How to Train Your Dog to Come
By Sherry Woodard, BestFriends animal behavior consultant
Teaching a dog to come reliably is possible. The best way to do this is to make it a party every time you call her and she comes to you. Whether the party involves giving treats, affection, praise or toys, she should never have a reason to think twice about coming to you.
Teaching a dog to come
To teach your dog to come, prepare yourself for the lesson with pea-sized treats in a treat pouch you wear and/or a favorite toy tucked in your pocket. Take the dog somewhere with few distractions. I tether the dog to me, a doorknob or a chair leg so she won’t wander off. Say “come” (or her name) only once, but say it with great enthusiasm and wave treats right in front of the dog’s nose. Reward her with a treat when she comes and repeat the exercise. If she does not come within a few seconds after you say “come,” don’t repeat the cue. Just wait until she comes, reward her, and start again. Do this over and over; to keep it fun, always use a happy tone.
When she comes consistently with only a short distance between you, gradually increase the distance and repeat the exercise. The length of leash can grow to a 20- to 30-foot-long line with improved skills at learning the cue. A dog should never be allowed off-leash, or at least never be asked to come when off-leash, until she has perfect recall on leash.
Once you have practiced in locations with few distractions, start practicing in locations with more distractions. Then, add other people to the game of learning. Start with the exercise described above: Have a friend stand near the dog and instruct him/her to say “come” and give her a treat when she complies. Next, stand a short distance from your friend and alternate between saying “come” and giving treats. You and your friend can start moving farther away from each other and have the dog on a long leash so she can run between you for fun and treats. This can grow into a long-distance game of recall. It’s a great way for your dog to interact, exercise and learn to enjoy more people.
One of the reasons that “come” can be challenging to teach is that it is often used to interrupt what a dog thinks is fun. For instance, say your dog is running in the yard, barking at the neighbor’s cat. You respond by yelling, “Stop that and come in the house!” For the dog, continuing to bark at the cat is a lot more fun than responding to your stern tone of voice. So, call your dog in a cheerful voice and reward her generously when she comes.
A lifesaving cue
To create a positive association with “come,” don’t use it casually. “Come” can be a lifesaving cue if your dog is in danger. Practice until it becomes a reflex for the dog. Remember to keep all learning as fun as possible. Use a happy tone, be patient, and keep lessons short and frequent.
Teaching ‘Come’: Dog Training Plan
Why this cue is useful for your dog to know: Recall (getting your dog to come when called) is the most important behavior you can teach your dog. Although no recall on cue is 100 percent guaranteed, it could get your dog to come back to you if he dashes out the door or slips his collar. And getting him back to you could save his life.
End behavior: The dog comes when called, regardless of the environment or situation.
Step 1: Start the training in a quiet area with few distractions. With the dog on leash and using a lure (something that the dog really likes, such as a treat), walk backward, and as the dog walks with you, say “come.” Click while the dog is walking, grab his collar and give him a treat. Repeat 3-5 times.
- If the dog is uncomfortable with having his collar grabbed, play “gotcha” with him. While you are sitting next to him, reach out and grab his collar. As soon as you grab his collar, give him a delicious treat and let go. Keep practicing in short increments (5 or 10 times in a session) until he is comfortable with having his collar grabbed.
- If the dog isn’t interested in moving with you or is moving slowly, try jogging backward instead of walking.
Step 2: Stand a few feet away from the dog and say his name. Once he is attentive, say “come” and praise him as he is coming to you. Click while the dog is coming to you, grab his collar and give him a treat. Then praise and pet him. Repeat 3-5 times.
- If the dog doesn’t know his name, see “Training Plan: Teaching Name Recognition” and teach him his name before you move on.
- Make sure to grab the dog’s collar to prevent “fly-bys.”
Step 3: Move a little farther away from the dog. If possible, have someone else hold him. Say the dog’s name and when he looks at you, say “come.” Praise him as he comes to you and click while he is moving toward you. Grab his collar and give him a treat. Repeat five times.
Step 4: Increase the distance a bit between you and the dog and repeat the exercise. Have the dog come to you at ever greater distances.
Proofing means teaching the dog to generalize the behavior in different contexts.
Locations and distractions: Practice someplace with few distractions (e.g., in your backyard), then in different places with steadily increasing distractions (e.g., other people, other dogs, loud sounds) until the dog will come to you no matter where you are. If needed, go back to Step 2 to make sure he still knows the cue.
Handler: Have other people work with the dog on “come,” starting from Step 2.
Teaching a dog to come is generally easy, but it can be difficult to maintain consistently. Be careful not to “poison” the cue. If the cue “come” always means that the fun stops, the dog will stop coming! So, more often than not, let him go back to whatever he was doing before you gave the “come” cue. Also, make sure you are using the same cue consistently (i.e., always say “come” rather than variations of it such as “come here” or “c’mon”).
If you get stuck on any step, stop and take a break. When you try again, go back to the previous step in the plan. If necessary, create intermediate steps with intensity and duration that your dog is comfortable with. For example, if you are having trouble going from Step 1 to Step 2, try standing a few feet away and then walk backward (to prompt your dog to move forward) and say “come.” Don’t rush: Take it at the dog’s speed.