Leave It: What Is the Behavior, Exactly?

The other day I was pondering the trend of referring to “self-control” and “impulse control” in our dogs. I got to thinking about “leave it,” both the term and the behavior. I realized a couple of things. First, the term “leave it” doesn’t pass the dead-man test. (I’ll get to that below.) Second, the behavior “leave it” is not just one, but several behaviors. Third, I realized that this combination of problems could present some difficulties when training.

What is your dog actually doing when she successfully “leaves it”?

Improving Negative Descriptions

When describing how we would like dogs to act, how many times do we start with the word “doesn’t”? (Or worse, “shouldn’t.”)

  • The dog doesn’t counter-surf.
  • The dog doesn’t jump on people.
  • The dog doesn’t bark inappropriately.
  • The dog doesn’t pee or poop in the house.

You get the picture. And as people with a little (or a lot) of experience with positive reinforcement-based training, you know what good trainers will do first. They will decide—and describe—what they want the dog to do. Like this:

  • The dog lies on a mat when in the kitchen.
  • The dog keeps four feet on the floor for greeting.
  • The dog barks once and runs to a family member when the doorbell rings.
  • The dog eliminates outside.

I could have made the second group of descriptions more specific and precise. You can consider them a rough draft. But with the descriptions, I was taking the first steps toward something called operationalization.

Operationalization and Dead Men

Operationalization is an important concept in applied behavior analysis. To operationalize a behavior is to describe it in observable, measurable, objective, and specific ways. That description is from this article about behavioral interventions with children, but most definitions are similar. For some reason, that is difficult for humans to do. We want to conceptualize and label things instead. The dog is being naughty; the dog is being dominant; the dog is getting back at us; the dog is acting guilty.

None of these phrases tells us what the dog is actually doing. And if we are going to observe, analyze, and modify behavior, we have to know that.

When you operationalize behavior, you can’t define it as a negative or an absence of something. Attempting to define a behavior by what it isn’t fails the “dead-man test.” Ogden Lindsley coined this term in 1965 and you can read about it here: From Technical Jargon to Plain English for Application.[1]Lindsley, O. R. (1991). From technical jargon to plain English for application. Journal of applied behavior analysis, 24(3), 449-458.

The bottom line is that if a dead man can do it, it’s not a behavior. Look at my top list of problem dog “behaviors.” A dead man could do all those things.  For instance, dead men are really good at things like “not counter-surfing” and “not jumping on people.”

Attempts at behavioral descriptions that start with the word “doesn’t” usually aren’t real behaviors at all. They fail the dead-man test.

The dead-man test comes in handy because it clues you in to times when you are going down the wrong road. For instance, when discussing negative reinforcement, I have had people tell me that all other behaviors besides the one that’s being negatively reinforced are automatically being punished. For instance, let’s say I have dirty hands. I wash them. My hands are now pleasantly clean and washing was negatively reinforced. Having dirty hands was aversive to me and I removed that aversive via washing. But my correspondent wrote that also, “not washing hands” was positively punished.

Whoa! What does “not washing hands” look like? Ask a dead man. He’s doing it right now. If there is no behavior observed and described, we can’t identify punishment occurring. (By the way, there could have been positive punishment in this scenario. But there’s not enough information in my description to know.)

Exploring “Leave It”

And that brings me to “leave it.” We tend to think of “leave it” as being a single behavior. We casually define it as the dog not getting that thing that we don’t want it to get. But wait! “Not getting the goodie”? That doesn’t pass the dead-man test.

When we talk about “leave it,” we actually may be talking about one of several behaviors. Watch this video of baby Clara learning “leave it” (a.k.a. Zen in Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels.) She does great, despite some poorly timed markers on my part. But what behavior is she learning?

It appears that what she learned was that when a fist was in front of her, she could look at the floor and a treat would appear.

This way of teaching “leave it,” which I no longer use, relies on extinction of “trying to get the treat out of the hand” behaviors and the dog trying something else instead. What started to get reinforced for Clara was looking at the floor. It could have been backing up, it could have been looking at me, or any number of other things. My point is that it has a random quality to it.

What Clara learned was:

  • When a fist with a treat inside it appears in front of your face…
  • look at the floor…
  • and a treat will appear.

She also learned that licking or even approaching the hand with the treat in it didn’t work. Those behaviors started to extinguish in that context.

This randomness is one reason I don’t use this method anymore. An even more important reason is that methods based on extinction can be frustrating. Nowadays, I use more of a “fade the treats in from the side” approach with less potential frustration. But I will say that Clara caught on so fast here that I still see very little frustration at all when watching the video.

So Clara initially learned “leave it” as “look at the floor in the presence of a treat in a fist.” Here are three more examples of “leave it.”

What are my dogs doing in this picture?

Three dogs practicing leave it: staying on their mats as treats roll by.
We call this “leave it” but what are the dogs doing?

If I operationalize it, I would say that they are lying on their mats with their heads up, watching treats roll by. I could improve on the term “leave it” by calling this behavior a down stay or a mat stay with distractions. [2]Ironically, stay, especially considering Lindsley’s original concerns and description, could also be considered to fail the dead-man test. But notice that I stipulated that the dogs are … Continue reading

What is Summer doing in this picture? (Those are pieces of mozzarella cheese on the floor.)

Summer practicing leave it: walking on a loose leash through a grid of cheese on the floor
We call this “leave it” but what is Summer doing?

Summer is walking with me on leash, keeping her head and shoulders in line with my left side and within two feet of me such that the leash stays loose. She is doing this with a major distraction of cheese on the floor. AKA “leave it.”

Finally, what does Clara do in this movie?

When I call her, Clara lifts her head up from the food she was eating, turns, and runs to me. It’s a challenging recall. But it’s also “leave it.”

Can we theorize that “leave it” consists of one of these four things?

  • Come (away from something you want)
  • Stay (away from something you want)
  • Continue a duration behavior  (while not grabbing something you want)
  • Relax the jaw muscles to release an item

Did I miss anything?

Pitfalls of Reinforcing a Random Behavior

Sometimes we can train ourselves into a corner if we don’t operationalize what the dog is actually doing. Clara learned (after the above puppy video) that a reliable way to get a reinforcer in a “leave it” situation was to move away from the tempting item. She put distance between the item and herself. This worked fine until I started using food as a distraction on the floor and she actually had to go close to the food to do what I was asking of her. Then I realized that I had taught “leave it” as “back away” when what I really wanted was “hold your head up and keep your mouth closed.” Those are pretty different!

I wrote a whole post about that: The Missed Cue: Attack of the Zen Field.

The embedded movie in that post shows Clara struggling when I ask her to get on her mat with a treat in the way. This was harder for her to learn than it was for my other dogs. That was probably because backing away from the treat had been so heavily reinforced.

Anybody want to suggest how I could have made the transition with less stress for her?

“Self-Control” Doesn’t Have to Have a Moralistic Meaning

This post started off as a rant prompted by the use of the terms “self-control” and “impulse control” in the dog community. I have used those terms myself, plenty of times. That’s how we conceptualize what we want from our dogs. We don’t want to have to order them around all the time. We would like for them to perform the behaviors we like almost automatically (with reinforcement from us, of course).

These terms have an almost moralistic edge to them. The typical definitions of those things for humans involve urges, emotions, and morality. More important, we tend to see self-control behaviors all under one big umbrella. I think that with our dogs we do better to talk about specific behaviors. Just as we shy away from using constructs such as “guilt” in dogs because of the harm that can be done under that assumption, I think we might want to hesitate in using these general terms about self-control. We don’t know that the dog conceives it that way. What we do know is that we can successfully reinforce certain behaviors.

I truncated my rant when I found out that the term “self-control” does have a valid definition for animals.  The rough definition in behaviorism is the learned ability to forego a small reinforcer in order to get a delayed larger reinforcer. This is an operational definition and quite precise. It’s a big topic, so I’ll address that in the future. But it makes me feel better that there is a definition for self-control and that it is operationalizable along with the behaviors we want to teach our dogs.

Figure out specifically what you want the dog to do. Figure what it looks like. Define it. Describe it. Then teach it.

And for fun: does your dog do anything quirky as part of “leave it”? I bet there are some cute ones out there.

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Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016


1 Lindsley, O. R. (1991). From technical jargon to plain English for application. Journal of applied behavior analysis, 24(3), 449-458.
2 Ironically, stay, especially considering Lindsley’s original concerns and description, could also be considered to fail the dead-man test. But notice that I stipulated that the dogs are holding their heads up and watching something.

27 thoughts on “Leave It: What Is the Behavior, Exactly?

  1. Good article! I’m thinking that the problem with “leave it” is the verbal cue. Dead men “leave” things all the time without being asked to do so. ???? Probably we should forget about cueing “leave it” and instead cue some sort of look at me behavior. I think my dogs understand “leave it,” but probably they think I’m saying “look at me.” Maybe a better “leave it” would be teaching the dog never to take anything off the floor until cued to do so. However, this assumes “leave it” applies only to stuff on the floor. People who cue “leave it” to keep the dog from doing anything else could use something like “look at that” which results in the dog reorienting to the handler.

    1. Really good points. A friend builds eye contact into every cue she gives and behavior she reinforces (when possible and appropriate). I’m still wondering how to get from “back away from the treat” to “walk over the treat” myself. Any tips? I suppose if one reinforced duration eye contact rather than backing away?

      1. Susan Garrett’s “It’s yer choice” gets dogs walking past and over treats, toys, etc.

        1. Good thinking, yes it does. I’ll have to look again and see how they transition that. The only thing I don’t care for in IYC, for my dogs and my training abilities anyway, is that it starts with open hand. That sets up for negative punishment rather than extinction. (For some dogs that might be better–I’m not saying it’s bad.) But I segue to open hand after the dogs are getting it.

          1. i didnt know IYC started with an open hand. I always started with a closed hand.
            I did see someone describe a different way to teach IYC and she called it “errorless learning”. She suggested to have your hand with cookies up above the dog and reward for not jumping up at the cookie hand and then lower your hand over how ever many reps your dog needs until your cookie hand in level with the dogs nose and you continue rewarding for the behaviour you want (whether its back up, stand stay, sit stay, down stay)

            1. That’s a cool method! Start with the hand so high they aren’t even tempted to jump, right? Or at least such that you don’t have to pull it out of reach.

              I don’t actually know about Susan Garrett’s current instructions for IYC, but the famous YouTube movie of it (that she sanctioned, I think) starts with open hand.

      2. What an interesting discussion. My dog also doesn’t like to walk over a treat (or even a treat bag on the floor), and I never considered that “Leave It” training was part of the reason. I haven’t tried this, but you could try to re-teach the behavior, with the treat/object at a distance, get success, then move the dog closer, similar to the “it’s your choice” method. I may try this myself. Thanks again for another great post.

          1. I’ve run into the same problem of stopping and staring. I cracked up at the little Zen fire. Cricket responded well to practicing walking over them with me and using a nose touch, which is an incompatible behavior but also encourages/lures him forward over the treats.

            I love the overall post, though. Think of what you want, not what you don’t want. This is especially true if you have a smart dog, because you may not like what they come up with as an alternative behavior.

            1. Good idea about the nose touch. And yes, great point about the alternative behavior! It’s so easy just to displace one undesirable behavior with another.

  2. Eileen, I want to hug you!! I’ve long had the same thoughts about “leave it” and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told people that they need to stop thinking of what they DON’T want their dog to do (jump on guests) but instead need to teach the dog what they DO want him to do (sit stay as guests come in the door.) I’ve often thought about what it would be like if I was a dog in the average home – constantly told “no” for things, but never told what to do instead. It would be a bad feeling.

    And I also want to hug you for saying that dominance does not describe what the dog is actually doing. THANK YOU for letting me know I’m not the only one who has had this thought!

    May I share this article on facebook? I really love it and agree with everything! Thanks again for publishing this!

    1. Thanks for your kind words! I’m so glad it resonated for you. Yes, by all means share!

  3. Hi Eileen, once again a great article and so true! I saw your video with Clara and the mat a few weeks ago and I burst out laughing at the part with the creepy Psycho music!
    I guess I did something right there with Yuki, because what she does on “Leave it” is look at me. If I’m on the other side of the room and the object/treat is between us, she’ll walk over/past it and come straight to me for her reinforcement. IF she responds to it outside, which she doesn’t if it’s something really tasty like bird poop, she’ll run towards me and get her treat.
    What I did when I trained her: At first I clicked her for moving her head away from the treat, then for staring at it for an extended period of time, and then I didn’t click her until she looked at me. She learned very quickly that looking at me would pay off. I think to her “Leave it” means “come here, I have something nice for you!” 🙂 (of course I don’t always need her to come to me after that cue, but oh well, I’ll accept that side effect for now. ;))

    1. That’s great! One could do that with the treat behind a barrier so there was no human involvement. I like that idea!

      Glad you liked the silliness in the video. 🙂

  4. Very good post. Nina pulls her head back, since we started with basic Zen, then checks in with me.
    With my guide dog puppies the ultimate goal is much further down the field, since they will ultimately need to ignore the chicken bone underfoot with neither a verbal cue nor a reinforcer from their blind partner, who probably will not even be aware that their dog has just successfully resisted an unauthorized snack. That takes a ton of work.
    We do use “leave it”, even thought I agree that it encompasses too much, since it includes food on the floor, toddlers waving ice-cream cones, other dogs/animals, and what we call “grabby hands”; that portion of the general population that can’t keep its hands off a working dog.
    At first thought I don’t see a common element in the dog’s desired/desirable behavior, except possible a quick glance at the handler, since the dog might need to raise her head, pull it back move it to the side, etc., depending on the circumstance. For obvious reasons, a guide dog must be focused on the environment, so an enraptured gaze at the handler’s face–a la Obedience heeling–is not an option.
    I’d be interested in thoughts on this.

  5. You often get me thinking! I use the term “impulse control” a lot, so I look forward to seeing what else you have to say about “self control.” I use exercises such as doggie zen and Dr. Overall’s Protocol for Relaxation with dogs who act out when frustrated. These exercises in getting good things for remaining attentive and relaxed, when done at a gradual pace so that frustration doesn’t happen, does seem to grow their capacity to handle temptations (not fearful things) in the environment that previously caused them to bark and lunge, or do the adolescent “furry jumping piranha” game. I guess my question is, to what extent is relaxation an intentional, rather than a “dead man” behavior?

    1. Ha! You asked the thousand dollar question! I have been discussing this with my friend who is studying to be a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. A duration stay, for instance, takes micro muscle movements to maintain and can be described that way. (I mentioned in my mat stay example that the dogs were holding their heads up, for example.) But “relax” is a tricky one because the animal can end up puddled on the floor which really does resemble a dead-man behavior. What we came up with was that the **act** of relaxing is not dead-man behavior. Relaxation definitely can be taught, piece by piece. Dead men can’t relax a muscle group. But I don’t know what to characterize the duration part. What do you think?

      1. I think it’s complicated 😉 Long term relaxation involves interactions between different parts of the brain; for example, ability of the orbitofrontal cortex to override activities of the amygdala, and relative activities of sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Without fancy equipment, we can only guess at these by careful observation of subtle external signs such as facial expression and rate of breathing.

        For characterizing duration in a training session, all we have to go by is maintenance of these external signs. (I’m thinking more about activities such as Dr. Overall’s protocol for relaxation than exercises about leaving food. For me, long duration of self control around cookies means getting the darn things out of the house, so I don’t see why a dog should be expected to ignore a pile of cheese indefinitely).

        As a professional trainer I’m often asked to deal with anxiety and reactivity, so the output of greatest interest to me is not simply maintenance of criteria during a training session, but how the dog responds to potential triggers in its everyday environment. Perhaps one could say we’re operationalizing from a higher altitude view than just the training session? We hope to effect long-term change in things we can’t rigorously operationalize: brain functioning and physiological state, and that often requires long term practice.

        My goal is as much about improving the dog’s quality of life as about developing self-control or impulse control so as not to annoy the humans. With clients, I’ve started using the term “emotional self-regulation,” which is vague but seems to encourage them to think about the dog’s point of view.

        I’m going to go way out on a limb here and say that, based on what I see in the dogs I’ve worked with, and my smattering of knowledge about brain function, I’m tempted to think of training alert relaxation (I agree that “puddle on the floor” is not a useful goal) as a canine form of mindfulness meditation exercise. In human health and mental health research, they teach the human subjects to do a 20-minute alert sit-stay daily. It’s operationalized as, “follow your breathing.” The output measured in those studies is long term improvement in cardiovascular function, reduction of anxiety, improved immune system function, or whatever else a particular study is tracking. If only we had the resources to research this rigorously in the pups!

        1. I love this!

          “Perhaps one could say we’re operationalizing from a higher altitude view than just the training session? We hope to effect long-term change in things we can’t rigorously operationalize: brain functioning and physiological state, and that often requires long term practice.”

          Interesting about the breath. It’s one way I track my dog Clara’s state. I know her neutral rate is 22 breaths per minute. Just checked her out–she is sleeping next to me– at 15. Lowest I’ve seen is 12.

          Really great thoughts, Wendy. Thanks for sharing them here. Love your goal.

  6. I accidentally did the same thing when I trained my dog to “leave it”! I have a three year old medium sized border collie mix. My sister just asked me the other day to try putting a treat on Cia’s nose and see if she’d balance it there but I said she can’t do those tricks because she thinks when I ask her to “leave it” she can’t be touching it. She’ll scooch backwards when I try to rest a treat on her outstretched paw, and look at me waiting for the positive reinforcement because to her mind, she’s done it exactly right lol
    I also realized at one point, that I was using “leave it” as pretty much an equivalent of “no”. When she wants to chase a squirrel, when she barks at a stranger or something making a noise. I had been advised by the trainer we worked with not to use “no” because it is too non-specific (and also a dead-man cue a lot of the time). But I realized that I’ve been doing it because /I/ know what I want her to do – leave the thing she’s paying attention to and pay attention to me instead. After reading your post, it’s made it really clear to me that I need to work on giving her more specific commands instead (“come”, “sit”, “look”). Thank you!

    1. Yep, the treat thing sounds familiar! Glad you found the article useful. I should take my own advice and work on the individual cues as well!

  7. The dogs just came rushing into my study (through a door accidently left open) and mobbed me to give them treats. (Those that live beside my computer).
    No I didn’t say “Leave it!” I said ‘BUZZ OFF!” (which they did 🙂

  8. You do need to know what behaviour you want. And ‘desisting’ from doing something is indeed a ‘behaviour”. So If you don’t car WGAT your dog does apart from what it is currently doing, then “No” “Stop it” and “Leave it!” are perfectly good cues.
    Especially if the dog is just about to eat a dead fish with a hook still in its mouth. Or pull the roast off the top of the oven.
    If you DO care what the dog does once it has desisted, then think of these words as interrupters.
    I saved out lives are couple of months back with an interrupter. My husband was driving and pulling out into traffic where he hadn’t noticed a car hurtling towards us. No time to say “Don’t pull out now, dear,” or even “You’d better brake quick smart!” A (weird) scream/squawk came out of my mouth as I grabbed his arm, he slammed on the brakes and the hurtling car missed us by a whisker.
    No I am a BIG fan of “desist immediately” cues. They save lives! (or self, husbands, dogs and children., and even senile mothers!).

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