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Teaching Your Dog to Come

Teaching a dog to come is crucial.

"Dasher, come," you yell from across the lawn.

Dasher just stands there and gives you a look.

"Dasher—COME!"

Pause.

"Dasher!"

Nothing.

"DASHERRRR!!!"

With that, your dog finally reacts. He comes loping toward you, only to swerve at the last moment and bolt right on past. Next, it becomes a tragic-comic game of chase: you running and yelling, and Dasher dodging just beyond reach, tongue lolling, eyes twinkling, pleased as punch.

Not good.

The Come Command

Teaching a dog to come when he is called can be his human's greatest challenge. Why would a self-respecting dog want to drop whatever he's doing and come running to you? He might not, but you need to make it a priority to change his mind. Why?

Because his life could depend on it.

There are several reasons why the come command is so hard to master. Getting your dog to return to you is asking him to stop doing something very fun and instead, do something considerably less fun. Dogs are opportunists who live in the moment. They know that romping with friends or tracking a scent is probably more thrilling than staying with you. For dogs with a strong predatory drive, the sight of a cat or squirrel may be irresistible. Certain breeds of dog are instinctive runners or trackers. They are hardwired to bolt. Some individuals may never be safe off-leash.

But for the average dog, learning the command to come is within reach once we confront the human factors that can contribute to this misbehavior of not coming. Let's put ourselves in your dog's, um, paws and think about why he might not be coming when you call him.

  • You may not have taught your dog what "come" means. It's possible that your dog doesn't know what you want him to do when you call him. Repeatedly yelling "Dasher! Dasher! Dasher!" and then pitching an angry fit doesn't exactly send a clear signal.
  • You may be acting inconsistently. It's possible that you've allowed your dog to disobey in the past. You call your dog several times; he ignores you, and you eventually give up. Sound familiar? Inconsistency is the enemy of successful dog-training.
  • You may have unintentionally reinforced his disobedience. Your dog may have discovered that, by charging around just beyond your reach, he can engage you in a brilliant game of chase. What fun! He has received great positive reinforcement for not coming to you.
  • You may have unintentionally punished your dog for coming to you. If there's ever been a time when your dog hasn't come to you immediately, and when he has decided to return, you have punished him, you have reinforced his desire not to come when called. Your dog doesn't understand, when you yell at him or angrily snap on a leash and drag him out of the dog park, that you are responding to his initial failure to come. To him, the punishment occurred because he came to you.

Who's Alpha Anyway?

The bottom line is that your dog has learned that he can take charge of the situation when you are calling him, and he's loose. For this moment, he's alpha. If you have not been firm and consistent with rules and limits, some dogs will take advantage.

Until your dog can be trusted off-leash, simply don't risk it. Keep him on-lead and be safe rather than sorry. Training your dog to come on command takes patience and persistence, but it's usually doable.

Here are some basic guidelines to remember when training your dog to come:

  • Make it fun. Your dog will want to come to you if it looks like a good time. Lean down, clap your hands, do a dance, and look like something exciting is going on. It also helps to keep a favorite toy on hand to entice your dog to come over to investigate.
  • Never punish your dog or act angry when he returns to you, even if it seems to take forever.
  • Never give chase. It just becomes a game. A better strategy is to turn sideways and start moving away from your dog. He is more likely to understand that you want him to go that direction if you are moving that direction.
  • Only call your dog when you know you have a chance of enforcing it. Every time he gets away with not coming, he learns the opposite of what you intended.
  • To control your wayward dog in an emergency, try giddily running in the opposite direction. He might chase you!

Specifics for Teaching Your Dog to Come

The best time to teach the come command is when your dog is a puppy. Puppies crave closeness and will naturally bound over to you at the slightest invitation.

  • Try sitting in the middle of the floor while your puppy meanders around the room.
  • Occasionally give the come command, and reward him with snuggles and effusive praise when he complies. He'll soon get the idea!
  • Later, you can practice putting him in a "Sit/Stay" (once he's learned these commands) and backing up several feet, then giving the come command. Work on increasing the distance and changing the venue for these drills.
  • Eventually, move your practice sessions to a large, securely fenced-in outdoor space. You can gradually introduce distractions such as toys, people, or other pets so your pup can learn to return to you in the face of other temptations.

If your dog missed this training as a pup or needs retraining, the procedure is similar.

  • Choose a small practice area such as a securely fenced yard. You may even need to work indoors to avoid distractions.
  • Let your dog browse around the area. Sit on the ground with treats in your hand.
  • Give the come command, and wait for your dog to come over.
  • When he does come, praise lavishly and reward him with a treat.
  • Repeat this several times. Soon it will sink in!

Tips for Success

There are a few things you can keep in mind to increase your success with teaching your dog to come.

  • Since most dogs have a short attention span, opt for brief training sessions (1-2 minutes), but repeat them often, several times daily, over the next few weeks. Be patient and consistent. The more repetition, the stronger the connection in your dog's mind.
  • Incorporate the come command into your daily routine. Use it to call your dog over for snuggles or at mealtime. Try varying the reward as well. Belly rubs, exuberant praise, and a game of fetch are great alternatives to a food treat and help ensure that your dog won't get bored with coming to you. Also, changing the reward helps you make sure that your dog learns to obey even when you don't have treats in your hand.

Advanced Training

Once you feel confident that your dog has learned the lesson, you're ready to move to an open outdoor area. For this, you'll need a 20-30 foot lightweight leash used for training purposes. It is available at most pet supply stores. Let the long line trail behind your dog, and he'll forget he has it on, giving him a sense of freedom but also providing a safety net. You can catch or correct him if you need to.

Send your dog away and then give the come command. Praise him each time he complies. If he balks, you can choke up on the lead and give him a correction by snapping the line. Then praise enthusiastically once he heads toward you. If you've had to correct your dog, you may need to end the training session for the day. Try to ensure that he doesn't get wise to the long line, or he may learn to disobey when he's not on it!

Once you have consistent success, experiment with various distractions. Have another person or dog engage your dog in play, and then challenge him with the come command. Throw a ball, and call him to bring it back. Once he reliably comes 100% of the time, it's time for his off-leash debut.

A Note About Electric Training Collars

Electronic or "shock" collars are sometimes used to help teach and enforce the come command. They allow the trainer to give remote corrections in the form of a sound or a mild electric shock. The use of these devices is controversial, although some trainers swear by them. Electronic collars should only be used as a last resort and under the direct supervision of a professional trainer or veterinary behaviorist. Consult your veterinarian for further advice.


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