The ‘drop it’ cue is one that we consider a potential life-saving skill for your dog. This teaches your dog to release an item in their mouth when they hear you say ‘drop it’ (or any cue you would like to say such as ‘give’, ‘mine’, etc). This could be something that could be dangerous or fatal for your dog, but it is also a good skill for self-control, overall manners or part of games such as tug or retrieve. This can be a relatively easy skill to teach as long as it is set up correctly and your dog has not had lots of practice at playing the keep away game!
Many dogs do learn to keep items away from us because we may have inadvertently taught them that grabbing certain items gets them attention from us (even if it is negative, many dogs still find this attention rewarding!) or that it starts a really fun game of chase! If we handle this incorrectly as well, we may create possession aggression concerns in our dogs. This is because when we finally get the item, we often are angry, yank it from our dogs and take it away. By doing this, we are teaching them that giving us items means bad things for them and that we always take the items away from them. This will often create a vicious circle where the dog begins to try harder to keep the item away or just finds the overall game and attention a lot of fun and continues to grab items. By teaching the ‘drop it’ cue we are basically teaching our dogs to trade to start; release the item in your mouth and something good will happen.
We are teaching them that giving us the item means good things for them. In the above steps, this was for the treat. While going through these steps during training, ensure that you always have the higher value item to use a reward. As well, by giving back the item to the dog, you are teaching them that when they give you the item, they may sometimes get it back – this does not always mean that they lose access to the item. Remember to always start the training with a lower value item.
After the dog has done the above steps a few times, follow the below steps:
Go through all of these steps and begin to add higher value items. A typical sequence may be a tennis ball, a squeaker toy, their favourite toy, a new toy, a milk bone, a smoked bone, etc. Work at each level multiple times until the dog is happily dropping the item before going to a higher value item. As you increase the value of the item, ensure you are also providing them with a higher value reward. This does not always have to be food. For example, the dog may drop a tennis ball in exchange for a new squeaker toy! During this training you are teaching the dog that you have a great reward for them and that it is worth it for them to drop the item.
With any training, it is important that we set it up to start versus just waiting for the dog to grab onto something they have to drop. This allows us to have better influence over the situation to ensure success. As the dog becomes more reliable with the skill, you will begin to set up ‘real world’ situations. To do this, always have a reward on you. When your dog picks up an item, you can practice the above steps and offer big rewards for when they drop the item.
So, what happens when your dog grabs something they shouldn’t have or you know is too valuable to them so you may not have good success? If it is something that is not dangerous to the dog and they will not destroy or it is okay for them to chew it up (for example, a kleenex from the garbage), ignore the dog. This is especially true for those dogs that have turned this into a game and do this to get your attention. You are no longer going to play this game with them and teach them that you will ignore them, not play the keep away game. As well, ensure you are preventing the dog from grabbing these items by dog proofing your house by putting items out of reach or putting lids on garbage cans.
What about an emergency situation? Your dog has grabbed something dangerous and you need to get it back. These are critical situations that require high value bribes. Do not chase the dog! Instead get a high value item (maybe hot dogs from the fridge!) and toss them towards your dog while you kneel down. Do not make any movement towards your dog. Toss the food and as the dog goes to get it, continue to toss it further away from the dropped item. Continue to do this until you can get the dangerous item and provide your dog with big rewards. Understand that it was not your dogs fault and that you need to do a better job at keeping these items out of your dog’s reach.