The Emergency Drop It

I lived with a Labrador. She was a hungry hound who was on a constant mission to find food wherever and whenever she could get it. When she reached the grand old age of 16 I thought her food obsession might diminish a little, but it remained as strong as ever. I don’t know whether her quest to eat as much as possible was the reason she developed the habit of eating the feces of other dogs or animals, but apart from consuming the odd piece of goose and horse poop now and again, she never showed interest in eating the feces of other animals.  She would always investigate the poop of other dogs, cats and coyotes to keep up with the latest neighborhood news, but she would never eat it.  As she reached her geriatric years feces from any rear end was fair game.

I don’t think my dog had a nutritional deficiency. She ate a high quality food and got fed enough. Apart from arthritis in her hips, Sadie was medically very fit, and she still enjoyed walks even though they were short and sniffy to protect her aging bones. For the last few months, however, sniffy walks turned into a relentless and frenzied search for anything she could eat, including feces.   

Sadie developed coprophagia at a very old age and I’m sure this was linked to a gradual cognitive dysfunction that increased over the last few years of her life. It might have been linked to an underlying medical issue that the vets didn’t find, but whatever the cause I had to be on my guard every time we went out for a walk. She might have been old but she was still very quick, and would grab some tasty morsel from the ground and swallow it before I could stop her. Now if my timing was right and I caught her just as it went into her mouth, I could give her a release cue and she would drop it just as fast as she picked it up. For those moments, I allowed myself to feel just a little proud that I taught my dog a solid emergency ‘drop it’ or ‘release’ cue right from the start.

The emergency ‘drop it’ is something that every dog should be taught, regardless of age. It’s easier to start when the dog is still young, but can be taught to older dogs as long as it’s safe to do so. It’s important to note that possession is nine tenths of the law and if your dog has grabbed a piece of food that is safe to eat, then it’s probably better to let her consume it and move on. But for food items such as chicken bones or other household items that pose a hazard, the emergency drop is vital.

Every dog should feel comfortable with this life skill and this can be achieved if it’s taught without confrontation and with an emphasis on fun rather than competition. The more relaxed your dog is about giving up even valuable things she has picked up, the safer it will be for both of you. So I start teaching this cue by teaching dogs to take objects into their mouths and then playing the ‘take it and drop it’ game. Here’s how it is done:

Step 1: Give your dog a low value toy (not one of her favorites) and ask her to “take it” as she starts to play with or chew on it. 

Step 2: When she has played with the toy for about thirty seconds, present another toy of similar value.

Step 3: As she drops the first toy, ask her to “drop it” and give her the duplicate. As she takes it into her mouth, say ‘take it.’

Step 4: Repeat this trading game swapping toys until she is effectively responding to your cues.

Step 5: Once your dog is consistently able to take and drop lower value objects, start using higher value toys and chews. The more she sees you as part of the fun trading game, the less she will feel the need to hold onto or guard the things she values from you.

Step 6: Now take her on a search of objects you have pre-set inside and out of doors and when she finds an object, ask her to take it and then drop it on cue. If she picks something up without being cued, casually ask her to drop it and give her plenty of praise, reinforce her cooperation with another toy, game of tug or a tasty treat. By doing these training set ups, she is learning to drop objects that you haven’t asked her to pick up, as well as ones that you have cued her to pick up. This will translate better to when she is in an environment where she is more tempted to pick things up that could pose a hazard to her health.

Be aware of the pitch and tone of your voice while you do this. Keep it unemotional and relaxed when you are teaching, but also practice raising your voice a little to mimic how you might sound in the real world. Take it from me. If your dog picks something dangerous up in her mouth, you might panic and that will be reflected in your voice. If you shout at her, you might freak her out, but if you have previously practiced this scenario with a raised voice, she won’t clamp her mouth shut and refuse to open it because your reaction made her nervous.

If your dog refuses to drop something she has picked up, you can try a couple of other techniques to encourage an emergency drop. Pick up another object and start playing with that object in an area where your dog can see you. Don’t make a move towards her to get the object from her mouth as this will only encourage her to hang onto it more. Focus on the object you have in your hands and make it interesting. She might just get bored with what she has and come over to investigate what looks like another fun object. Or you can trade for a delicious high value food reward or throw some treats on the ground encouraging her to play a ‘seek and go find’ game. You can even ring the doorbell or knock on the front door as a distraction to redirect her attention and make her think someone is outside.

As I write this article I remember one particular walk. True to form, Sadie picked up a piece of frozen solid coyote poop, but this time I caught her in the act and said a firm but measured, ‘drop it.’ She might have had cognitive decline, but there was nothing wrong with her memory at that moment, because she opened her mouth and dropped the tasty treat. The time I had spent teaching Sadie the emergency drop it had worked with a highly valuable piece of ‘food’ and had maybe prevented her from catching some awful disease. The game we had played had taken away any confrontation she might have felt when I asked her to give up the thing she most wanted at that moment. Did it prevent her from continuing her search in the future? No, because she loved it, but at least my old girl was safe until the next time she went on her quest to find the tastiest treat.

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Positively Expert: Victoria Stilwell

Victoria Stilwell is a world-renowned dog trainer best known as the star of the internationally acclaimed TV series, It’s Me or the Dog. A bestselling author, Stilwell frequently appears in the media as a pet expert and is widely recognized and respected as a leader in the field of animal behavior.

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