Teaching a Reliable Come: Part 2

When teaching dogs to come when called, it’s important to drill that the come isn’t optional.

Having my dogs come to me when called doesn’t just make daily life easier but this response can help keep my dogs safe.

In Part 1 we talked about this definition, worked on an exercise to make the word “come” exciting to your dog, and began training to come on leash.

Now we’re going to build on those skills, keeping the come exciting and rewarding for the dog, but also working toward the goal of having your dog come reliably to you when off leash. We’ll also discuss whether your individual dog should be off leash outside of a fenced in, secure area.

Zig-Zags and Dash-Aways

You will need a 20 to 25 foot-long leash (rope is fine) and a supply of high value treats that your dog enjoys. Bits of chicken, cheese, or Honest Kitchen Wishes work well for my dogs.

With a long leash on your dog and a pocketful of treats, go to your back yard or another safe, secure, fenced in area. Hold the end of the leash and let the rest of it drag on the ground. Then let your dog sniff the treat and back away from him. If he follows you, call him to come, praise him, and give him the treat.

Yes he was already following you, but that’s okay. That come was a freebie because he was already heading toward you. Even a freebie has benefits for training, as it gives you a chance to get him engaged and provides an opportunity to praise and reward him.

When he’s done that a couple of times and is excited about the game, then vary your pattern as you move away. Back fast, or turn around and walk away. Dash away from him, walk in a zig zag pattern, or circle around a tree. After 10, 15, or 20 feet call him to come, praise him, and reward him. Your goal here is to keep the come exciting while adding some mental challenges to the game.

Make sure to hold the end of the leash. If he turns away from you, dashes in another direction, or gets interested in a critter, use the leash to guide him toward you; no words, just use the leash to restrain him. Then work harder to keep his interest next time.

dog come


Drop the Leash

When your dog is meeting all your challenges on the long leash and thinks this is a wonderful game, drop the long leash and let him drag it. Play the same games you did when holding the long line (dashes, zig zags, and other games) plus add some new challenges. Play hide and seek behind trees or in the backyard shrubs. Go around a corner of the house and peek your head out as you call him.

Keep the come games exciting, make sure your treats are ones your dog really likes, and reward him well when he comes to you. Coming to you has to be the best thing ever!

If he’s discouraged, ease back on the challenges. Remember, you want him to succeed.

When he’s doing well with these games, remove the long line and repeat the same training exercises and games while he drags his regular short leash (four or six feet). This way the long leash is gone but you still have a leash to step on or grab should you need it.

As you’re training, remember your goal is to have him come to you when he’s off leash. That means he’s going to be making a choice; you or something that caught his interest. To achieve this the training needs to build a habit of him coming as well as making the come so wonderful that he’d rather come to you than do anything else.

Teach a Distance and Check In

I like to teach my dogs that even when off leash, they need to remain within a certain distance. In most situations that’s about 100 feet. By teaching them to stay close, they can have fun, sniff, chase a critter, but still be within sound of my voice as well as in my view. If we’re in a situation where there’s good visibility, I may let them run farther and my verbal cue for that is, “Okay, run!”

You, of course, can teach any distance you like. Just think about your dog, where you might like to let him off leash, and what distance you’d be comfortable with.

To teach this distance and encourage them to check in, when my dogs are about to reach that distance, I’ll call them back to me and reward them. Doing this consistently will create a habit.

When one of my dogs checks in with me, coming to me voluntarily without being called, he’s praised and rewarded lavishly. This is a wonderful habit and will serve you both well; especially should he be off leash and you lose sight of him or he moves out of reach of your voice.

dog come


Will Your Dog be Safe Off Leash?

Don’t take your dog off leash outside of a secure, fenced in area and hope he’ll be safe. Even if he’s doing this training well, it takes time to build good habits. Too often taking the dog off leash too soon leads to disaster.

First, take a realistic look at your dog. Is he prone to running? Does he try to dash out doors and gates? Is he still a puppy or teenager? When he runs, does he run and run and run without paying any attention to you at all? When running, does he play keep away from you? If you answer yes to any of these questions, your dog isn’t ready for off leash responsibility yet.

Think carefully about the training you’ve done. How is your dog doing? Does he like these training games? Does he come willingly, happily, and fast every time you call him? If you answered yes to all of these questions, good, he might be ready. If not, do some more training and then reevaluate him later.

Lastly, your dog should be off leash only in a place where it’s legal for him to be off leash—especially if you are off your own property.

Not All Dogs Are Safe Off Leash

Don’t feel bad if when you evaluate your dog you feel that he isn’t (and perhaps won’t ever be) safe off leash. It’s much better to reach this decision now than to have a tragedy and learn the lesson later. It’s a fact of dog life that not all dogs are safe off leash outside of a fenced in area—and even in this area, some might need a long leash.

There are many dogs who just like to do other things; perhaps chase critters or dig for gophers, and all of your calls will fall on deaf (or uninterested) ears. Some dogs get intoxicated when they’re running. They enjoy the run so much that they simply run and run and run. Other dogs may have established habits of not coming that are difficult to break. There are many reasons why some dogs don’t absorb the come training as we’d wish them to learn.

For these dogs, provide them with safe, fenced in areas to run and let them do so with a long leash—and always have a pocketful of good treats so you can reward them for coming.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika, CDT, CABC

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer and Certified Animal Behavior Consultant as well as the founder and co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in northern San Diego county. Liz is also the founder of Love on a Leash therapy dogs; her dog, Bones, goes on visits on a regular basis. A prolific writer, Liz is also the author of more than 80 books. Many of her works have been nominated or won awards from a variety of organizations, including Dog Writers Association of America, San Diego Book Awards, the ASPCA, and others. Liz shares her home with three English Shepherds: Bones, Hero, and Seven, as well as one confident and bossy orange tabby cat, Kirk. To relax from work, or to take work on the road, Liz and her crew travel the West and PNW in their RV. If you see an RV on the road named "Travelin' Dogs", honk and say hi!

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