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There will come a time in every pet parent's life when you'll ask your dog to drop something.
Whether that's your child's favorite toy, a piece of food you hadn't finished eating, or a more dangerous item you definitely want to get out of your dog's mouth. When your dog drops it because you've already practiced all the tips below to cue a strong drop response, you both will feel a wave of success mixed with joy rush over you. Or something like it, I promise! Teaching your dog to drop items on cue is not only a good behavior for you and your dog to know in real life situations to keep your dog safe but it's also a fun game to teach your dog to help prevent guarding issues.
Step 1: Make the drop it cue a game
By making the drop it cue a game you will create a positive association your dog understands when you ask him/her to drop something. Why does that matter? A lot of dogs are resource guarders. Whether they're guarding food, toys, or your shoes, teaching your dog the drop it cue using positive reinforcement will allow you to retrieve any item from your dog without any kind of force. No more ripping things out of your dog's mouth! All it takes is consistent training to build a super strong reinforcement history where your dog learns the benefit of giving up things like toys.
One important aspect when starting this training process is that we need to use relatively low value items as we begin training. For example, dog treats that wouldn't be considered high value treats could be regular dog biscuits as opposed to highly yummy freshly cooked bacon. Same goes for toys. When choosing a low value toy from your dog's toys, go with one he/she doesn't care an overwhelming amount about. Not really a ball dog? Go with a tennis ball. Not a tug toy enthusiast? Perfect toy contender to start training drop it.
Step 3: Reward your dog with something of higher value than what's being dropped
Always "pay" your dog (ie give them a treat) with something of much greater value than what is being dropped. For your first training session, I would recommend starting with a toy. Most dogs are food motivated and will drop a toy for a food reward. If your dog isn't food motivated, you'll just need to learn what is considered high value to your dog.
Engage your dog in a play session to play tug with a toy. As your dog grabs the toy, take some food from your treat pouch in your hand and lure the food in front of your dog's nose and mouth so your dog drops the toy. As soon as your dog releases the toy, use a verbal cue or click to mark and treat your dog as a reward. Continue practicing.
When you are ready to slowly increase the difficulty you can "pretend" you have food in your hand when luring your dog to drop the item. Repeat the above steps. Start playing tug with your dog but this time don't have anything in your hand when you lure your dog. When the toy falls from your dog's mouth, click and give your dog a treat.
Step 4: Replace the food lure with a cue word like "drop"
Once your dog begins to drop the toy without any treats in your hand, you'll want to start phasing out your hand completely which means making your hand gestures smaller and smaller and eventually replacing the old cue (your hand) with a new cue word like "drop." Your dog should care less about your motions and more about the verbal cue.
Start a tug toy play session the same way you did before. Instead of food luring your dog this time though just use your verbal cue "drop." If your dog lets go of the toy, click and reward him/her with a treat.
If your dog doesn't drop the toy immediately, that's okay! Say your "drop" cue, grab some treats from your treat pouch, use as small of a food lure motion with your hand as possible, click when your dog drops the toy and treat as a reward. Each time you practice this behavior, have your hand motion with the food lure get smaller and smaller until you don't need your hand at all and can rely solely on the verbal cue.
Step 5: Give the toy back to your dog after the drop
The great thing about making this training a game is your dog gets the toy back afterwards! Yay for lots of wins! Your dog not only gets a treat for dropping the item, he/she also gets the item back and gets to play.
It's a statistical game for your dog. Statistically speaking, if you teach your dog to drop the toy, not only does he/she get delicious treats for doing so, your dog also gets the toy back a few seconds later. There are only wins in this training!
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Of course there will be times in different environments where your dog may have something in his/her mouth you don't want them to have. That's obviously a different situation where your dog won't get that item back. But the good news is you would have built up enough other experiences to that moment in your previous training sessions. Still click and reward your dog with treats but don't give the item back if it's harmful to your dog.
Step 6: Upgrade from a toy to a high value item for your dog
As you continue to slowly increase in difficulty when teaching this drop behavior, the next level up is practicing with a higher value item than a toy. As a certified professional dog trainer, my recommendation for this transition is to use a dental chew. I like to train this level using dental chews because most dogs see them as higher value than a toy but not top of the food chain, so it's easy to find something of even higher value to trade. And dental chews can't (usually) be swallowed in one gulp.
First, buy some dental chews if you don't have any already. Second, we need to figure out what's considered more high value for your dog than a dental chew. Will a chicken jerky treat work? Or maybe freeze-dried treats? What's the next level up for your dog on the value scale after a dental chew?
Give your dog the dental chew to enjoy for a few seconds. Extend your hand to the chew, ask your dog to drop it, wait for the drop, click and treat your dog as a reward. Give the chew back to your dog.
Important: If your dog is showing signs of resource guarding, be cautious. Don't put your hand right underneath your dog's mouth. Instead cue the drop, click, treat, and if it looks safe as they're eating the treat you may be able to take the chew. Be aware and watch their mouth and body language.
Step 7: Teach your dog good things happen when you drop it
Throughout this whole training/game we want to teach your dog good things happen when you give something up and usually you get to keep it afterwards. This will build a lot of trust and confidence between you and your dog. And what's better than that? Your dog will understand you don't just take things from him/her without good things coming their way.
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Play this game a lot with your dog! As you level up, maybe next time try a bully stick. Every dog is different, so it's important to figure out your dog's treat value scale. Always remember to be sure whatever you're offering to trade is better in your dog's eyes than what you're asking your dog to drop. Your dog will let you know what they value more. Because they just won't drop it. :)
And if you have a dog that borrows random things throughout the house, use those items as you practice! The more specific your training is to your dog's behaviors the better.
Important note on safety and resource guarding
If your dog is showing any sign of resource guarding or has previous history of trying or actually has bitten when you've tried to take something away, get a certified force-free trainer involved. We can work 1-1 together here on Dogly or work with someone local to you. Safety is always priority number one so even if your dog is looking tense while you train, reach out for help.
Otherwise, enjoy building a more trust-filled relationship with your dog!
Next up in Food Manners on Dogly
Now that you know how to get your dog to happily drop food or anything he/she shouldn't have, you're ready to start learning how to teach your dog not to jump up on the counter or beg for food. The next guide in Food Manners here on Dogly will teach you how to stop your dog from counter-surfing when food is out on the table or counter. It's a three part guide, so go there next or if you'd like more personalized training we can always work 1-1 together.