It's a key instuction for your dog to know, says trainer Fran Ardley
There are some commands your gundog can be taught from an early age and will stay with him for the rest of his career. Sit, stay, heel, come are a few of the more common ones. But the ‘leave it’ command is the one that if you can condition your dog to understand it right from the beginning will make your dog training fair easier.
‘Leave it’ means just that and not only does it require the dog to ignore dummies or game, it should also mean the dog should leave another dog, its food or even another person. It is a catch-all command.
Throughout a gundog’s life there will be conflicts in its training: we teach them to hunt and perhaps flush game, but we do not want them to chase it. On the other hand, if they find and have a flush and we end up with a runner we then want the dog to ‘chase’ the quarry and bring it back to us.
It can be confusing enough for us as trainers to get our heads around this let alone the dog.
Dogs learn by repetition, whether that is good behaviour or bad behaviour. That is basically how a verbal command works: we, the handler, use a phrase and we teach the dog the behaviour that corresponds to that verbal instruction. Over time we repeat that command and the dog learns to connect the two aspects together.
Why the leave it command is important
The ‘leave it’ command really counts when we start more advanced training. Such training will involve leaving the scent line of a flush or when we need to redirect the dog from one retrieve to another. I often think of it as a ‘switch off’ command, which basically means the dog needs to switch off from what it is currently doing and refocus on something else, whatever that something else is, be it me or another task.
Consistency is the key in training this command. If you use the words ‘leave it’ the dog must obey each and every time, and you want to get to the point where the dog reacts immediately to the instruction.
If you allow the dog to be sloppy in its reaction, this may well cause you issues in the later stages of its training. The earlier you start getting your gundog used to the ‘leave it command the better. It can be introduced when the dog is a young puppy, but remember, it’s an all-encompassing command and, as with all things related to gundog training, as you build up the training, you will also increase the temptation for the dog.
I never put an age on a puppy when I begin to train a particular exercise but once it has settled in and has got used to the kennel routine, I will start to introduce the ‘leave it’ command. I usually begin this at feed time. The puppy will be used to sitting before I give him food, so as I put the bowl down I give the command. If the pup moves forward — which it will do in the early stages — I quickly lift the bowl and start again. I have found most pups cotton on to this quickly and once the dog has grasped the exercise, I will leave it sitting for a bit longer before letting it eat.
When to teach it
I take every opportunity to condition my young dogs to certain commands. When they are out and about in the garden it is another good time to bring the ‘leave it’ command into play. When the puppy is sniffing about, call its name then add ‘leave it’. You may have to crouch down to encourage the puppy to come to you; when you do this make sure you give it plenty of praise. It is learning the exercise by default so that eventually you should be able to use the ‘leave it’ command and the puppy should come straight to you. Remember, repetition is the key.
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After you have instilled a solid retrieving desire in your dog, you will have to begin the process of steadiness. Your dog should be quite used to ‘leave it’ in its everyday life. Keep the dog on a lead and throw out a dummy. It will be used to running straight in for the retrieve, so tap your leg and walk away, using the ‘leave it’ command. You will probably need a few sessions of this before the dog really gets the hang of it, but there is no doubt the early conditioning of the pup will make this less challenging.
The real test
I am lucky that I have good facilities to train my own and my client’s dogs, but even if you don’t have access to a pen with birds you could still use your local environs to further this part of your dog’s training. By now your dog should know exactly what ‘leave it’ means and, at each stage of the training, as we up the temptation, we take a step back. I begin walking the dog around my bird pen on the lead and each time he shows too much interest I give him a sharp ‘leave it’ and turn and walk the opposite direction. You could do exactly the same thing with some feral pigeons in your nearest town centre or ducks on a local pond; be imaginative in this regard. I want to get to the stage where I can sit the dog up in a pen and be confident that ‘leave it’ means leave it.