Come might be the most important command you will ever teach your dog. A reliable come allows you to take your dog with you on adventures, it prevents annoying keep away habits, and it removes the danger of your dog bolting out a doorway or slipping a collar and taking off down the street while you watch helplessly.
To teach a reliable come when called, there are several steps. The first step is to teach the dog the meaning of the word come. The second step is to make coming a fun game, practiced often around the home, yard, and other safe locations. The third step is to practice come on a long 20-50 foot line in a variety of increasingly distracting locations using praise and treats as an intermittent reward and also the distraction itself as a reward!
To teach the word come, arm yourself with a pouch full of pea sized treats your dog loves, like liver or chicken, and choose a distraction free environment.
With the treats on your person, run away from your dog, excitedly yelling come. When your dog runs over to see what the commotion is about praise it enthusiastically and offer several treats. While your dog is eating the treats off the floor or out of your hand, gently grab hold of the dog’s collar for a couple of seconds, and then release the dog with an OK! And let it go. Practice this game until the dog runs over eagerly when you say come, even without all the commotion.
You can also increase the dog’s learning and fun by getting someone to help you. After you call the dog to yourself and reward it, have a visible partner call the dog to him or her while you change locations. After the Dog comes to them and they reward the dog, then call the dog to yourself and the new location while the other person moves locations. Once the dog is readily coming back and forth between everyone, make the game harder by hiding in easy to locate places and calling the dog from out of sight. Always greet your dog excitedly with praises when they find you, but gradually decrease how often you give the dog a treat so that it is always a great surprise when they do get food.
Once your dog has mastered the coming game in safe off-leash areas, clip a light-weight 20-50 foot lead onto the dog and practice coming in the neighborhood, at parks, and other areas where you can let the dog range out a bit to sniff and then call it to come. When the dog comes praise it enthusiastically, while rewarding lavishly with treats and holding the collar, and then immediately let the dog go back to exploring so that it will not think coming means the fun is over.
When the dog does not choose to come, which inevitably happens when the dog finds something especially enticing, simply reel the dog in with the long line and have the dog sit, grab its collar gently, and praise the dog moderately but do not offer any treats. Release the dog again with an OK! But before the dog gets overly interested in something call it back to you quickly. If the dog comes readily this time, then party it up again and lavish the praises and treats while you it by its collar. Immediately release the dog to go back to what it was doing after it finishes the treats. Do this four or five times in a row, until the dog comes quickly every time before letting the dog get very interested in any smells or other distractions again.
Once the dog is coming readily in a variety of locations on the long line with moderate distractions, incorporate more difficult distractions like water, meeting other dogs, squirrels, food, and other hard to resist items.
To do this you need to know exactly how long the lead you will be using reaches from where you will be. Pick a distraction, like a tossed piece of food or a treed squirrel, and put it just out of reach of the will be dog on the lead. Sit the dog by you and let the dog see the distraction, release them from sit, and very quickly! Before the dog reaches the end of the long lead! Command loudly and excitedly COME! If the dog comes then praise and reward the dog to kingdom come! And very quickly tell it OK! And give it enough slack in the line to allow it to reach the tempting item this time.
If the dog ignores you and keeps heading to the item, then let the lead stop the dog, let the dog think about the problem for several seconds, and if the dog remembers your come command and comes, then reward and praise the dog, while holding its collar, and quickly release it with enough slack to allow it to reach the temptation this time.
If the dog does not acknowledge your command, and stays intent on the item, even after a minute to think, then repeat the come command, reward and praise the dog when it comes, release the dog, and allow the dog to then reach the temptation.
If the dog does not come with the second command, then reel the dog in and make the dog sit, praise the dog but do not treat. Repeat the exercise again, without the dog having reached the temptation yet; however, this time, if the dog is able to come with the first or even second command, allow the dog to reach the temptation after coming to you this time.
The whole idea is for the dog to learn that the only way it can reach an item is by coming to you first, before going to the item. For this to be maintained the dog must be allowed to get the item most of the time after coming, but the idea is that the command can also be used in emergencies even when you do not intend for the dog to go back to the item. When used in an emergency situation, you can remedy any training ground lost, by practicing the command in a staged setting again several times, where the dog receives the reward at the end of the come.
When teaching and using come, never call a dog to come for the purpose of punishing it or doing something negative like leaving somewhere it considers fun (unless it is an emergency! Then practice later to make up for it), instead, use other commands that clearly indicate what you are wanting the dog to do, like “let’s go”, “home”, “car”, “inside”, “upstairs”, “bath” or wherever or whatever it is you’re wanting from your dog, and when you do, make those things as pleasant as you realistically can.
Written by Caitlin Crittenden 2015