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Happy kind of spring! We have another fun training challenge this month:
Teach a “drop it” cue during play
Playtime can very often double as training time. The two do not have to be mutually exclusive!
Before we get into some examples of how to do this, let’s have a brief chat about what I mean by “drop it”.
“Drop It”: The Behavior
When I say “drop it”, I mean the specific behavior of removing an item from your mouth. I like to have specific cues that mean specific behaviors to limit confusion with a pet as much as possible.
If you are using “leave it” for both behaviors of not putting something in your mouth and removing something from your mouth and it’s working, keep doing it. I’m not here to fix things that aren’t broken. However, if your pet is struggling to learn that the same thing means two different behaviors, then I suggest having one cue for each. Remember: just because we understand the concept of synonyms does not mean our pets do.
Another reminder: our pets don’t speak human language. You need to teach your pet what the “drop it” cue means before it’s going to reliably work. Fairly often someone will tell me that their pet does not drop something when asked to. And, almost just as often, I’m met with blank looks when I ask them how they taught that behavior. Stubborn quite often means they were never taught how to do it in the first place.
And, one last note: this behavior needs to be reinforced just like all others if you’d like to see it continue. If the only time you’re using “drop it” is to ask your pet to give up something amazing for nothing in return or only at the end of a play session, they’re going to discontinue following that cue pretty quickly. Like all behaviors, it needs to be worth it to the individual performing it.
“Drop It” with Fetch
There are a few variations that usually work for teaching this cue while playing fetch.
Option 1: 2-Toy Fetch
- Grab two identical (if possible) toys that your pet likes playing fetch with.
- Throw one toy.
- When your pet brings Toy 1 back, make a big fuss over Toy 2. Make it seem like the most fun toy that’s ever existed.
- When your pet drops Toy 1, immediately throw Toy 2. The hope is that throwing Toy 2 (continuing the game) reinforces the drop it, not any other behavior– like sit. We’ll only know if this is effective for this pet if they continue dropping the toy moving forward.
- Pick up Toy 1 while they’re chasing after Toy 2.
- When your pet brings Toy 2 back, make a big fuss over Toy 1.
- When your pet drops Toy 2, immediately throw Toy 1.
- Repeat until your pet reliably drops the toy. Pay attention to the cues that they are going to drop the toy. Some will chew it a few times then drop, others it’s based on proximity to you, others it could be a change in head position.
- Add in your “drop it” verbal cue right before they drop it. If you’ve successfully completed Step 8 you should be able to tell when they’re going to drop it and say your cue before the behavior happens. Reinforce by tossing the other toy, like before. Repeat until, in this context, your pet reliably drops the toy on cue.
- If you want to add some other behavior between the drop it and toss, now’s the time.
Option 2: Using Treats
- Grab a toy or two that your pet likes playing fetch with
- Throw the toy
- When your pet brings the toy back, show them a treat (luring) and say “drop it”.
- When your pet drops the toy, give them the treat, then pick up the toy. If you’re having trouble with your pet grabbing the toy again when you’re reaching for it then toss the treat instead of handing it to them so they’re busy while you’re picking it up.
- Because you’ve already rewarded the “drop it” behavior, you can ask for a sit or anything else you’d like before throwing the toy again.
- Repeat the above steps 5 times.
- The next time your pet brings the toy back, say “drop it” without showing them the treat. If they do, awesome! Hand or toss them the treat. If they don’t, repeat the above steps.
- You can either slowly phase out the treat and just have the continuation of the game be the reinforcement (if it is, actually and indeed, reinforcing enough) or you can keep the treat in the game long-term. There’s no harm in that.
“Drop It” With Tug
Let’s get one question that I hear frequently out of the way: does tug cause aggression? The short answer is no. The slightly longer answer is that there have been one or two studies looking at tug and aggression and they did not show that there was a significant correlation between the two. Now, two studies are not a lot and there could absolutely be more research done on this and that’s something we should keep in mind. Anecdotally, I frequently play tug with dogs who are considered “aggressive” and still have all my limbs (even the resource guarders!)
The way to teach “drop it” with tug is exactly how you would do it with fetch, just with tugging instead of throwing. I recommend playing for just a few seconds at a time (10-15 seconds). This can often make it easier for them to drop it because they’re not fully in the throes of tugging.
- Choose your game and toys.
- Get to playin’! If you’re using treats, you may need to experiment with the type of treat to get the perfect value of “worth dropping the toy for” vs. “not too exciting that play stops”.
- Share your progress with us @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram.