Teaching a Reliable Come: Part 1
When you tell your dog “come”, he should come running back to you.
Recently I had both of my dogs, Bones, a four year old English Shepherd, and Hero, a nine month old of the same breed, at the beach where dogs are allowed to run off leash. Bones was dashing here and there having a great time but Hero was on a 30 foot length of rope. When asked why he was on a rope I explained that Hero was still young, mentally immature, and his training wasn’t yet reliable enough for him to be off leash in a situation that was so exciting.
She wasn’t sure my answer was good enough, I guess, as she asked if that was fair, one on leash and one off, and then she added that her dog comes ‘most of the time’ when she calls her. I then watched her call her dog repeatedly while the dog completely ignored her.
That’s not my expectation of what the come should be. When I call my dogs to come to me, I want them to come to me every time, with no excuses for distractions. The come is too important for my dogs to ignore me, think about whether to respond, or to wait until they’ve been called multiple times. I don’t want my dogs to feel that the come is an optional exercise.
Come Has to be the Best Thing Ever!
Each and every time my dogs come to me they are greeted with verbal praise, “Awesome! Good boys!” I use a happy tone of voice and am never stingy with the praise. In fact, as my dogs are heading towards me I’ll start praising then, “Quick, quick, yeah! Good boys to come!”
I pat them on the side, scratch at the top of the tail, rub ears, and massage shoulders. I do this for a couple of reasons. The first is that my dogs think my hands are wonderful and so petting is a good reward. What is also important, though, is that when I call my dogs I don’t want them to think that coming to my general area is acceptable; I want my dogs to come all the way to me, so I can touch them just in case I need to hold or leash them.
I vary the other rewards used in teaching the come, including treats and toys, so that the come is and remains exciting. When I begin to phase out some of the rewards in other parts of a young dog’s training, I’ll continue to use them when training or practicing the come. I want the excitement of the come to be strong.
The Come is Never to be Negative
When teaching your dog to come and later when using it, never call your dog and scold him, correct him, or punish him. If he didn’t come fast enough or he got distracted along the way, don’t punish him once he gets to you; that will only slow down (or stop) future comes. Instead, work at it as a training problem and make the come better. Punishing the come never makes it more reliable.
Along these same lines, never call your dog to come and then do something else that he dislikes. Don’t call him to come and give him a bath if he hates baths, for example. You can call him, give him a treat, play a game with him, give him a tummy rub, and then give him a bath. The previous rewards will have made the come great prior to his bath.
Making the Word Come Exciting
Before I start teaching a puppy or a newly adopted dog to come, I take some time to make sure the dog thinks the word come is good. I don’t want the dog to have bad feelings when he hears that word.
I choose some good treats, something that the dog normally doesn’t get, and preferably something that smells good. I get The Honest Kitchen’s Wishes for my cats and often I’ll raid their treats to teach this part of the training. Cheese can also work, bits of chicken, or freeze dried liver. Just choose a treat that gets your dog excited.
With your dog on leash, let him sniff the treat, and then use his name and then say come, “Sweetie, come!” As he looks at you, immediately give him the treat as you praise him. By definition he’s not coming to you, but he is learning that, “Sweetie, come!” equals a great treat, you smile at him, and you’re happy. Do this several times over several days then move on to the next step.
With a handful of those wonderful treats, take your dog inside to a small bedroom. Let him explore the room and then call him, “Sweetie, come!” and as he takes a few steps towards you, back away a few steps so he can chase you. When he catches up to you, praise him and give him that great treat. Praise him some more. Repeat this several times over several days.
If your dog is too involved in his exploration to pay attention to you, keep him on leash, and as you call him use the leash to help him come to you. No yanking, scolding, or punishment; just help him move towards you.
After a few days, move to another room and repeat the exercises. Then play the same training game up and down the inside hallway. Then across the living room. In other words, gradually increase the space and distraction.
When you begin training your dog to come outside, there will be more distractions and that’s both good and bad. Good because your dog needs to learn to pay attention to you and come when called when things are happening around him. It’s bad because those distractions are exactly that; distracting.
So just as you did in the house, start small and close and gradually increase the difficulty. Have your dog on a six foot leash and practice in the back yard or on the patio where there are some distractions but not too much. Repeat the exercises you did inside the house several times over several days.
Then, still on the leash, move out into the back yard and repeat the training. Move to a long leash (or rope) next. Give your dog ten to twenty feet of leash and repeat the exercises; using the leash to make sure your dog doesn’t dash away. Gradually move your training to other places but only as your dog masters the exercise in the previous training sessions. For example, if your dog is distracted on the ten foot long leash in the backyard, don’t take the training to the front yard yet.
Consistency and Patience
You need to be consistent with your training to create a reliable come. Help your dog do this correctly all the time and don’t set up situations where your dog can ignore you. Carry treats with you all the time during this process. Most importantly, use the leash.
It’s also important to be patient. Puppies take time to mature mentally and during puppyhood the goal is to create a reliable come (teach good habits) but you also have to remember that puppies will get distracted. Newly adopted dogs take time to bond with their new owners. Plus, they may (well, usually) have some bad habits from their previous home. So be patient.
In Part 2 of this post we’ll talk about teaching a reliable off leash come and troubleshoot some problems often seen with the come.