How to Teach a Dog or Puppy to Come
“Come” is probably the single most important command you’ll ever teach your dog. A well-learned “Come”—on lead and off—can make your dog a pleasure to be around. A dog who comes reliably will not be a bother to people, and the dog himself will not be in jeopardy because you can always call him out of a potentially dangerous situation.
But a dog who executes the “Come” command unreliably is a source of frustration, embarrassment, and possible tragedy. There are few emotions as intensely unpleasant as calling for a dog who does not come when you’re in a rush to go out, or who charges over to people on a beach blanket, or is about to bolt into traffic.
The “Come” command can be taught in segments. If you can commit to taking the time to lay a solid foundation, all the training that comes afterward will be so much easier.
HOW TO START TEACHING YOUR DOG THE “COME” COMMAND
As soon as he begins to move toward you, reward his effort immediately. Say “Yes!” enthusiastically and get the dog treat in his mouth as fast as you possibly can. In trainer-speak, saying “Yes!” is called a “reward marker,” a way to identify the exact behaviour you’re glad the dog demonstrated, and that you’ll pair with a food treat any second. You are using an edible treat to entice your dog so you can “mark” the first part of “Come”—the first steps coming toward you. What you are reinforcing at this point is just the beginning of “Come.” You want the dog to know that moving toward you will bring him great benefits. Eventually when he hears the word “Come!” he’ll automatically start moving in your direction.
TEACHING THE “COME” COMMAND: TO SIT OR NOT TO SIT?
You may feel that getting your dog within “patting” range is compliance enough with “Come!” But some trainers say every command must have an “end” from the animal’s perspective. That may be why many dogs are taught to sit squarely in front of the person who has called them. You can alter this command to suit your own lifestyle and your dog’s individual personality.
ASK YOUR DOG TO “COME!” WITH AN UPBEAT VOICE
The tone of voice you use to call your pooch must be one or more of the following:
You can’t have a voice that sounds angry, frustrated, or punitive. The dog will avoid you—especially if your whiny, irritated, fed-up tone is often paired with an even more negative reaction from you when he finally gets there (or you’ve gone after him).
By calling “Come!” you should realise you’re asking a dog to leave something enjoyable to obey you. You have to make “Come” such a pleasurable-sounding experience that he thinks it might be even better than what he’s engaged in. Just remember that every positive experience of “Come” is a building block for a lifetime of obedience. So every pleasant-sounding “Come!” that is followed by pats, or treats, or praise, will increase the likelihood of more obedience.
GET DOWN ON YOUR DOG’S LEVEL WHEN YOU SAY “COME!”
Standing upright is not enticing to any dog—it’s intimidating, as is leaning forward toward him.
Bend down from the waist like a dog’s “play bow.” If your dog is shy or timid, you can try lowering your profile by going down on one knee so you’re less intimidating, more inviting. Turn away from the dog as you call him and clap your hands.
DON’T MOVE TOWARD THE DOG WHEN YOU SAY “COME!”
If you’re calling “Come!” and going toward the dog, your physical movement is signaling him to stay where he is. From the dog’s perspective, it’s as if your forward motion blocks his own forward motion toward you.
TEACHING THE “COME” COMMAND: DON’T CHASE YOUR DOG
Our instinct is to chase a dog who isn’t coming to us, but in most cases you can’t move fast enough to catch a dog. And you may be driving the dog into danger when you chase him. So the best way to get a dog to come to you is to turn sideways (which is less threatening than head-on), call his name in the most upbeat, enthusiastic voice you can muster, and move in the opposite direction; his instinct will be to chase you.
HOW TO CONTINUE TEACHING YOUR DOG TO “COME”
Only lots of practice will assure your dog comes reliably every time you call, but there are strategies that increase the odds of success. You can try some or all of these at various times in your dog’s development. Some are fundamental rules about “come,” while others are pointers that work for some dogs:
Success comes in stages: first make sure your dog is competent at “Come” on a lead before trying it off-lead. Then make sure he’s competent at “Come” indoors before trying it outside, and finally that he’s competent at a close distance before trying long-distance returns. If you haven’t laid a solid foundation, the “Come” command will crumble before long.
TEACH YOUR DOG “COME” WITH AN EDIBLE TREAT
Have an edible treat or one of your dog’s favourite toys to offer when he comes to you—but remember that tests have shown giving random treats works better than treating on every recall. It has been proven that after the foundation is laid for a response, “intermittent” rewarding gives the greatest results when training any kind of animal.
If the dog does not respond, go over and get as close as a few feet—or even inches—away from him. Have a really delicious treat in your hand—some food item your dog can’t resist. Give him a sniff of your hand if necessary. Once he has seen and smelled the delicious morsel, say his name but not the word “Come.” As soon as he takes a step toward your closed hand, say “Come” in an enthusiastic voice (but not a loud, jarring tone). This pairs the word with action; the treat reinforces the action. Treat him and give him lots of praise and pats.
Remember to always turn away from your dog when you call him. Reward with play—treats are good, but play can often be better, depending on the dog’s personality. Return to whatever else you were doing, or invent something to do so you can ignore your dog for a while—no interaction at all, just ignore him. Even a minute is enough. Don’t give the dog any attention until you are ready to practise “Come” again a minute or two later. Make an effort always to sound like someone you would want to come to: cheerful and enthusiastic, not cranky and annoyed.
USE PRAISE-FILLED ENCOURAGEMENT
Assume your dog is in the process of coming to you, that he’s trying to find you if you can’t see him. If he’s in plain view and chasing squirrels but not responding to you, give him the benefit of the doubt and hope that he’s weighing his options. Call out, “What a good boy!” or “Good dog!”—whatever you want to say in an encouraging tone after you’ve called, “Digby, Come!”
Be enthusiastic the second you see him head your way and as you see him getting close. Keep on praising right until he reaches you. Clap your hands and use a word or phrase that’s comfortable for you to reinforce his progress back to you. The word “Yippee!” sounds celebratory; try pairing that with the dog’s name as he gets closer. The more impressive the show of obedience—for example, if he was in the middle of playing or hunting or has come from far away—the bigger the fuss to make when he comes. Have a fun version of “Come” practised by as many people in your household as are involved in the dog’s life. Think about it: if the payoff isn’t pleasurable for the dog, why would he do it?
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR PUPPY TO “COME”
Up to six months of age, puppies don’t want to be left behind. So until then, “come” is something they instinctively want to do. After that, independence sets in and some dogs stop wanting to come, or actually start to take a hike without a thought about you.
RESIST GETTING ANGRY IF THE PUPPY DOES NOT COME
A PUPPY CAN LOSE INTEREST IN THE “COME” COMMAND
MAKE THE “COME!” COMMAND FUN WITH HIDE-AND-SEEK
COMMON MISTAKES WHEN TEACHING A DOG TO “COME”
TROUBLESHOOTING PROBLEMS TEACHING A DOG TO “COME”
PROBLEM: YOUR DOG STOPS HALFWAY TO YOU
Some dogs are so sensitive to rebuke they become apprehensive the next time they’re asked to execute a command. A sensitive dog who associates “Come” with unpleasantness may stop partway to you. He stops to get a sense of what kind of mood you’re in. But the problem only worsens if you get annoyed with him for stopping halfway and then you repeat “Come” harshly—this only reminds him why he’s unsure of returning to you in the first place. Try to be as gentle and forgiving as you can with your dog during the learning process—and in the case of a sensitive dog, even more so.
SOLUTION: Put the fun back into “Come.” First squat down (which is a non-threatening position), clap your hands and verbally praise and encourage the dog to come to you. Have a food treat ready and offer lots of pats and praise. Practise “Come” as much as you can, trying always to make it fun with your tone of voice, hide-and-seek games, and occasional food and toy rewards. The more times “Come” is a great experience, the more obedient the response will be.
PROBLEM: YOUR DOG COMES BUT AVOIDS THE LEAD
If a dog is grabbed and immediately put on a lead the minute he comes, he learns to avoid “the grab.” By grabbing the dog and leading him to end his freedom, you are punishing his obedience.
SOLUTION 1: Resist shooting your hand out to grab your dog’s collar. Instead, squat or bend down in a non-threatening position, reach beneath the dog’s neck to gently take hold of the collar (so that he can’t try to dash for freedom) and make a big fuss over him, patting him.
SOLUTION 2: If the dog does not like the feeling of his collar being held, then “counter condition” his response—this is trainer-speak for “change his reaction.” Offer him treats and affection when your hand is on his collar; make him eager to come and to have his collar held. When a dog is touchy about his collar, praise him verbally, treat him, touch his collar, and then treat him again. Then touch his collar and treat him simultaneously. After several repetitions, the food will become the reward after he has let you touch his collar.
If this fix doesn’t work, hold the treat in your fingers, let him sniff and lick it, and while he’s doing this scratch and stroke his chest and take hold of his collar without making a big issue of it. Once you have hold, let go of the treat and give it to him.
PROBLEM: YOUR DOG RUNS AWAY WHEN YOU CALL
Your dog may have been chased in the past when he ran away and he may think it’s a great game.
SOLUTION 1: Turn the tables on the dog: you run away from him! Make it seem like too much fun—clap your hands and call him again but in a very cheery voice. He will want to join you if you seem to be having a good time.
SOLUTION 2: If he does not demonstrate competence with “Come,” you should not give your dog off-lead privileges. You should still be working on a long line until you have that recall down cold. By letting your dog run free you’re giving him numerous chances to “practise” not coming.
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