Seems strange, right?
To be honest, I’ve massively changed how I teach this cue in the last year. I used to use more active sessions, when dogs actually had something in their mouth that I wanted. So I’d teach it by predicting when the dog was likely to drop, and then saying ‘drop!’ …
That was pretty hard. You have to know when the dog is likely to spit the thing out. Sometimes you accidentally end up playing ‘tug’ or forcing a drop by physically removing the thing.
Then I saw Chirag Patel’s video from Domesticated Manners demonstrating a method I’d never seen before.
I watched the first five minutes or so thinking ‘What are you up to, fella?’ That dog has nothing to drop!’ and then, when I saw the dog spit a hot dog out I had such a penny-dropping moment that I’m surprised I didn’t injure myself.
This is now the ONLY way I teach drop. I might swap to a toy eventually, but I always start with this method. Once you’ve seen it, you’ll never teach drop in more traditional ways at all.
You can call it ‘Give!’ or ‘Out!’, or whatever floats your boat. I realised that it sounded a bit like ‘stop!’ so I was getting some accidental behaviours instead of drop. I changed my ‘stop!’ cue to ‘stand’, which is very different. Worth bearing in mind!
It’s worth watching the video a few times for the explanations, which are incredibly valuable.
Why I love this so much is it’s more of a ‘get back to me now and you need an empty mouth!’ than a taught ‘drop!’
You can also change the cue later to differentiate between times when the dog has something in its mouth (Drop, or Out) and times you just want them to know there’s a food party at your feet (I use ‘Surprise!’ for that) but you may need a bit of time for the dog to learn the difference between ‘Drop!’ and ‘Surprise!’ if you want to have a different word for each situation.
You can see Nando Brown using it here, and also using a toy
Imagine how much easier this is when you’ve done the groundwork that Chirag Patel demonstrates?! There’s no need for mouthing or holding on. There’s none of the breath-holding moments when the dog holds on or decides that the trade isn’t good enough. I taught drop using traditional tug games, like Nando demonstrates, and that I’d seen other trainers use, but I’ve had much more reliable results from the Domesticated Manners version. You can make the toy boring, you can use a treat in front of the nose, but I promise you, it’s just not as great as the speed with which a dog will absolutely spit out a treasured toy when they’ve learned that Drop means they need an empty mouth.
Plus, the Domesticated Manners version has other benefits.
It really, really helps with recall. ‘Drop!’ is one of the only cues I rarely take off 100% reinforcement. That said, I won’t use it as often. I do it ten times a day in various situations until it’s flawless. Then I do it in harder and harder situations. On lead. Then off lead. And then I maybe only use it a handful of times, until I get to the point where I am only using it where I need it.
Keeping it with 100% reinforcement has drawbacks and benefits. The benefit is that there is ALWAYS something in it for the dog. It’s how I keep it as a ‘Boom! I’m back here! Here’s me!’ from the dog. It’s how I get my dogs to have an immediate and wonderful reflexive recall to feet. It’s a wonderful way to distract your dog too in an emergency, and you can use it with ‘What’s That?’ or emergency scatter feeding (where you toss a bunch of treats on the floor to avoid accidents). So ‘drop!’ is coincidentally ’empty your mouth’, but for all intents and purposes, for the dog, it’s a ‘get back to my feet because there is amazing stuff there’. That’s when there’s a difference between ‘Surprise!’ and ‘Drop!’
For instance, with Harry, a dog-reactive pointer at the shelter, an emergency ‘Drop!’ is a great way to avoid the stress of another dog coming in the opposite direction. Now you know me – I’m about teaching, not management – but there are times when you know your dog is going to go nuts if it sees what you see, and it gets that nose right down on the ground.
I also like this method of ‘Drop’ because it mimics a displacement activity – sniffing the ground. It’s non-aggressive and non-threatening. Now, it only seems as if your bonkers barker is a lover not a fighter, but it truly works. I’ve managed to avoid full-on confrontations between two dog-aggressive or reactive dogs simply by having one of them at my feet hunting for food. When you’ve got an amazing ‘Drop!’, you can use it to stop your dog charging ahead or you can use it along with ‘Leave it!’. It’s amazing to have a reflexive response (which you want this to be) when you have a problem situation. For instance, once I was handling a really dog-aggressive dog and another one was coming the opposite direction. A quick game made it look like my dog was avoiding conflict and the other dog-aggressive dog passed with a ‘watch’ from his handler…. but he wasn’t fussed because it seemed like the other dog was minding his own business. When you’re faced with a face-off over a 200m stare-down, a solid behaviour is vital. Drop is as good as any for that.
It’s also a brilliant thing to teach to dogs who have potential resource-guarding habits, who guard their food or toys. For this, having your hand near the food really helps. Not something to do with a hardened resource guarder unless you have done a bit of work behind the scenes, but it’s still a vital skill. It’s the very first thing I teach a dog who’s grumbling about giving things up.
You can see this with John McGuigan:
Very useful for dogs who enjoy running off with your stuff and evading you. A must for terrier owners!
So Lidy in the picture had a ‘Drop!’ and then a ‘Wait!’ and then a ‘Get it!’ with that pig’s ear. Sometimes we have a ‘Drop!’ and then a ‘Leave it!’
How great is it when your dog will spit out their toys so quickly and race back to you in expectation of unexpected gifts from above?
If they’re struggling, start with something really, really high value. Stinky cheese or salmon usually brings them right back. I’m a fan of stinky stuff – it’s so much more appetising than chicken or turkey, which doesn’t have the same smell. That’s not to say they’re not as fantastic for your dog, but I know smell in food is one way to get a dog interested in it if they aren’t usually. You can also use toys, but it’s less practical because at the beginning, you want to use a large number of small treats. All I want is the habit to come back and use their mouth to pick up food from your feet.
To make it more challenging, change location and practise in a number of places.
Then change the distance and say ‘Drop!’ from further and further distances.
Add distractions! Can you get your dog to drop a hot dog or a pig’s ear and come back to you? Start small and work up.
From time to time, I add a real jackpot reinforcer. Nothing like something disgusting but amazing like sliced liver to make that behaviour really, really quick. And as I said, I switch to ‘Surprise!’ for ‘Party at my feet!’ with 100% reinforcement, but rarely used. I keep ‘Drop!’ for ‘give me that thing in your mouth!’
Those methods make ‘Drop!’ or ‘Out!’ a really bomb-proof skill for dogs who are really amped up. With ‘Wait!’ or ‘Leave it!’, you’ve got a combination of cues that mean you are really maximising your dog’s impulse control.
Now get out and get busy with your Drop!