Here's five fun and surprising new ways to teach your dog or puppy that prized command: "Come."
Come seems to be the universal benchmark for a well-trained dog. When I ask my clients what they want to get out of working with me, they rarely stray from the script: “I want my dog to come the second I call her.”
It’s a worthy goal, and an important one too—especially if the dog is anywhere near traffic, wildlife, or other people and animals.
But—and this is a very big but—dogs are not like toaster ovens or television sets: you can't program them. So while you can teach a dog to come pretty reliably, all dogs will have one distraction that they can’t put off. Maybe it’s a squirrel, or another dog, or people wearing hats. Whether that distraction triggers fear, anger, or joy, if it materializes in just the wrong moment, you may be left with an empty collar.
Dogs are much more like young children, who don’t always come the second they are called either. Here’s the question: Would you ever let a toddler out of your sight near a roadway, a cavorting coyote, or a group of strangers? I hope not.
Promise me this: even after I’ve taught you how to teach a reliable "Come," you’ll keep your dog leashed in trafficked areas. (My dogs respond reliably to all directions, but I wouldn’t dream of unleashing them in unpredictable areas.) My motto: If I can’t tell what’s going to happen next, my dog can’t either.
Now here are five Quick and Dirty Tips to help you teach your dog to "Come."
1. Come as Huddle
Think of the command “Come” as equivalent to “Huddle!” Before you expect your dog to come at a distance, teach your dog that "Come," means you’re together, not apart.
• Wave a toy or shake a treat cup as you run ten steps away from your dog. You can call her name but don’t say "Come" yet!
• Wait to say "Come" until your dog is either taking the treat or toy. She’ll soon be excited about this game. Mix in a little petting as you reward and say "Come."
• Gradually start adding "Come" a little early in the sequence, like when she is running toward you.
Come should always highlight fun and happiness. Try a different word when pressed for time (see Step Five).
2. Avoid the Dreaded Stare
Don’t stare at your dog if you'd like her to come. It’s too confusing. Put yourself in her place: What if I called you as I said some random term over and over? Would you understand any more quickly if I stared and raised my voice impatiently? Remember your dog is not born knowing the meaning of “Come.”
3. Your Voice is Her Arrow
Think of your voice as an arrow. When calling your dog to come, turn your back, call her name, and walk in the direction you want her to go. It will feel strange but start with the game outlined below: you’ll get the hang of it! Remember: If you’re facing your dog’s back when you call Come, she’s not hearing a direction—she’s thinking about whatever she’s doing (digging, barking, watching birds flying by). You’ve got her back!
4. Play training
Whether you’ve taught your dog that "Come" means run or you are just starting out, the best way to begin is to teach this direction as positive.
Start saying "Come" whenever your dog approaches you. Does she race in for a meal? Say “Come” and slap the dish on the floor. Does she greet you enthusiastically? Slip a "Come" in there too. She will begin to associate the command with positive interaction.
Dogs love to play tag: you play with your dog alone or with friends. Try both versions, using a long line if you’re playing in an open area outside:
Run Away Come Tag
Show your dog you have a treat or shake a cup of treats if she’s familiar with the sound. Turn your back to your dog so you’re facing away. Say his or her name and start running away from them top speed. As you turn, face or kneel and treat your dog, say Come! Play this game with toys too: repeat as often as you want. After a week, pair Come with the dog's name and say both words before you start running.
Round Robin Come
Gather toys or a treat cup for every player. Spread out, all within sight of each other as your dog learns how to the play the game. Start with one player—who’ll hold the treats out of sight, as he points to another player and says “Go to ____(Whatever the person’s name is). The person called with the then call to the dog using their name. Say "Come" as this person hands off the reward. When the dog is done enjoying the reward, this player signals the dog by pointing and repeating the phrase, “Go to ______(Whatever the person’s name is), who then calls and says Come as they hand off the reward.
5. Be creative
Avoid using "Come" too often. If your dog loves to be outside, don’t say "Come" to bring him in. If your dog’s not a big fan of the brush, don’t say "Come" to signal grooming time.
Use other words to encourage your dog to come to you. I use "Inside" to mean come in the door. I give my dogs treats when they respond quickly. I highlight adventures with the word “Car” or “Walk.” Using a treat cup to encourage a positive association with these directions, too.
Teaching come should signal light, happy, reward-filled moments. Your dog will feel better about you, and about his life if his days are filled with smiles and laughter instead of fear and frustration. Don’t you agree?
Test out what you’ve read, add your experiences and a few new ideas in the comments below or on the Dog Trainer Facebook page!
Having trouble communicating with your dog or puppy? Sarah Hodgson, aka the Happy Dog Mom, is here to help. She's written multiple best-selling books on dog training, and her next book, Modern Dog Parenting, will be out Fall 2016. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website whendogstalk.com.