“Come” may be the most important command you can teach your dog because it could save your dog’s life. Dogs are easily distracted, and sometimes their curiosity draws them toward life-threatening situations, like oncoming traffic. When your dog is charging obliviously toward danger, you want them to respond to your voice above all else.
That’s when “come” is a literal lifesaver. It’s a basic command but challenging to teach because there’s so much that could distract your dog. However, it’s well worth the effort because proper recall can keep your dog from getting into something poisonous, running into the street, or getting attacked by a wild animal like a raccoon. It’s also critical for a successful trip to the dog park or any other off-leash experience.
To help you successfully train your dog to come when called, we talked to professional dog trainer and founder of The Pooch Coach, Beverly Ulbrich, about how to teach the come command successfully.
Tips for Teaching Recall to Your Dog
1. Use high-value rewards for positive reinforcement
As is the case for most dog training commands, reinforcement is essential. In the beginning, use high-value treats that your pup doesn’t get on a regular basis. A small baggie of cooked chicken or hot dog bites, or perhaps string cheese or jerky, can be very motivating. If it’s nice and stinky, that helps!
2. Non-food rewards work, too
Food rewards are great, but you can use other types of rewards as well.
For most dogs, going for a walk is a reward. “If you grab the leash, the dog knows he’s going for a walk,” Ulbrich explains.”Tell him to come and if he obeys, then get the leash out.”
Even if your dog doesn’t obey immediately, he’ll soon associate “come” with fun rewards if he hears an audible clue—the leash, his ball, etc.—after hearing the command. You can also use verbal praise and petting to reward your dog for obeying. This can work well if your dog is already pretty good with this command.
“Use walks, dinner, toys, and tasty treats to continually reinforce ‘come’ as a positive, happy thing,” Ulbrich adds.
3. Start practicing the command indoors first
Just as you don’t expect your 5-year-old child to go from Kindergarten to 8th grade in one year, don’t expect your dog to either. Ulbrich says levels of obedience are like grade levels and you can’t expect your dog to start off at the high-school level.
“If your dog is a C student indoors, he’ll be an F student outdoors.”
“If you want reliable recall at the dog park, you need to have reliable recall in the house first,” Ulbrich says. “If your dog is a C student indoors, he’ll be an F student outdoors.”
Build up slowly to get your dog to come reliably. Work your way to 100% reliable in the house, and then move outdoors where there are more distractions and temptations.
4. Don’t unintentionally punish your dog for obeying
Imagine you’re enjoying a great afternoon at the dog park, but you decide it’s time to leave. You tell your dog to “come” and promptly put him on the leash or in the car. Dogs generally don’t want to leave the dog park, so using the command in this way could accidentally create a negative association with the come command.
“It’s like being called to the principal’s office—it’s something they don’t like so they don’t want to come,” Ulbrich says. “They learn to stop coming when called because they don’t want to leave the park.”
Other examples of “punishments” for obeying recall commands include:
- Bath time
- Getting groomed—nails clipped, brushed, etc.
- Giving medicine
Make sure you aren’t using the command to call your dog to you if you’re going to do something he doesn’t like. For situations like these, it’s best to go to your dog, put them on a leash, and gently guide them toward the car, bath, or medicine cabinet.
5. Use “here” or “come” instead of the dog’s name
Dog owners will often call out their dog’s name simply when they want to know where they are—usually to make sure he isn’t getting into too much trouble!
“Indoors, people do not tell their dog to come—they just say the dog’s name,” Ulbrich explains. “Using their name just gets their attention but doesn’t tell them what to do, so it’s not a good way to train your dog.”
We know it’s hard to let go of this habit, but try to replace using your dog’s name with the “come” command, making sure your dog comes all the way to you and is rewarded when they do.
6. Make sure your dog comes all the way to you
Dog owners sometimes use the come command simply to get their dog’s attention, but this can be confusing if you’re using “come” inconsistently. To be an effective recall command, “come” should always mean “come all the way to me”. Avoid rewarding your dog for only coming part of the way to you because it may give them the wrong idea of what the command means.
“Otherwise, the dog thinks ‘come’ means being able to see them is good enough and they don’t understand they have to come all the way to you,” Ulbrich adds.
How to Teach a Dog to Come
- Begin indoors at shorter distances, like 10 or 15 feet. Perhaps your dog is simply lying on their bed on the other side of the room. Make eye contact with your dog and clearly say “come” in a cheerful voice. You can say your dog’s name but always follow their name with “come”. Try patting your legs or clapping your hands for extra encouragement. Continue saying the command until your dog comes all the way to you. As soon as they get to you, give your dog a tasty treat.
- Repeat this process at longer distances. Try going into another room. If that doesn’t work, go back to the same room and practice a couple more times before trying another room again. Repetition is key.
- Think about the things that distract your dog. Try introducing a low-level distraction (i.e. their favorite chew toy) into the environment and practicing the come command. Be sure to reward them when they come all the way to you.
- Once you feel your dog has mastered the come command indoors, it’s time to go outside. You can start in your backyard and then move to a park, practicing at increasing distances and with an increasing amount of distractions.
The Bottom Line
Recall may just be the most important thing you can teach your dog. Making sure he’s 100% reliable when you call him could even save his life. Take the time to train him right to make sure he’ll obey at the house and outdoors. Be consistent, stay positive, and reinforce the behavior you want, and you’ll see results.