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How to Teach Give: A Winning Recipe

Originally published on 05/01/2008
Editor's note: The following article was the winner of our 2008 Training Recipe Contest. Congratulations, Leah!

Redefining "give it"—positively

dog with cell phone

By the time most dogs get to my classes, their owners have already taught them that when they get hold of something special, it's going to be taken away. Most of the time, the owners get upset, yell, and force the object out of their mouths. So, when dogs find that deliciously smelly dead squirrel in the yard, they are more likely to hide the squirrel under the couch than allow their owners to catch them with it.

How many times have you seen your dog pick something up, look around quickly to see if you noticed, and hurry away from you with it? That's because he knows he's going to lose!

My way of teaching "give it" (or "drop it") is to change the dog's perception of what the cue means. Instead of being worried that he's going to lose something, I want to teach him that not only will he gain a treat, but he probably will get the item back again. "Give it" can become a win-win situation for the dog.

How to start

Begin with an item of lower value, such as a tug or stuffed toy. Something edible is usually of higher value to a dog, and harder for him to give up. You want to set your dog up for success, not failure.

Change the dog's perception of what the cue means.

Encourage the dog to play with the toy you've chosen. Once it's in his mouth, hold a smelly high-value treat right up to his nostril, and, cheerfully, say "give it." Some dogs will drop the toy right away. Others may hesitate, trying to decide, or some may even attempt to get both the toy and the treat in their mouths at the same time. This is not the time to nag "give it, give it, give it" or try to pull the treat away. Patiently, hold the treat to the dog's nostril and wait silently for him to make his decision.

If the dog does not drop the toy, then the value of the toy is too high to him, the value of the treat is too low, or both. Try again with an object he doesn't like as much, or use a hot dog or string cheese instead of a dog treat.

As soon as the dog does drop the toy, act quickly:

  1. Click
  2. Whisk the toy behind you with one hand, feeding him the treat with the other
  3. Give him the toy back again

Removing the toy from the dog's sight is important, as is giving it back as soon as he finishes the treat. If you let the dog pick up the toy again after he eats the treat, he isn't getting the correct message clearly enough: when he releases an object to you, you are going to give him back his prize.

When he releases an object to you, you are going to give him back his prize.

Following these steps is a way of solidifying his trust in you. As a nice side benefit, it's also a subtle way of reminding him that you are the owner of all his resources.

Move to the next step

After placing the treat to the dog's nose two or three times, start saying "give it" without letting him see or smell the treat. Putting the treat to the nose is a way to teach the dog the behavior you want him to perform, without force. Once he understands what's being asked of him, you don't need the treat. If you continue to hold the treat to his nose, it will be more of a bribe than a reward, and he may not comply without seeing or smelling a treat! Note that this process, and the principle, hold true for all training using food lures, not just for training the "give" behavior.

Continue the pattern of clicking, whisking the toy away, rewarding the dog, and returning the toy. When the dog is quickly and willingly dropping the toy, move a step or two away from him before saying "give it." Since the goal is to be able to give the cue in a normal tone of voice from across the room and have the dog immediately spit out the chicken bone or razor blade he's picked up, practice giving the cue at slowly increasing distances.

Progress at the dog's pace. If he fails to drop the toy, you asked for too much too fast—back up. Also at the dog's pace, start asking for increasingly more valuable objects. If he becomes unwilling, up the reward value or lower the object value.

Constant readiness

The most important part of training and practicing "give" isn't in the classroom or in set-ups, however. Be prepared at home by having your clicker and treats available wherever your dog is; be alert for opportunities to play the "give it" game. Try to find at least 8-10 times a day when you can ask your dog to give up something.

There will be times when you can't give him the original object back, like when you catch him chewing the remote control! In this case, exchange a valuable toy for the object you have to take away. If you rotate his toys, having them available only for a few days and then switching them out, your dog won't get as bored with them. This strategy will also provide you with a stash of more tempting exchange items.

Play and practice

Another way to practice "give it" is playing tug. If your dog isn't crazy about the game, this won't be the right method for him. But if he's a crazed tugger, the game could be of great value.

Start off by playing normally with your dog. At some point, hold the tug toy still and say "give it." If he continues to tug, just wait patiently without tugging back. If you're not participating, your dog will eventually grow bored and drop the toy. At that moment, praise him and encourage him to take the toy again. You won't need a treat, because his reward will be restarting the game.

Make sure that when you give your dog an object that you told him to give up, you pick it up and hand it to him. Don't just release him to take it. This is important not only for "give," but also for training "leave" (when the object's not yet in the mouth). When you use either of these cues, you don't want your dog to hover over the object, waiting to be released to eat it. Again, think of chicken bones or dropped razor blades. With both the "give" and "leave" cues, you want your dog to look to you for his reward automatically.

You want your dog to look to you for his reward automatically.

Special treat—and success

Though I don't recommend rawhides (they can easily choke a dog or cause intestinal blockages), I have to admit that I do occasionally give them to my dogs. I used them when I was teaching "give it" and wanted to raise the value of the object to something really special. On the day I gave them the rawhides, I came back about once every 10-15 minutes to play the "give it" game.

One day after passing out the rawhides, I realized that my dogs were performing the "give" behavior flawlessly, so I really didn't have to ask for them back. Within 20 minutes, two out of my three dogs had brought me their rawhides and dropped them at my feet.

"Don't you want this back, mom? Aren't we going to play the game?"

If you practice diligently, the dead squirrel that Prince finds out in the yard might just get dropped in your lap instead of hidden under the couch!

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