the desired action. Aim for short training sessions, of say 10 minutes each, several times a day. If the dog gets confused then draw the session to an end and start again later.  But make sure to end on a positive note with a command the dog knows and gives you an opportunity to praise him. 

During your practice sessions, never be tempted to use force to retrieve an object from the dog's mouth. This is counterproductive, as it stimulates possessiveness, which is the exact opposite of teaching the dog to give objects up willingly. 

Getting Started

Start training in a quiet room that is free of distractions. As the dog becomes more accomplished, then practice in different locations so the dog learns to listen. 

To get started you'll need: 

  • Toy or toys that the dog likes but isn't possessive over
  • Two identical toys
  • A slightly boring treat, such as a piece of kibble
  • A scrumptious treat that is worth working for, such as cheese or sausage.
  • Time and patience. 

The Treat 'N' Take Method

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Step
1
Understand the idea
This method teaches the dog to release a toy in exchange for a treat. When a cue word is added, this puts the action on command so he relinquishes objects to you willingly and without a fight.
Step
2
Give him a toy
Choose a toy he likes but isn't completely crazy about. Let him play with it for a minute, so that it's no longer super-interesting.
Step
3
Offer up a treat
Before the dog gets bored with the toy, hold a treat by his nose to get his attention. When he lets go of the toy, give him the treat as a reward.
Step
4
Practice steps 2 & 3
Repeat the trade of toy for a treat, until the dog is readily dropping the toy when he sees the treat. Now you are ready to add a cue word
Step
5
Label the action
Decide on your cue word such as "Give". As you hold out the treat, shortly before the dog drops the toy say "Give" in a firm but pleasant voice.
Step
6
Fade out the treat
Once the dog anticipates the "Give" and drops the toy, start to make things more difficult. Try holding the treat a little further away, and expect him to release the toy. When he's mastered this, try "Give" but with no treat.
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The Treat in the Hand Method

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Step
1
Understand the idea
This method teaches the dog that although there is a potentially tempting treat that is easy pickings, if he looks at you instead then he's rewarded with an even tastier titbit.
Step
2
Get set up
You'll need two treats handy; one that is averagely interesting and one that is super tasty. Keep the super tasty treats hidden behind your back so the dog doesn't see it.
Step
3
Hold the 'average' treat in your fist
Hold the not-so-delicious treat inside your closed fist and offer your hand to the dog. Let him sniff but don't give the treat.
Step
4
Reward looking away
The dog will frantically sniff your closed fist, but eventually out of frustration he will glance away (perhaps at the floor). The moment his attention breaks away from the treat in the hand say "Leave It" and produce the super-tasty treat.
Step
5
Repeat the treat trade
Keep repeating Step 4. The dog will start to look away from the fist when he hears "Leave It." Always reward this with a high value treat.
Step
6
Place the average treat on the floor
Now place the boring treat on the floor and secure it in place with your hand or a finger (depending on your confidence in the dog). As he goes to sniff the treat, say "Leave it" and reward him for looking away. Repeat this regularly until he instantly looks to you on hearing "Leave It"
Step
7
The ultimate test
Now try leaving an uncovered treat on the floor. As the dog moves toward it, say "Leave It". When he looks away at you, instantly give a tasty treat and reward him. If instead he gobbles the exposed treat, go back and establish the previous step more firmly before moving on.
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The Troubleshooting Method

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Step
1
The dog won't give the toy
What if the dog prefers the toy to the treat, and holds onto the former? In this case you need to use a less exciting toy, something the dog will play with but not enthralled by. Also, offering an even more tasty reward often does the trick.
Step
2
Try the identical toy trade
Still struggling with the dog refusing to give up a toy? Then use two identical toys instead of a toy and a treat. Let the dog play with Toy A, then show him Toy B and jiggle it to make it as interesting as possible. As he goes to drop A, in order to take B, label the action with the cue word "Give," and let him take Toy B
Step
3
The dog runs off with the toy
If the dog runs off with the toy mid session, don't give chase. This gives him a different sort of reward (your attention) and he'll love the game of chase. For the next session, use a collar and lead so that he is restrained and under your control.
Step
4
Dog growling or aggressive
If you're struggling big time and the dog isn't playing ball...literally...then never ever pull the object out of the dog's mouth. This will only make the dog more possessive and you could end up getting bitten. Try using a lower value toy and higher value treat, but if the growling continues, seek the help of a professional trainer or qualified behaviorist.
Step
5
The dog only gives certain objects or in certain places
Some dogs learn to give as a game with their toys, but fail to apply the rules in a more general setting. To avoid this, practice with a wide range of toys and objects for the dog to hold and then release. In addition, practice in different settings, both indoors and outside, so the dog learns the command applies under all circumstances and in all locations.
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Success Stories and Training Questions

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