"Drop it" vs. "Leave it": Does Your Dog Need Both?

Is there a difference between "Drop it" and "Leave it" and does my dog need to learn both? Learn the difference between the two, the pros and cons of each, and how to start training them both.

Dog learning to drop it

Do you need a “Drop It” and a “Leave It”?

Few commands are as crucial as "Drop It" and "Leave It." While the specific verbal cues may vary, the underlying principles remain the same. Whether you opt for "Drop It," "Leave It," or even "potato chip," the goal is to instill behaviors that ensure your dog's safety and well-being. In this guide, we'll explain the intricacies of teaching these commands effectively.

Before delving into training techniques, it's essential to grasp the distinction between "Drop It" and "Leave It." "Drop It" pertains to relinquishing an object already in your dog's possession, whether it's a toy during playtime or a potentially harmful item. On the other hand, "Leave It" is about preventing your dog from grabbing something undesirable before it enters their mouth.

Training “Leave It” 

As you begin training, you can use any item of low interest as your distraction. If you have a dog who loves to grab things, then the item should fit in your closed fist. You might use half a dog biscuit, a crumpled paper towel, or a smaller sock.

Present the closed fist for your dog to sniff. At some point, they will move away. Reward them from your other hand when they move away on their own. Move both hands behind your back for a few seconds. Repeat this routine. Within 20 repetitions, most dogs will not go toward the fist - that’s great! Reward generously!

Note that we aren’t using a verbal cue at this point. We don’t want your dog to learn that “Leave It” means they should investigate. We’ll add in a word once they're easily leaving the item. 

Once your dog is not touching the closed fist, you will present your hand with the item slightly visible. If he investigates, move your hand out of his way and pause before trying again. If you get two mistakes in a row, then go back to letting him investigate so that he can get more practice.

In future stages of training, we will:

  • Vary the things your dog has to leave
  • Make it more challenging by showing more of the item
  • Change the location where you train
  • Try another variation where the item is on the ground and covered with your hand
  • Move the item around 
  • Add a verbal cue

The Most Common “Leave It” Training Problems

Adding the word too soon

If we start using the “Leave It” cue too soon, many dogs think that “Leave It” means that they should investigate before moving away. Other dogs might learn that “Leave It” means there is something great to grab quickly. We want to get a reliable behavior of the dog staying away from your hand with the distraction before we add in a word.

Casual Use

If you’ve been using the word in everyday life, your dog might not find the word to be distinct. It could be better to start over with a new phrase, such as “Away” or “Off,” rather than trying to repair the “Leave it” cue.

Making the Challenges Too Hard

Start with less exciting items for your dog - half a biscuit rather than a meatball or a sock closed in your hand rather than a scarf with fuzzy edges that stick out. We want an easy item to start so your dog is likelier to leave it.

Not systematically adding in distractions.

Almost no dog will be successful if we go from the above training activities to saying “Leave it” with squirrels. We must add more variations and activities before moving on to distractions. While squirrels may be a final goal, we have to start easy with things that are not quite as tempting as a running squirrel. 

Beginning “Drop It” Training

The biggest challenge with “Drop It” is that we want to get a lot of practice with letting go, but we don’t want dogs to get a lot of practice picking up stolen goods! Toys are a great way to introduce this concept because your dog is allowed to pick up his toys. For dogs with little interest in toys, you can use something like a large dried animal chew, even if you don’t usually let your dog have these for safety reasons. If your dog has a history of guarding items, please seek professional help rather than trying this on your own. 

Hold the toy or chew and encourage your dog to interact. Keep the toy moving when you want your dog to be interactive. Then, hold the toy still. You may need to brace your hands against your leg to decrease how much it moves. Wait for your dog to let go - it might seem like this will take forever, but you can do it! The moment he lets go, then encourage him to take it again.

We are showing your dog that letting go is the best way to get the item back. This won’t happen later if he has a piece of litter, a slipper, or a dangerous object, but it is something we can do with toys early in the training. 

Once your dog immediately lets go when you freeze, we can add the “Drop It” cue right before you freeze. This will help your dog associate the word with the action of quickly letting go.

In future stages of training, we’ll add steps like:

  • Working in different environments
  • Using different objects
  • Introducing a reward other than the item
  • More real-life scenarios and items

The Most Common “Drop It” Training Problems

Playing Tug After Saying “Drop It”

If you continue tugging back after saying “Drop It,” especially if you try to pry the toy out of his mouth or quickly pull it away, your dog will only love it more! Creating more agitation after the cue will only build your dog’s desire to hold on longer and harder. We want to freeze up and be as dull as possible.

Taking Items Away

If we start “Drop It” training by constantly removing the items, your dog will learn that dropping the items leads to unpleasant consequences. By starting with a toy or thing he is allowed to have, we will create a stronger foundation and more cooperation. Your dog won’t always get the item back in the future, but this is a powerful reward early on.

Rewarding Too Slowly

Getting the item or toy back is essential for many dogs who need to learn “Drop It.” We can use the item as a reward. The moment your dog releases the object, invite him to grab it again. A typical response is for us to praise, pet, or offer a treat. While that may be appropriate for some dogs, for other dogs, it’s frustrating and not what they want at the moment. By immediately sending him back to the toy, he will learn to quickly drop the toy to have that opportunity again.

In essence, mastering "Drop It" and "Leave It" commands is essential for every dog family. By implementing structured training techniques and avoiding common pitfalls, you can ensure that your dog responds reliably to these commands, keep them safe and you worry free!