How to Teach Your Dog to Come… No Matter What!
Learning how to teach your dog to come is the most important dog obedience command you can teach your dog. Time and time again, one of the biggest complaints I get is “my dog won’t come when called!”
The question I immediately ask is “Are you FUN to come to?” Sometimes I think I am a Golden Retriever, everything is exciting to me, everything is fun, everything should be a game and everything is important, but then again, I am a blonde.
I giggle when I look back at my dog training videos and my articles because to me EVERYTHING is critical! Teaching your dog to come, to leave it, crate training, long leash training everything is vital to you and your dog. And, to be honest, it really is.
All dog training and the victory over behavior problems ensures that you keep your dog safe and that you both remain happy.
But, Teaching Your Dog to Come Is the Most Important
Dog Obedience Command Every Dog Should Know
Does Your Dog Come When Called?
So what happens if your dog is off leash, he sees a bunny or a deer and goes chasing after it? Will he leave that distraction and come to you when you call him? What if there is a car coming?
Recently a good friend lost his world champion obedience dog because he was chasing deer and was blindsided by a car. I am still devastated for them both. It can certainly happen to anyone whose dog is off leash, and I can only hope and train hard and pray it never happens to me or my dogs.
How to Teach Your Dog To Come When You Call
You HAVE to train, train, train for a good recall! This is not something to let slack or ignore, this is THE MOST IMPORTANT thing you will ever do! Your dog’s life may sometime depend on this exact command!
NEVER, ever call your puppy when he is in trouble, you’re mad, or if you are going to do something bad to him! His name and the word “come” should never mean something bad. So if he is in trouble go and get him. If you are going to crate him or trim his nails, go to him, but do not call him.
You never want your puppy’s name or come to mean or be perceived to equal something bad or even slightly negative. Imagine your puppy and the bunnies…if “COME” means sometimes he goes in his crate, then there is NO WAY he is leaving those bunnies to come to you!
Would you come to YOU if you were mad or sounded that angry?
When You Call Your Dog It Should Mean FUN, FOOD, and PARTIES!
Positive reinforcement is key! Does your dog drop everything and run to you when he hears the cookie jar rattle? When you whisper “cookie” would he wake up from a dead sleep to rush to your side? Why is it that he listens so well to the rattle of the treat bag or a word that means treat?
Because with 100% reliability you are going to give him positive reinforcement in the form of a treat! How often do you get into the dog biscuits but then don’t give him one? Or, ask him if he wants a cookie only to give him nothing? Chances are you don’t.
Chances are you reward him and so he is familiar with the reward that is tied to the sound or the word. If these things were not paired with something good or a treat, he would stop coming and they would stop being meaningful cues.
You must make sure that your command to “come” equals something meaningful and good almost 100% of the time!
Pair the word come with treats, with games and with jackpots of chicken breast and other wonderful things. Don’t call your dog and then take for granted the fact that he actually came to you. And, just know that your praise is never going to be as exciting or as motivating as a scuttling or taunting squirrel. However the knowledge that FOR SURE you are going to be rewarded and you might get some chicken breast is often worth the gamble for your dog!
Look at it from his perspective and stop comparing him to “Lassie”. Dogs want to fulfill their own needs, what is important is to pair what he likes with what you want!
Remember three things. One, coming when called--trainers use the term “recall”-- is a skill, just like waiting for permission to go out a door or lying down on cue and staying down while children do jumping jacks and toss Cheez Doodles three feet away.
Two, dogs do not have a grand strategy to make you look like a fool in front of all your dog park friends; they just prefer to hang around wherever they find the most interesting stuff.
Three is a concept in learning theory--“learned irrelevance.” Basically it means that animals learn to ignore stimuli that don’t have any significance apparent to them. If you’re calling your dog over and over with no result, you can bet that she’s ignoring you because those sounds you’re making don’t mean a thing to her. Now let’s apply these points to teaching your dog to actually show up next to you when you ask her to.
Treat “Come When Called" as a Skill That Needs Work
We all know the old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall, right? “Practice, practice, practice.” For your dog, coming to you after being called--when that entails leaving play with other dogs or abandoning that fascinating animal den a thousand yards away--is the equivalent of going onstage at Carnegie Hall.
Build up to that level of skill with patient practice and start in the most ridiculously easy situations. Call your dog to dinner. Call her to have her leash put on for a walk. Call her for a game of fetch. Right before dinnertime, have your whole family call her back and forth among you, and each of you give her a bit of her meal as a reward. Take a hungry Fifi the Golden Retriever out to the backyard or a safe fenced area, let her sniff around awhile so the place isn’t so shiny and new, then call her to you and feed her 15 tiny pieces of roast chicken, one by one, when she comes.
Do it again. Do it again the next day. Do it again the day after that and the day after that and the day after that until you can’t count the number of times you’ve done it. Sometimes deliver chicken, sometimes throw Fifi’s favorite ball, sometimes run away from her and invite her to chase you.
Practice in gradually more challenging situations until your dog is coming to you so fast she looks like an understudy for the Road Runner. Well, make allowances, of course, for the short, the stubby, the geriatric, and the generally languid.
Be the Place that Your Dog Wants to Be
Since dogs generally want to spend time where the fun and the goodies are, make it your business to be fun and deliver goodies. By itself, having fun around you won’t teach your dog to come when called, but it will make the job a lot easier. Practicing his recall with treats and games certainly helps. Here are some other ways to give the squirrels a run for their money.
“Off-leash time” is not a code phrase for “People stand around like lumps while their dogs find interesting things to do at another venue.” Many dogs, young dogs especially, will need some time to just run their fool heads off at first and/or romp with other dogs. But once that first excitement has worn off, engage with your dog.
Rather than stay in one place, walk around--maybe with a group of your human friends and their dogs. Play fetch with your dog. Play tug with your dog. If you’re not in a crowded dog park with potential for a food fight, toss a treat on the ground, then run away while your dog eats it, and encourage him to chase you.
Observe your dog and learn what aspects of the great outdoors he finds most fascinating--torn-up tree stumps? The dens of small animals? Then look for those things yourself and call him over to check them out. I really hope this doesn’t sound like work to you, because it’s not--I promise it’ll make the walk more fun and rewarding for both of you.
A Tip for Maintaining Fun While Putting the Leash On
You’ll often hear the advice not to call your dog to leash him up at the end of a walk, because leashing him in effect punishes him for coming to you. Whoah, if being with you is that much of a drag for your dog, there need to be some changes made.
When you leash up, take a moment to ask your dog to do a trick or two, then reward her with a treat. Did she find a prize stick? Let her carry it home. And don’t be one of those Gloomy Guses who trudge out of the park as if they had a suitcase on wheels at the end of the leash instead of their beloved dog! Talk to her affectionately and let her sniff and poke around as you head home.
(Don’t) Repeat, (Don’t) Repeat, (Don’t) Repeat
Human babies naturally develop speech by listening to the people around them and imitating them. Dogs, of course, do not. Dogs communicate brilliantly with their body language and with vocalizations. They can be exquisitely sensitive to human emotion. And they can learn on their own that some of our utterances are relevant to them--“walk” and “ball,” for example, are greatest hits.
But the significance of most words, most of the time, doesn’t become clear to our dogs without careful teaching. Trainers used to say a “command,” then elicit the behavior they wanted, often by force. In fact, the best way to teach a word cue is this:
Find a way to elicit the behavior you want, then reward it. Do this over and over until your dog (or other animal) is offering the behavior confidently. Then, and only then, speak the cue just before the dog offers the behavior. After many repetitions, your dog learns to associate the cue with the behavior. Because the behavior has been rewarded, she also learns that when she hears the cue and does the behavior, she just might get a goodie--whether that’s a food treat or a ball toss or a chance to go outside.
Because many people don’t teach their dog in a systematic way to come when called, the dog never really learns what the point is of the sound “[Name], come!” It’s just another human noise with no particular significance.
Maybe your dog comes to you when you start to sound angry. I don’t think this is because he knows you “really mean it now”--it’s more likely that he’s figured out that you’re about to leave when you take that tone. Or he’s approaching to appease you, his social partner, who’s in one heck of a mood suddenly, who knows why.
Get Your Dog to Come When Called by Choosing another Cue Word
If you’ve fallen into the trap of repeating your recall command over and over again, your best bet is to teach your dog from scratch to come when called. Also, once an animal considers a stimulus irrelevant, they have a hard time learning that “Oh, wait, that means something after all.”
So try a new cue--if you used “Come!,” try “Let’s go!” Or “This way!” even a whistle can be used. I used to know someone whose recall command was “Leashes!” It was a treat to see her dogs come tearing toward her at the sound.
Once you have a reliable recall, you might be tempted to go leash free at all times. It can be quite exciting and liberating, and some of the best times are had off leash, but sometimes it’s not worth the risk.
No matter how well you think your dog is trained there are certain situations where your dog may take off. Does your dog’s nose get the better of him?
Some dogs will find chasing a rabbit irresistible, while some may take off after getting spooked by a motorcycle. If your dog always comes when called that’s great – but it doesn’t mean you should walk him down the road without a leash.
With enough practice you’ll be able to gauge your dog’s personal distraction threshold and know when it’s better to keep them on lead rather than setting up an instance where they won’t listen or might run into an unsafe situation. If you’re unsure about your dog’s reliability it’s always better to keep them leashed to avoid potential dangers.
To test your dog’s ability to come even when distractions or things that might scare them is present, put him on a long leash and test him at different distances.
What Not To Do?
Don’t call your puppy when he is in trouble or you’re going to do something negative to him. I know I said it before but it begs to be repeated! This will RUIN this command’s reliability!
Don’t be boring! If you are boring your puppy is less likely to listen!! Dogs often mirror our behavior so the more excited and animated you are the more likely your puppy will be to listen and enjoy himself. Even if it is out of your comfort zone, get animated and have fun!
NEVER, EVER call your puppy if you think he won’t come and you have no physical control of him (unless it is an emergency).
If your puppy ignores you don’t give him the opportunity to ignore your commands! This goes for any command but especially the COME command. If your dog ignores you and doesn’t come, this means the command means NOTHING to your dog and nothing happens to him to make him come.
The more often you call him and he ignores you, the more the command loses its meaning and the less likely he is to ever come. This is one of the 5 training pitfalls for training your dog to come that you need to avoid.
Instead, put him on a leash and work on the command by playing games OR at least put him on a leash so that if he ignores you, you can then make him listen by reeling him in!
You may have to slowly work on the command so that he listens off leash in a safe area like your yard, or a fenced in area. When he doesn’t listen go to him, clip on the leash and encourage him to listen to you by restricting his ability to run away and by encouraging him with treats, toys and fun.
It is much easier to teach him this is fun, than to rely on force!
As always have as much fun as possible, this is what bonds you to your puppy and your puppy to you! But work hard so that, if that moment comes and your dog’s life hangs in the balance he has a desire to play and to please you and leave any distraction behind!
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I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.