Michael is an avid pet-lover and content writer on topical themes related to dog care, training and behavioral development.
Risks Common to Dogs and Pet Owners
The drop or release command is easy for your dog to learn, and it comes with many benefits. Foremost is the fact that it can literally mean the difference between life and death.
Dogs typically pick up items that they shouldn't, like shoes, stationery, books, toilet paper, napkins, cutlery, power cords, bags, towels, mats, tools, remote controls, hair bands, socks and so on. Canines have been known to ingest household items like batteries and flatware. They've also been known to mistake for treats pest poisons and other dangerous substances like medicinal pills.
Some people find the way dogs pick up different objects around the house and carry them in their mouths amusing. They see it after all as part of the entertainment value of owning a pet. However, a habit like this can quickly turn expensive when the pet has to be suddenly rushed to the vet for emergency surgery.
Because of their love for treats, dogs can easily accept from a stranger something they are allergic to or something they are biologically incompatible with. The stranger may even have the best of intentions yet trigger a pathological situation owing to their ignorance of the medical background of the dog.
Aside from this, a canine may start consuming food that causes it to choke, block its throat, or make it violently ill. Just like you could walk into an open buffet and decide to try some items on display that you have never tried before, a dog can find things on the ground that arouse its curiosity like dead rodents and birds. It may not instinctively tell if contamination has taken place or if there are other risks involved.
Maintain consistency in the use of your hands. Always use the same hand for the same purpose. If you use your left hand to hold the toy and your right hand to provide the treat, these should not be interchanged.
The Value of the 'Drop it' Command
Training a dog to master the drop or release command is not only useful in the above-mentioned situations. It is also an ideal opportunity for a dog to learn how to maintain the house in a clean and tidy state. It can be taught how to collect all the toys and drop them in a designated storage area like a toy bin or basket when its playtime is over. This avoids breakage, clutter and even domestic accidents brought about by disorder. It turns the dog into a responsible member of the household.
The command is also essential for hunter and retriever dogs. In fact, the fetch command would not work if a dog is unable to complete the sequence by delivering the object it has collected. Say an owner wants it to fetch items around the house, the dog must first know how to release them on cue. Besides, a supposed game of fetch would never happen if the four-legged player keeps taking off with the tossed object.
The command also helps cure the dog of possessiveness. The pet learns how not to hold onto things. Being possessive is a form of dominance assertion and this needs to be curbed so that the dog does not assume it has rights over what it doesn't own.
The drop command is also a safe way of retrieving items that may be valuable and preserving them from damage without having to physically force a dog's muzzle in an effort to extricate. A dog that has not been completely weaned of possessiveness can lay claim to not only valuable household items but also containers holding dangerous substances. Struggling with one's hands against the muzzle can be risky business especially if the dog in question is the aggressive type and does not intend to be separated from its prize.
Finally, the drop command can help deescalate a crisis situation. An example of this is where there is a tug of war involving two or more dogs and a fight is about to ensue. Such cases apply especially to owners of multiple pets or those who allow their dogs to play with other canines in venues such as dog parks.
So how can one practically train a dog to drop or release something on command? We can break down the process into 6 easy steps.
- Manage your reaction
- Choose a suitable expression
- Factor in the attention span
- Use a substitutionary incentive
- Work on value increments
- Take supportive measures
1. Manage Your Reaction
When one owns a pet, any number of situations can present themselves. Imagine yourself busily at work on a project in your workshop or yard. Without warning your dog seizes a tool lying around (like a screwdriver or pliers) and takes off with it. Or you could be in the process of cleaning a room when your dog suddenly seizes a duster with its mouth and dashes off with it. Or it may even be other objects like a book from your collection, a magazine, or a portable electronic device.
How do you respond? Well, yelling and chasing after the dog is definitely the wrong move because it will reinforce the behavior. Dogs enjoy a game of chase. The pet will have discovered a way of luring you to play with or without your consent. Your dog will remember next time that the way to bait you is to simply take off with something that you have in your possession or something you are working with.
If we wait until a real-life situation occurs before we respond with frantic demands, the dog will simply assume that the words we are speaking are the noises we make when we are excited at the game. Far from alleviating the situation, our reactions will encourage it to repeat the same in the future. Therefore the first step is to avoid any enabling response on our part.
2. Choose a Suitable Expression
It is essential to consider the choice of words we will use as instructions for this training. Once we have settled on an expression, it should never be changed, otherwise, it would confuse the dog.
For example, if we settle on the word drop, it is advisable not to switch later to give it or release it. Once a word or set of words has been decided upon, it is best for everyone at home to stick to the same script and meaning. Moreover, the word drop shouldn't be used to instruct the dog to go flat on its belly. A word like lie or repose would be more appropriate.
There are other examples as well. The word drop may be used by one person to instruct the dog to let go of something, and then by another person to order the dog off a piece of furniture (like a sofa, table, or bed). Such alterations are to be avoided. To have the pet descend from a perch, instructions like off or down would be better suited.
3. Factor in the Attention Span
Puppies and younger dogs have a relatively shorter attention span than older dogs. It is therefore necessary not to overdo the training or extend it beyond the level the canine is able to cope with. One way to improve focus is to declutter the immediate environment and eliminate distractions.
It is best not to have other items or even smells that would divert the focus of the dog from what you are trying to achieve in this training. Check for any possible distractions because these are the things that will be competing for your dog's attention when you conduct the training.
Once it has mastered the command and obeys you irrespective of the objects involved, you can move into surroundings with increasingly higher distraction levels. In this way, your dog will be accustomed to following the rule irrespective of whatever else may be taking place in its immediate surroundings.
4. Use a Substitutionary Incentive
We start the actual training by using a toy. Find one that the dog especially likes and typically carries around in its mouth. Once the toy is in its mouth, go ahead and offer your dog a treat while issuing the drop or release command. Since the dog cannot hold on to two things at the same time, it will have no choice but to let go of the toy in favor of the treat. When this happens, remember to express affection by verbally praising your dog and stroking it. Repeat this procedure a few times for effect.
The next stage is to have the dog drop the toy without showing the treat, but only by issuing the command. By now, the dog will have already established an association between the command and receiving something better. It will be inspired to drop the toy in expectation of a better alternative. When the dog has fully learned how to drop on command, you can stop using treats and only stick to other forms of reward like petting, stroking and verbal compliments.
You could also use a clicker to help the dog better associate the reward with dropping the item from its mouth. Your timing has to be effectively matched, such that the click occurs at the exact moment the dog releases the object. Your ability to anticipate the second when your dog is about to drop the object is necessary for ensuring both the click and the command occur at the right interval.
If the dog has a habit of running off with toys, it may need to be kept on a leash during the training session. If it picks up the toy and dashes off with it, the dog will have changed the rules by introducing its own chase game. Again, if we run after it in an effort to retrieve the toy, we will be encouraging the game instead of the training.
5. Work on Value Increments
It is best to start this training with the toy that the dog considers least interesting and then gradually work your way up to the most appealing. If the dog doesn't respond well to the training, all you need to do is to increase the incentive by introducing a higher value treat. The object of training should not be more valuable than the incentive.
By working with items the dog considers to be valuable, you will be preparing it to drop objects in the future that it would not ordinarily want to part with like clothing items, bathroom or kitchen products (e.g. soaps and detergents), or anything else it isn't supposed to be carrying around. A dog conditioned in this way will not have issues obeying the command in various contexts.
After the above sessions have been completed, it is necessary to move on to other items so that the dog does not think the drop command only applies to toys. As long as the objects are neither dangerous nor injurious to the pet, continue practicing until the lesson has sunk in.
6. Take Supportive Measures
Finally, if you are keen on training your dog to drop or release on command, here are some tips to bear in mind as you proceed.
- Dogs often respond better when hand gestures are involved. It would be best to include a hand motion like pointing to the ground when you command the dog to drop the object.
- Avoid trying to tug or pull at the object if the dog delays in releasing it. The aim is not to force the dog to obey but to incentivize it.
- The toys selected for training should match the age and strength of the dog and it should be able to hold and carry them in its mouth comfortably without straining.
- Maintain consistency when it comes to the use of your hands. Always use the same hand for the same purpose. For example, if you use your left hand to hold the toy and your right hand to provide the treat, these should not be interchanged.
- The dog should not be allowed to lunge at the treat you have in your hand. Insistence on its part needs to be curbed. It is your volition that should prevail from start to finish.
- Remember, once the basics in this training have been covered, try practicing with the dog in different surroundings, using unfamiliar objects. This will solidify your lessons and make them applicable in every context.
- Be sensitive to any deeper issues that can lead to problem behaviors. For example, some puppies steal items of clothing that belong to their owners due to separation anxiety since the item has the smell of their pack leader. It is best to primarily confront the root cause in such situations and where possible to consult a professional behaviorist.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.