The way you train "Off" is a perfect example of the positive reinforcement mantra: Any behavior will increase with reinforcement, and any behavior will decrease without compliance. "Off" is a lot of fun to teach your pup, and it's very helpful in many situations.
Some people use the phrase "Leave it" instead of "Off", but it means the same thing. Use "Leave it" if you prefer. Either way, "Off" will get your dog to
- stop jumping on people
- get off the couch
- stay away from that chicken wing on the sidewalk
- wait to grab something until you give the OK
If you're training a young pup, you'll be amazed at how quickly he learns "Off". As a matter of fact, most pups under 5 months pick it up in less than 10 minutes. That's not to say they will respond to it in all of the various situations listed above in that short time. But if you practice the following exercise in a wide variety of situations, locations, and distraction levels, your pup will master even these in a matter of 3-4 days.
Dogs older than 6-7 months often take a little longer to get it, but do not give up particularly in your first few trials. If you, the human, are patient and follow these instructions exactly, you'll see the same wonderful results even with your older dog.
"Off" means "Do not touch that thing you're thinking about touching." We will also simultaneously be teaching him "Take it", which means "OK, now you can touch it".
Step 1: The "Off" and "Take It" Exercise
Put about 10 pea-sized soft pieces of food in your hand. Any meat will do, or soft cat or dog tops cut into pea-sized pieces. Crunchy kibble pieces take too long to chew for this exercise.
Sit on the floor or crouch down to your dog's nose level. Hold your pup back from you with your non-food hand, and hold your food hand out 1-2 feet in front of his face at his nose level or below his nose level.
Now once and only once , command "Off" as you open your food hand and let go of your pup.
When your puppy lunges for your food hand (very kindly), simply close your hand . Do not repeat the word "Off" or say anything else, and do n o t move your hand around . Your pup will likely chew on your food hand for a few minutes, trying to get at the food.
Simply wait silently until he gets distracted or bored or for any other reason stops touching your hand for an instant.
The instant he stops touching your food hand, quickly say "Take it" and deliver one piece of food to his mouth with your non-food hand.
Repeat this exercise 10 times until your hand is empty. You are allowed to command "Off" only once during each trial, so for 10 exercises, you'll say "Off" a total of 10 times. Just remember not to speak at all after you have commanded "Off" the first time until he moves away and you say "Take it."
Your pup will chew and paw at your hand for shorter periods each time before he chooses to move his face away from your hand, allowing you to say "Take it" and give him a treat. This shows that he is learning that moving away from your hand is the fastest way to get a treat .
Over the 2-3 days, practice a set of about 10 trials (as described above) several times daily, each time in a different room in the house or better yet outside in a low distraction area. Each trial, add tiny (1/2 second to 1 second) increments of time to the time between his moving away response and your "Take it" food delivery. By the second day you should also be withholding your "Take it" delivery until it has moved at least 5 inches from your hand.
Note: Some cups will sit when you say "Off". This is OK for the first day or two, but we do not want him to think that "Off" is just another word for "Sit". After the first day or two, try to train him out of his sit response by delivering the Take it treat just before he sits.
He may also be sitting because you're holding the food too high. Your food hand must be at his nose level or below nose level.
Never give your pup a piece of the food while he is touching your hand, nor before you have said "Take it". You may deliver the food to his mouth only while he is not touching your hand.
Step 2: Adding Distance and Time to "Off"
When he can hold his "Off" for at least 5 full seconds in several different locations inside and outside, alter the exercise in the following way: Command "Off" as usual and wait for him to move away. Now wordlessly open your food hand without saying anything.
If he holds his "Off" while your hand is open for 2 seconds, say "Take it" and deliver several trips at one time, pursuing through because he just accomplishes something big: Learning that no matter what's in front of his nose, "Off" means "Off" until you say "Take it." Gradually add more time and hand distance to each trial.
If it does not hold its "Off" for 2 seconds while your hand is open, it's because most pups think that when you open your hand, that's the same as you say "Take it". It is not. So if you open your food hand and he lunges for the food before 2 seconds have passed, quickly and wordlessly close your hand before he gets to your hand and wait again for him to back off. Once again, open your hand and wait without saying anything. If he lunges again, quickly close your hand again. Do not let him reach the food! This may go on for a while – you open your hand, he lunges, you close your hand and wait, he backs off, you open, he lunges, you wait, etc.
After a while, a light bulb will go off in his head and he'll figure out that he must hold his "Off" until you say "Take it" even though there is an open hand of food in front of him. When this happens, he'll hold his "Off" for the 2 seconds, and you may say "Take it" and deliver several trips once at a time to reward this wonderful accomplishment!
The goal with "Off" is to get him to back off no matter what the item is and no matter where he is. Once he can hold a solid "Off" for 10+ seconds with your hand 10+ inches away at or below nose level in a wide variety of locations inside and out, you'll start to lower your food hand toward the floor, 1 inch per trial, until he can hold a solid 10 second "Off" with your open food hand on the floor.
When he's mastered that, it's time to try "Off" with food on the floor that you are not holding. This starts out the same way as before but now you simply put the treat on the floor instead of holding your hand open. The first few times you try this, do not stand up. Remember to practice this in a wide variety of locations inside and out before you move to the level of standing up which food on the floor. It's also a good idea to vary the distance between your dog and the food each time.
If he lunges for the food while it's on the floor, hurl your entire body on top of the food to prevent him from getting it. Yes, I'm joking here but do not let him get to that food before you can clamp your hand or foot down on top of it! We can not have him learning that he's faster than you are, can we?
Add distance from the food and add time from the food. Whenever you feel your pup has accomplished a very difficult feat, do not hesitate to reward him amply with several trips delivered at a time with great praise and fanfare – he describes it!
When Can I Use "Off" for Jumping, Couches, and Chicken Wings?
Once you've completed a 5 foot "Off" for 20 seconds, his response should be reflexive and you have earned the right to use the "Off" command for jumping, couches and chicken wings on the sidewalk. Congratulations!