Teaching Your Dog to Drop an Object

By Ellen Lindell, VMD, DACVB; Monique Feyrecilde, BA, LVT, VTS (Behavior); Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM

Why should I teach a ''drop it'' cue?

The “drop it” cue signals your dog to release an item from his mouth. The drop skill comes in handy during games such as fetch. More importantly, the “drop it” cue could save your dog’s life if your dog picks up an object that might be dangerous if swallowed.

Another occasion when it is helpful to use the “drop it” cue is if your dog gets one of your personal possessions. Even when they have plenty of toys of their own, many dogs try to get a person’s attention by stealing objects. They quickly learn that they can incite a game of chase simply by picking up something you value. Some dogs find the excitement of a chase to be very rewarding. Furthermore, for some dogs, the chase/capture cycle causes emotional conflict and can trigger an aggressive response.

Instead of chasing your dog, use positive reinforcement to train the “drop it” cue. When your dog responds to the cue and relinquishes the stolen goods, he will be rewarded with a wonderful treat or toy.

How can I teach “drop it” using treats?

To start, you will need some moderately valuable treats. The treats should be small – about the size of a pencil eraser. Begin when your dog is playing with a low-value toy – one that he would readily exchange for a better toy or a snack.

  1. Position yourself a few feet away so that it is clear you do not plan to steal his toy.
  2. While he is happily playing, toss a treat close to him. The plan is for him to eat the treat and resume playing with his toy.
  3. After a few minutes, toss another treat. During the first session, toss about 5 treats. It is important that he remains interested in the toy and does not simply come over to you for more food.
  4. For the next session, stand closer to your dog, with treats in hand. Drop the treats one at a time, about a minute apart.
  5. By now, your dog should be interested in this new game. You can probably predict he will open his mouth as soon as he sees the treat land on the floor. It is time to add the verbal cue. Drop the treat on the floor and, just as your dog lets go of his toy to pick up the treat, politely say “drop it”. Let your dog get the treat and return to the toy. Repeat several times.

For the final session, instead of using the cue after you have dropped the treat, you will use the cue immediately before you drop the treat. Have some very high value treats (e.g., meat or cheese). Jiggle the treats in your hand to be sure your dog notices that something tasty is coming his way.

  1. Just as you say, “drop it”, confirm that your dog is releasing the toy and, as soon as he does, drop the treat. Your dog should quickly release the toy because you introduced the “drop it” cue in the last session - he anticipates that the treat will follow.
  2. If he does not let go of his toy when he hears “drop it”, go back to the previous training level for a few more sessions.
  3. Once your dog responds consistently when he is playing with a low-value toy, try using the cue when he has something more valuable. Ensure the reward he will earn is high value as well.
  4. Practice at different distances from your dog - sometimes close, sometimes farther away.

When your dog is consistently successful at quickly and calmly releasing objects, try a more advanced variation:

  1. Give the “drop it” cue.
  2. Reward with a high-value treat.
  3. Pick up his toy.
  4. Immediately give him something even more valuable.
  5. Return the toy to him.

How is “drop it” used during fetch games?

Some dogs enjoy fetch but do not readily give up the toy to have it tossed again. As your dog approaches you with the tossed toy, have another toy (or treat) in hand. Be sure your dog notices that you have a new toy.

Let your dog get close, but do not try to chase him or grab his toy. Instead, if you have trained “drop it” as described above, simply say “drop it” and, when your dog releases the item, toss the second toy or give him a treat, and pick up the toy he released.

Can I train my dog to release the toy into my hand?

Playing with toys is fun for everyone. Start with two toys of approximately equal value in the eyes of your dog. Start by playing with one toy, moving it around on the ground to animate it. Once your dog shows interest in the toy, gently encourage him and tug a bit (gently side to side, not up and down, and no sharp movements).

Next, switch your attention to the second toy, animating that one instead. Most dogs will change to the new active toy. Practice switching toys until you can predict when the dog is likely to let go of one toy and move to the other. When you predict the dog is going to let go, cheerfully say “Give”.

Soon, you’ll be able to ask the dog to release the toy directly into your hand on cue.

What if my dog does not readily give up the toy?

If your dog does not release a toy, then restart training with a toy of lesser value. Gradually build up to the more valuable toys. Play and train for shorter periods so that your dog does not become overstimulated. Be sure that your voice is calm. Sometimes, rewarding with treats rather than a second toy can be helpful.

Whenever you’re teaching a new cue, repetition and patience are extremely important. Keep sessions short enough to be interesting and provide short sessions frequently. Incorporate cue training into playtime every day so that learning and responding to cues remains fun for your dog.

How can I teach my dog to “drop it” to be ready for an emergency in the future?

It’s a great idea to make sure your dog can “drop it” if they get a dangerous item. Consider using a different word for this skill.

To teach the emergency drop skill, call out “treat party” at a random time, drop two or three high-value treats near your feet, then jog happily in another direction and encourage your dog to follow you. When you arrive at your new location (a few feet to a few yards away), scatter 10-15 high-value treats at your feet.

The goal of the “treat party” is to get the dog’s attention, encourage them to stop anything they are doing, and excitedly follow you to another location where you will have an amazing party. If taught in advance, this emergency procedure can help a dog leave a potentially dangerous item.

The “drop it” cue is also helpful if your dog happens to get one of your personal possessions.

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