Teaching your dog to "drop it" on command can be a lifesaving skill. Dogs explore the world with their mouths, which often leads them to picking up hazardous items. A reliable "drop it" command allows you to promptly and safely remove dangerous objects before your dog can ingest them. While some dogs may naturally drop items when asked, most dogs need dedicated training to perfect this behavior. The good news is that most dogs can learn this skill with proper technique and consistency on the owner's part. This article will provide a step-by-step guide to training a solid "drop it" command that your dog will obey even when tempted with their highest value items.
Choose Your Dog's Reward
Before starting any training, you need to determine what motivates your individual dog. Every dog has different reward preferences. Some respond best to food treats, while others are more driven by toys or praise. Experiment to find which rewards your dog values most.
Food-motivated dogs may work best for treats like small pieces of chicken, cheese, or hot dogs. Use soft, smelly treats that your dog loves. The smellier the better, as the odor can help keep your dog's focus.
Dogs that prefer toys may be rewarded with a quick game of tug or fetch with a favorite toy. You can also utilize a special "high value" toy specifically for training that your dog only receives for obeying commands.
Dogs that are highly praise-motivated do best with exaggerated verbal praise, pets, and belly rubs as rewards.
Determine what drives your individual dog, and use that as motivation during training sessions. Having a reward your dog finds highly valuable will get you the quickest results.
Use Two Toys for Initial Training
Start by gathering two identical toys for initial training sessions. Squeaky toys and balls or ropes work well. The toys should be exactly the same – same color, size, texture, and smell. This prevents your dog from developing a preference for one toy over the other.
Present one toy to your dog and encourage them to take it by waving it in front of their nose or squeaking it. Once they take the toy, wait several seconds, then show them the second identical toy. Say "drop it" and exchange the first toy for the second. Immediately reward with praise, pets, or treats.
Practice this toy exchange several times during your first training session.Reward every successful "drop it." Do not try to take the toy from your dog's mouth – they need to willingly release it when you give the command. End on a positive note once your dog is consistently dropping the toy. Short, successful training sessions are best for initial learning.
Up the Difficulty Slowly
Over subsequent training sessions, gradually increase the difficulty. Do this by extending the time between presenting the first toy and asking your dog to drop it. Go from 3-5 seconds to 10-20 seconds. You want your dog holding the item for longer periods before having to relinquish it.
Also increase distraction during the exercise. Have your dog drop the toy while children are running around or other pets are present. Try different locations too – practice at home, outside, and eventually public areas.
As the exercise becomes more difficult based on timing and distractions, keep rewarding every correct "drop it." If your dog seems to be struggling, decrease the difficulty level temporarily to end on a positive note.
Prevent Accidental Rewarding
A common mistake is accidentally rewarding a dog when you don't intend to. Your dog may interpret any interaction with the item as a reward, even negative attention.
For example, if you chase your dog around while shouting "drop it!" they may see that as a fun game of keep away. The unwanted behavior is unintentionally being reinforced.
Or your dog may interpret you forcibly taking the item away as playful roughhousing. Some dogs enjoy tug of war, so physically pulling an object from their mouth can be perceived as play rather than discipline.
Be sure all interactions with the item follow your command only. Avoid any accidental reinforcement of your dog holding the item longer than you intended.
Use Real-Life Objects
Once your dog reliably drops items on cue with toys, it's time to practice with real objects. Gather some safe but tempting items to use during training such as:
- Sticks or small branches
- Towels or clothing articles
- Plastic water bottles (with cap on)
-Sealed boxes or empty food containers
Present the real-life objects to your dog one at a time. Reward every correct "drop it" just like with the toys. Start with lower value items, then work up to objects your dog finds more tempting.
If your dog struggles with real items, go back to the toys until you get consistent results again. Praise liberally when they correctly drop each item to reinforce the behavior.
Proof the Behavior
After your dog reliably drops both toys and real objects on cue, it's time to "proof" the behavior. Proofing tests how consistently your dog will obey the command in different settings and under distraction.
Start by having family or friends practice with your dog. See if your dog will obey the command from different people. Try varied locations too, like the backyard, a park, pet store, etc.
Gradually add distractions – have other people or dogs walking nearby, add noise from a radio or TV, or drop a tasty treat on the floor. See if you can still get your dog to focus on dropping the object.
Proofing sessions should still end with a reward every time the dog correctly obeys. If the situation is too difficult and your dog fails, go back to an easier setting and build back up to high distraction. Better to set your dog up for success rather than failure.
Troubleshoot Common Problems
Despite your best efforts, your dog may develop some common problems when learning "drop it." Here are some tips for troubleshooting:
Chewing the item before dropping. Some dogs will start hastily chewing or crushing the item when commanded to drop it. This is often because they are reluctant to give up the object. Praise if your dog spits out the object, but avoid rewarding if they damage it first. Go back to an easier item, like their favorite toy, to rebuild success.
Dropping but immediately picking the item up again. Your dog is being sneaky and trying to have it both ways. Completely ignore them picking the item up again, and withhold any reward or interaction. Simply repeat the command, and wait for them to fully release the item. Reward only when they leave it alone after dropping it.
Jumping up and biting the reward. Some dogs get so excited for their reward when dropping an item that they jump up and nip. Do not reward this behavior – it can reinforce nipping. Wait calmly until your dog has all four paws on the floor, then give the reward. If needed, hold rewards in your hand but keep your hands up and out of reach until your dog settles down. Only bring the reward to your dog's mouth once polite and seated.
Refusing to give up high value items. Even reliable dogs can be tempted to keep inappropriate or dangerous items. Do not chase or play tug of war – this can reinforce the behavior. Instead, offer a very tempting trade that's an even higher value to your dog. For example, offer a piece of chicken in exchange for stolen food or a new squeaky toy in exchange for an old sock. Make trading up more enticing than keeping the original item. Use extremely high-value trades only in dire situations to avoid encouraging the behavior of stealing items to get a treat in exchange.
Manage the Environment
The most effective way to minimize ingesting of inappropriate items is proper management. Supervise your dog closely, especially as a puppy or untrained adolescent. Dog proof your home and yard by removing hazards and securing trash cans. Provide plenty of appropriate chew toys. Use baby gates, crates or tethers to restrict access to other rooms when unsupervised.
Leash your dog on walks to prevent scavenging. Pick up yard hazards like sticks, rocks, mushrooms, and needles regularly. Be aware of what's within reach, and prevent access to dangerous items as much as possible.
While training a solid "drop it" command is useful, ultimately keeping inappropriate objects away from your dog in the first place is key. Proper management and supervision will always be your best prevention.
Use Ongoing Maintenance Training
Once your dog understands the "drop it" command, be sure to practice it regularly. Schedule short training refreshers a few times per week. Periodically increase difficulty again by adding distractions.
Dogs can backslide on training if skills are not used. Regular maintenance prevents your dog's "drop it" obedience from getting rusty. Refresher training is generally quicker and easier than the initial teaching process.
Continue praising every correct response. Carry rewards on walks or outings to practice in different locations. Consider taking a training class periodically for a trainer's guidance. Maintaining a reliable drop it command takes ongoing work, but it ensures lifesaving responsiveness if your dog ever picks up something dangerous.
Know When to Seek Help
If your dog is struggling to master "drop it" after several weeks of training, don't hesitate to enlist help. Some dogs benefit from professional training guidance. Seek out a certified trainer that uses positive reinforcement techniques.
Signs your dog may need extra help include:
- Little or no progress despite consistent training
- Obeying reliably with toys but not real life items
- Responding well at home but not in public settings
- Only obeying when rewards are visible
Troubleproofing on your own can be challenging. An experienced trainer watches your training sessions and can pinpoint exactly where the breakdown is occurring. They may spot small changes in technique or rewards that can greatly improve your dog's response. Seeking professional assistance is perfectly okay and a wise investment for hard-to-train behaviors.
A reliable "drop it" command allows you to promptly retrieve hazardous items before your dog can ingest them. While it requires effort and consistency, teaching this lifesaving skill is well worth it. Use high-value rewards, incrementally add difficulty and distractions, troubleshoot problems, and maintain the behavior with regular practice. With time and patience, you can train your dog to drop anything on cue and greatly reduce the risk of consuming dangerous objects. A solid "drop it" command brings peace of mind knowing you can protect your dog, even from themselves.