Stop your dog from scavenging while out walking

Article about training dogs to stop scavenging
By Laure-Anne Viselé, December 2010

I have just read the most chilling news: 22 dogs have just been picked up by ambulance for acute poisoning in Utrecht (the Netherlands). Someone sprinkled bags full of yummy treats laced with poison. I am so disgusted.

As many walks in my immediate neighbourhood are frequently on high alert, I am getting increasingly concerned about this. Think it’s paranoia? Check this: “If the dog becomes a canine vacuum cleaner, grabbing and swallowing anything and everything off the ground … sooner or later the dog is going to swallow something harmful.” (Scavenging outdoors, Kathy Diamond Davis, Veterinarian).

Before you completely panic, here are the (US) statistics (Source: What you should know about pet poisons):

  • 10% of pet poisoning occurs outside the home
  • 1 to 2% of poisoned pets die

Still, I don’t want my dog to be the next stat, and there are frequent reports of poisoning in the Netherlands. Solution: time to train your dog to stop scavenging while off-leash. Sounds impossible? It’s actually easy, gentle and quick. Yes, even for your food-obsessed Labrador.

1. Teach your dog to “Watch me” on demand

Credit where it’s due

The focused attention method described here was inspired in its greatest part from Kathy Diamond Davis in her Scavenging outdoorsarticle.

Benefits: The idea behind it

The idea behind this exercise is to get your dog’s unwavering attention instantly and on demand.

Material: What you’ll need

This exercise takes place outdoors without leash(make sure your dog is in no danger, and has an excellent recall). You’ll need treats and optionally a clicker.

Steps: How to do this

  • When the dog moves in your direction, give him praise (or click).
  • Immediately after the praise/click, give the dog a treat.
    1. Make sure the dog has not seen the treats until that point.
    2. Dispense of the treat by holding it up between your eyes, forcing the dog to look up in the direction of your eyes, and then give the dog the treat at such an angle that it has to keep looking in the direction of your eyes.
  • Repeat this exercise quickly four or five times in a row until you release the dog (e.g. “OK”). Feel free to add variation to the type of movement you make in these repetitions (left/ right, low/high, very fast/not so fast, etc.)
  • Gradually build the exercise’ quality criteria separately, until your dog responds:
    1. Very quickly
    2. No matter the distraction/temptation
    3. No matter the distance to you
    4. For longer periods between “Watch me” and “OK”

Cherry on the cake: words of advice

You may also want to praise/click-treat the dog whenever it makes spontaneous eye contact with you while out on a walk.

Practice this exercise in lots of short bouts, whenever you go away somewhere with your dog. The more locations in which you practice, the more reliable the dog will be.

2. Teach your dog to “Leave it” automatically

Credit where it’s due

Both “Leave it” methods were taken straight from Dogmatic‘s fantastic dog blog. With Emily Larlham’s (Dogmatic) videos, teaching a dog new tricks is a breeze.

The Dogmatic “Leave it” video is here.

Benefits: The idea behind it

The idea behind the  default “Leave it” is that the dog won’t eat unattended food without your permission.

Material: What you’ll need

You’ll need a clicker.

Steps: How to do this

  1. Hold food in your closed fist at your dog’s height.
  2. Let the dog try to pry the food away (NEVER let him actually have the food, or even taste it).
  3. As soon as dog stops trying, click and treat.
  4. Gradually build up qualityon the following criteria by treating only the best performances in:
    1. Staying back (longer and longer, don’t want to give the habit of trying-retreating).
    2. Less obsessed behaviour (looking somewhere else, acting calm)

Cherry on the cake: words of advice

Do not use the word ‘Leave it’ in this exercise. The idea is that the dog never eats unattended food.

Now change position to help the dog generalise to different situations, and repeat the above steps. So if you were kneeling down, sit down, etc.

Keep practising!

3. Teach your dog to “Leave it” on demand

Material: What you’ll need

You’ll need a clicker and a leash.

Steps: How to do this

  1. Put the dog on leash. Put a piece of food on the ground.
  2. Walk around freely, and let the dog do pretty much everything he wants except show interest in the food (smelling, looking around, etc.).
  3. Every time the dog is diverting his attention from the food (looking away, etc.) click and treat.
    1. When giving the treat, deliberately bend down and put the treat down on the ground so the dog can distinguish that treat (OK) with the one already on the floor (not OK).
    2. It is useful to use completely different treats to reward and tempt.
    3. Treat when dog looking at you, not your hand (which also has treats). Can be any part of your body but the hand holding the treat.
  4. Add the cue “Leave it” when you notice that your dog is getting it.
  5. Gradually build upthe exercise by:
    1. Introducing yummier and bigger treats: food on a plate, pastry, meat, cheese, etc.
    2. Introducing more treats, eventually covering your entire floor with it if the mood takes you!
    3. Having the dog walk closer and closer to the treat, eventually the dog will walk over it, even knocking it down, and still pay more attention to you.
    4. Without the leash
    5. While you are further and further away from your dog, eventually leaving the room

Watch that ratio

Don’t forget to gradually, but relatively soon after you first teach the exercise, drop the ratio of reinforcement (decrease the number of times you reward the dog per correct performance). You might end up with a dog who only works for treats if you’re not careful on that one.

Remember, when saying “Leave it” or “Watch me”, no need to sound harsh or loud. Cheerful will do it just fine.

As you should introduce that cue only once the dog masters the exercise anyway, so hopefully, there’ll be no need for chastising the dog anyway.

Don’t repeat yourself

Remember, only introduce the cue e.g. “Leave it” or “Watch me” when you know that the dog masters the behaviour. Introducing it sooner will just teach the dog that the word is irrelevant (or confusing), as you’ll be saying it, and he’ll be doing, well, anything but watching and leaving.

If your dog is not complying after the cue, go back one step and re-visit the foundations of the training, rather than keeping repeating the cue.

Raise the criteria

When raising the criteria for what behaviour gets a treat, remember to operate at the right pace.

  • Too slow and your dog will become ‘treat-wise’ (will only work for food); or
  • Too fast and your dog will become demotivated (not enough reinforcement).

Further reading

Dog Walks in the Hague
Dogs: the art of Intelligent Punishment
Spoilt dogs and intermittent ratios
Donna Hill’s Leave it video

Any comments?

I love, scratch that, loooove receiving comments. So drop me a line and let me know if:

  • You have tried the above with the same or an entirely different training method
  • Your region is also affected by poison baits
  • You have other great Youtube dog training videos to suggest (positive methods only, please)
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  1. Posted 26 November 2010 at 03:17 | Permalink

    Poison bags? Seriously? I hope a dog bites this person’s butt off. -_-;;

    1.) I have a question:
    When teaching “Watch Me” do you say the dog’s name first, or do you just call out “Watch Me?”

    I don’t understand the need for telling the dog to watch you, but I think that’s more due to the fact that we require the dogs to look at us – in much the same manner as someone asking the dog to watch them – when we say their names.

    Just a question, since we don’t actually teach that. Or maybe we do, under a secret name. lol.

    2.) Leave-It is such a fun exercise. It takes so much thought and effort on my dog’s behalf that it makes me laugh. But she’ll do it.

    • Posted 26 November 2010 at 08:52 | Permalink

      Sadly, the poison thing happens relatively frequently round where I live.

      Watch me: I say his name first, then ‘watch me’. It is slightly different to calling his name, as the ‘watch me’ asks for sustained attention until I release him.

      Super useful as he is more responsive to my cues when I have his full attention, and I need all the arsenal on my side to compete with the motivation of scavenging for food!

      • Posted 2 December 2010 at 00:50 | Permalink

        Oooh. That’s interesting. I guess we do teach that, sort of. We build up the name – or call word – to mean “keep your attention on me until you are released to do otherwise” o_o

        But, a sound is a sound, and we can teach the dog that purple means the same as watch me.

        I like it, though. Cool.

      • Posted 2 December 2010 at 23:11 | Permalink

        Oh totally (what’s in a word). If you’re a purist about it, then we all overuse the dog’s name anyways (to mean “stop this”, “look at me”, “come here”, “don’t even think about it”, etc. etc. etc.) But hey, we could drive ourselves round the bend about it being training geeks (guilty as charged), or just enjoy our dogs.

        I have come to hate the word ‘no’, though, as, like an idiot, that’s the word I use to chastise my dog. Now I hate to hear it in everyday language as I think the dog will think he is being told off. Guess I should have used ‘purple’, hey.

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