NEWS FLASH! Eight-Week-Old Black Lab Ignores Pile of Puppy Food Left on the Floor!
Astonishing, but true! An eight-week-old Labrador puppy, in training to be a Future Leader Dog for the Blind, salivates over food morsels, but he does not devour them. His puppy-raiser merely says, "Leave it," and the puppy looks away from the food.
Can any puppy learn to do this? Is this a remarkable trait only found in Future Leader Dogs?
Absolutely! If a food-crazed Lab can learn self-control, any puppy can! Follow these simple steps to teach your puppy to "leave it," and you too can amaze your friends!
1. FOOD IN HAND
Start with two small piles of food--one you can cover in your hand, the other out of reach behind you (on a table, for example).
2. SHOW THE FOOD TO YOUR PUPPY.
Open your hand so your puppy can see the food. When he/she tries to get it, close your hand around the food. Do NOT let your puppy snatch it! Don't say anything; let your puppy investigate. If your puppy is insistent about mouthing your hand, lift your hand above your head. Avoid eye contact with your puppy.
3. WATCH CAREFULLY!
Be ready to reward your puppy with a food morsel from the second pile the moment he/she backs away from your hand, or looks away. Timing is crucial.
After you reward your puppy, show him/her the food in your hand again. Remember, the puppy must NEVER get the food in your hand! (See more about "variable reinforcement" here, or on my Definitions page.)
5. REPEAT AGAIN, AND AGAIN
Repeat until your puppy backs away or ignores the food in your hand. Stay calm, don't scold, be ready to reward. (You can say, "good boy/girl," when you reward with food from the second pile.)
These steps teach your puppy to leave things alone. Once he/she is starting to get the idea to back off, you can add a word cue to associate with the behavior. This cue helps your puppy learn to make a choice--"I only get a treat when I ignore the hand with the food. I'd better leave it alone!"
6. ADD THE WORD CUE: "LEAVE IT"
Offer the food in your hand. Say, "Leave it" in a soft, calm voice. Be ready to close your hand over the food to prevent your puppy from getting it; reward when your puppy looks or backs away.
7. MOVE YOUR FOOD HAND TO DIFFERENT POSITIONS
Your puppy cannot "generalize." He/she learns in specifics, so you have to teach him/her that this new behavior is required in every circumstance. Put your food hand down to the floor and repeat the steps above. Move your hand to his/her side and repeat, etc.
(For more information about generalization, check out this website article: Generalization. What it is and Why it Must Be Taken Into Account for Training Success.)
8. MOVE TO A DIFFERENT ROOM AND REPEAT
Your puppy needs to learn that "leave it" means "leave it" no matter where he/she is--the living room, the kitchen, the bedroom, etc. Don't expect him/her to automatically know what to do the first time in a new place. You might have to "back track" with the above steps in each new room.
9. UP THE ANTE--FOOD ON THE FLOOR
Put the first pile of food directly on the floor. Be ready to cover the food with your hand if your puppy tries to get it. Your puppy must NEVER get to this pile. Repeat as above: say "leave it" to your puppy; reward your puppy when he/she looks or backs away. Repeat with the food in different places and in different rooms.
10. UP THE ANTE AGAIN--WALK YOUR PUPPY ON-LEASH PAST THE PILE OF FOOD
Say "leave it" as you approach the food. Be careful not to give a leash "correction." Your puppy should not be punished as he/she is learning to make a choice, only rewarded for making the correct choice.
11. UP THE ANTE AGAIN--USE DIFFERENT DISTRACTIONS
Tell your puppy to "leave it" when your drop a used napkin on the floor, or a fork with good smells on it, or other tempting objects. Reward the correct behavior.
12. UP THE ANTE AGAIN--TRY THIS OUTSIDE
When your puppy reliably "leaves it" anywhere in the house, try the exercise outside. Be prepared to start at the beginning and repeat all steps.
TIPS FOR THIS EXERCISE
- Remember to include the food you use in this exercise in the total food your puppy eats for the day. We don't want your puppy to get "fat!"
- If your puppy is extremely food motivated, do this exercise after he/she has eaten (reserve some of his/her meal for the exercise).
- Break the exercise into short sessions (10-20 minutes). Perhaps the first time you will only progress to Step #5.
- Always end the sessions on a positive.
- Let your puppy "rest" for at least one hour between "sessions."
- Begin a new session with a "review," backtracking a bit to "warm up" your puppy for learning.
- Mix it up. Avoid "programming" your puppy. Vary your training routine. For example, move from Step #9 (food on the floor) to step #7 (food in your hand). Or, put the food on your knee instead of the floor. Be creative! This will help your puppy to "generalize."
- You can do this exercise on-leash to hold your puppy away from the food, but be careful not to give a leash "correction." Your puppy should not be punished as he/she is learning to make a choice, only rewarded for making the correct choice.
- As your puppy starts to "generalize" (he/she "leaves it" in many situations), begin to wean your puppy off food as a reward, using verbal praise instead. You might have to revert to food in new distracting situations (like a grocery store), but don't give a food reward every time.
Good luck, and have fun! If you have any questions, please leave a comment, or email me, and I will get back to you.