I like to start this with a toy for a few reasons. First because I want to be able to give the object back as a reward; and secondly, I want the dog to feel like "drop it" is part of the game. It should never be taught with intimidation or by trying to scare the dog because as mentioned in Part I, this tends to make the dog defensive and you may end up causing your dog to guard. The point is to make the dog want to spit the item out happily.
Step 1 - Offer or toss the toy to entice the dog to pick it up in its mouth.
Step 2 - Once the dog is holding the toy, show the dog (let it sniff if need be) a high value (read: smelly & tasty) treat, and be ready to use your reward marker ("yes", "good", or a click if you are using a clicker) the moment the dog spits out the toy to take the treat.
Repeat Steps 1 & 2 until the dog is quickly spitting out the object as soon as the treat is presented.
Step 3 - Get your dog to take the toy again and add your cue (say "drop it") while you show the treat, still using your reward marker the moment the dog spits out the toy each time. You want to say "drop it" in a normal voice like you would say "sit" or any other cue. The point is to teach a word that can be used as an instruction; not to say it in a growly tone that might scare or intimidate your dog or be perceived as a threat.
Repeat Step 3 a few times and then try using your cue (drop it) without showing the treat right away, being ready to use your reward marker the moment the dog spits out the toy. If it does - great! That means the dog has associated the cue (drop it) with the behaviour (spitting the item out). You're ready to move on to Step 4.
Key Point: If it doesn't spit it out, don't keep repeating your cue. This means that the dog has not yet associated the cue with the behaviour yet, and repeating the cue will do nothing but make the dog start to ignore the word. You will need to practice Step 3 while separating the cue and prompt (showing the treat). What I mean by this is when you say "drop it", give the dog 1-2 seconds to think about/offer the behaviour before showing the treat to prompt the dog to drop the toy. Repeat this step until the dog starts to offer the behaviour (drop the toy) within 1-2 seconds of hearing the cue (drop it).
Step 4 - Now that your dog is spitting out the toy and expecting a treat, it's time to work on having the treat come later and from further away. You will still use your reward marker the moment your dog drops the item to mark the correct behaviour but the reward itself will start to come later. I usually start by having the treat in my pocket and practicing the drop it exercise, having the treat come out of my pocket once they have dropped the toy. Then I repeat the exercise having the treat come from the counter a step or two away from me, working up to getting the dog to drop the item with me going further away to get the treat. The idea here is to show the dog that the reward will come later or from further away. This is an important step if you want your dog to drop items when you don't have a treat in your hand!
Once your dog is doing this well, it's time to switch it up with some different variations of the game and make it more challenging. Here's where you can get creative, but here are some ideas that I've used with lots of success:
- Make a list of items you want to practice "drop it" with, and rank them from easiest to hardest. At the same time have a list of valuable treats and make sure you have a treat that is more valuable ready to practice with each item on your list of items to practice. Start practicing with your easiest items first and work your way up to the hardest items. Hint: When you get to those tougher items you might be switching from liver treats to something REALLY tasty your dog rarely gets, like hot-dog, fresh chicken, lunch meat or a sardine. The idea is your dog should always be thinking that they will get something BETTER if they drop the item they have, so that they are eager and willing to drop what they have.
- If you're playing this with a ball or a stick (eg. as part of a game of fetch), you will most likely be able to use another ball or stick as the reward instead of a treat. In this instance we are fading the food reward and replacing it with the reinforcement of a different ball/the game continuing.
- Practice this exercise regularly with items that they get to have back to teach them that "drop it" doesn't always mean they lose the item. Again we want them to think it's part of the game. As often as you can, give them something better if you have to take items away so that the association with "drop it" is always positive.
- If your dog is grabbing its leash and you are using "drop it" for the leash, follow the drop it with a "watch me" exercise or ask for some other behaviours before giving the dog the reward. Often dogs will learn to grab things so that you'll say "drop it" and they'll get a treat. In these instances, you want to make them do more and more before getting the treat, and also give them something else to do once they have the treat. If you find that your dog starts to do this as an attention seeking behaviour, you will want to create setups with safe items you aren't worried about being damaged so that you can leave the room when the dog grabs the items to teach them that this is not going to get them attention or treats. I will likely be discussing attention-seeking behaviours in another post!