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It’s a common sight in many suburban neighborhoods. You’re sitting at the kitchen table enjoying your morning coffee when you hear the screech peeling through the quiet morning air, “Come here!”
You walk to your window and see your frantic neighbor in his bathrobe racing after a streak of black as his Labrador charges down the sidewalk in utter jubilation at his freedom.
You realize their son must have left the door open again by mistake, and their dog took full advantage of the opportunity to make a break for it.
Why Teach Recall?
If there is one command that should be valued above all others, it’s come.
Possessing the power to call your dog back to you reliably means they don’t run into traffic, race after the neighborhood cat or get lost.
A reliable come command, or recall, means your voice is the tie holding your dog back from dangerous situations.
Until that vocal connection is as strong as a physical leash, you should never have your dog in an uncontrolled environment.
The Canine Reward Contract
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of training the come command, I wanted to explain the philosophy of trust behind it.
Think of the come command as a contract between you and your dog. Every time your dog comes to you, only good things must happen.
This may seem like common sense, but you’d be surprised how many times I see someone call a dog for an unpleasant experience. People call their dog to punish them, to end a fun romp at the dog park or to give medication.
Always remember, every time your dog comes to you willingly, they are giving up their freedom.
You have to honor their trust by giving them a positive experience, whether it’s a treat, a pat or verbal praise in exchange for their obedience.
What If You Must Give An Unpleasant Experience?
What if you have to do something like clean your pup’s ears, give them a bath, or treat them with medicine?
Go and get them. If they are tough to catch, plan the treatment after they’ve been put into a smaller area for something positive, such as a meal.
Just don’t associate the bad experience with the come command. Every time you call them and immediately “punish” their obedience with something unpleasant, you spend trust currency.
Eventually, when the account is too low, when they’ve had too many experiences where coming to you resulted in a neutral or negative experience, they stop listening.
Don’t Trust the Puppy Honeymoon
When people get a young puppy, they are often lulled into a false sense of complacency about their control over their dog.
Puppies, like most babies, have an instinctual drive to stay near their leader. In nature, predators pick off babies that don’t stay close to their protective parent.
When you establish yourself as the parent in the puppy’s mind, they will naturally stay close to you, focus on you, and often come when you do anything interesting.
Instinct has taught them that they have a better chance of survival if they stay with their family pack.
When owners experience this behavior, they believe they have a star pupil. They rationalize that the actions of a three-month-old puppy will continue to remain the same in a three-year-old adult.
This is often not the case. Usually, when puppies reach a certain age, often around five to six months old, they begin to become more independent.
You may notice the occasional straying off, or the subtle hesitation to come to you.
It’s almost imperceptible at first, but you will soon notice that your pup no longer listens. As they gain strength and confidence, they feel less inclined to see you as their protector.
There will come a time when you can’t rely on instincts to do your training for you.
How to Train the Come Command Off Puppy Instinct
If you have a puppy, you can certainly take advantage of the natural drive to stay close. However, this exercise works no matter the age of your dog. Make sure your puppy is well rested and hungry for this exercise.
This training works best when you two people can make it a game.
- Start with the puppy in a familiar room with no distractions. Then, have both people facing each other just a few feet apart with plenty of treats.
- Have one person hold the puppy, then have the other person call them excitedly. You don’t have to use the word “come” yet, just make fun sounds.
- You may need to run backwards a bit to get the puppy to chase you. As soon as the puppy bounds up, give them the tasty treat.
- If they need some extra convincing, get closer and let them smell the treat so they want to follow you.
- Then, have the other person call the puppy and run away excitedly if necessary to get them to chase them.
- As the puppy catches up, verbally praise and give them a treat. Keep the Lab going back and forth between the two people a few more times until they seem to understand the concept.
- Once the puppy is performing well over shorter distances, you can slowly increase the space between both people.
- When they get the hang of the game and become good at coming to you, you can start using the word “come” so they can associate it with their action.
If the puppy gets distracted on the way to the person calling them, you’ve expanded the distance too quickly.
Go back to a shorter amount of ground to cover and don’t move back again until the puppy is racing to you quickly without hesitation.
Teaching Come with a Long Line
If you’re training solo, you can also train your puppy on the come command by using a long line.
The concept of starting off with a short distance and gradually lengthening it still applies no matter the training.
- For this method, have your puppy on a long line or leash in a familiar location with few distractions.
- Wait until they walk away from you, and then call them excitedly to you. Make yourself as enticing as possible.
- If the puppy still won’t come, gently pull on the long line to help them move toward you while walking backwards. Don’t reel them in; walk them in.
- As soon as they come, treat and praise.
- Once they are coming happily to you without your need to use the leash, you can lengthen the distance.
- You also don’t want to use the come command until they are coming reliably without the use of the leash. Once they understand the game, begin adding the word “come” to help them associate the word with their action.
Ideally, your dog learns that they must always come when you call, and if not, they will feel the pull of the leash to reinforce your command.
The best head game you can implement is when they always believe you have this power to pull them back in, that you can always reach them, even when the leash is gone.
Don’t Rely on the Leash
The purpose of using the leash to bring your dog in is to help them understand the initial concept that coming to you means amazing rewards.
It also to provides a gentle reminder to reinforce that they must obey even when they are following the best scent trail ever!
What it should NOT be is a tool utilized the majority of the time once the dog understands the concept. If you have to rely on the leash to pull your dog to you every time, you need to evaluate what else is not working.
Ideally, your Lab will come to you willingly. In the end, the leash should just be the training wheels, to use as a last resort or to keep them from harm. It should not by the main tool to force compliance.
Proofing Your Puppy
Once your Lab understands the basic command, it’s time to proof them to learn to obey you regardless of distraction or distance.
When your puppy is reliably coming in a comfortable setting, like your house, move to an area that is less familiar, but is still controlled. This can be another room, a fenced-in yard, or even a hallway.
As your puppy gets stronger on the come command, try this exercise in new places. You can then throw other distractions into the mix, such as other people, animals, food and noises.
Work through each challenge until your puppy is coming to you no matter what is happening around them.
Remember, if there is even a chance that your dog could escape and get into a dangerous situation, you will need to use a long line.
In a dog’s mind, doing a command in a new area or encountering an obstacle is more difficult. The distance from you is also a distraction. Whenever you add a new challenge, you have to make the distance shorter.
Go back to the basics with each new test until they are reliably coming to you with the same enthusiasm as in more familiar environments.
Fun Ideas For Proofing
When proofing your pup, try to think of all of the situations where they would need to come to you and train for them. Here are a few ideas.
Do you want your dog to come to you when other dogs are present? Then train for that by utilizing group dog training classes.
Eventually, once their recall is rock solid around trained dogs, you can move to dog parks and train in more chaotic social situations.
A good tip for training in dog parks is to make sure you don’t call them to you and then show them that the fun will end by going home. This is called poisoning the cue.
Practice calling your dog away from group play multiple times, snapping the leash on, giving them an amazing treat, and then taking the leash off and releasing them to go back to play.
This way, they don’t associate the come command to leaving the park, which is a negative experience.
When you really do need to go, snap the leash on, give treats and play with your dog a bit so they don’t associate the leash with leaving.
People are often a huge distraction to your dog. You can train them to come even around other people by using training classes.
You can also get your friends to try to engage the puppy and see if they can distract your Lab from coming to you.
Remember, to start this, have your dog get reliable at coming when strangers don’t engage.
Start with a stranger standing still, then move to have them talk to your dog or stand in their path so they have to go around. Always start small and increase the stimulus as your dog conquers each task.
Make sure the helpers don’t ask them to come or say their name, as this could confuse them. Just have them be interesting. You can always have the long line on your dog to pull them back to you if they make a mistake.
Offer Different Views of You
One thing people often don’t think about is that dogs come to the familiar owner behavior. However, if you fall and are hurt on the ground, do you want your pup to come?
If so, you need to train them to come if you’re standing, sitting or flat on your back.
Since changing your position is confusing to them, you should practice calling your dog while standing, sitting, or lying down.
Gauge Their Energy
When you’re trying to decide how your puppy is progressing, look for an energetic response.
If your puppy ambles over to you and sniffs things along the way, you probably need to reduce the distance, become more engaging and up the treat currency.
Dogs are often a reflection of their owners. When you call your puppy to you, there must be plenty of excitement on your part to generate equal gusto in your dog’s response.
If you don’t feel a little silly calling them, you probably aren’t doing enough.
The only caveat to this is if you have a timid or fearful dog; in which case you should give a more comforting, softer approach.
Your Lab is ready to progress up the proofing ladder when they bolt to you with the intensity of a racehorse out of the gate, ignoring all else in their tunnel vision to come.
Recall Training Trouble-Shooting Questions
Are you having trouble with the come command? Ask yourself these questions.
Are You Making Every Come Positive?
We spoke earlier in this article about never following a successful come command with a punishment or negative experience. This can’t be over emphasized.
Do You Set Your Dog Up for Success?
During the training period, you don’t want to teach your dog to ignore you. This means that you weigh your options when you’re not sure your dog will respond correctly.
If you don’t have control over your dog with a long line, you may want to refrain from using the come command if there is a possibility they can ignore you.
For example, if you’ve trained them to come reliably from only five feet away in the house, and now they’re chasing after a rabbit a quarter mile away, it’s probably not the best time to use the come command.
If you don’t think they will listen yet, and you don’t have a long line attached to reinforce your command, don’t put them in a situation where they might ignore you.
Set them up for success!
Have You Trained Your Dog to Focus on You?
The come command begins when your dog learns to pay attention to you. Before learning the come command, teach your dog to simply give you attention when you ask for it.
Say your dog’s name, and when they make eye contact, give them a treat. Training your dog to give you attention is a basic communication foundation necessary to teach any command.
Are You Using the Same Command Consistently?
I don’t care what phrase you want to use to call your dog; just make sure that you continue to say it the same way each time.
Get your family on board as well. If you’re saying, “Come Fido,” and your family is saying, “Come here boy,” then you are confusing your dog.
Decide on the phrase, keep the wording the same, and make sure everyone else uses the same command to create consistency.
Are You Repeating Yourself?
Do you suffer from broken-record syndrome?
If your dog has learned to ignore you until you’ve repeated yourself ad nauseam, you may need to examine why. Many owners sound so much like a radio rerun that the dog no longer hears the command as “Fido, come!”
Instead, the command has now morphed in the dog’s brain to be, “Fido, come. Fido… COME! FIDO COME HERE RIGHT NOW!!!”
At this point, the dog comes running back happily with a puzzled face wondering why you’re so angry. After all, they were just waiting politely for you to finish the full sentence scenario.
Are You Calling Them To a Lecture or a Party?
Imagine you’re a dog who has just found a tantalizing squirrel or scent trail. Then, you hear the monotone voice of your master calling you away from the mystery with zero excitement.
In order to achieve success, you need to invite your dog to a party, not a lecture. Your voice, actions and treat bag should be much more fun than whatever is competing for their attention.
Are You Progressing Too Quickly?
I get it. We all want to believe that our pup is the next Einstein incarnate.
Unfortunately, this desire to move forward too quickly often sets training back. Let’s say your puppy is reliably coming to you at home.
The worst mistake you can make is to throw them outside with tons of new stimulations and expect them to behave the same way.
Dog owners will falsely believe their puppy will come because they come at home or in their own yard. They then take them to a new place off leash and their Lab joyfully runs away and seems to forget all training.
This is the perfect example of advancing too quickly. The dog now has learned how much fun it is to run away from their owner, and they have set their training back.
Remember, it’s always better to go too slow than too fast.
Do Your Rewards Hold Enough Value?
If your dog lacks energy coming to you, you may not have found the correct currency. Remember, some dogs are more toy driven than food driven.
Find out what excites your dog, and use it. After all, if you had someone calling you for pie or broccoli, which person would you choose?
Once you have chosen the best treat or toy, only use this reward for the come command. Use lesser-value rewards for other training and keep the best treats reserved for a solid recall.
Is Your Dog Getting Distracted?
You can make yourself more fun by running away excitedly or even lying down if you notice their steps slowing.
If you see this, make a mental note that you need to practice the come command with less distraction or distance, or better rewards.
It may also be time to add a long line to make sure you can redirect your dog to you if necessary.
Are You Meeting Your Dog’s Needs?
Imagine if you were rarely allowed out of the house. You’re bored and stir crazy. Then, suddenly, you’re taken to a new, exciting place.
You would probably be overly stimulated taking it all in. You may have too much energy to focus.
Make sure before you attempt training, that you’ve met your Lab’s need for exercise and socialization. If they are too distracted, they can’t learn.
Are You Working Training Into Everyday Life?
We all know there are times when your dog will come to you just because they know something good is about to happen.
Does your dog come running the second they hear the kibble hit the bowl or the jingle of the leash?
Do they sprint to you when you squeak their favorite toy before a play session?
If there are times when you know you dog will already rush to you, make sure to use this to your training advantage. Give them the come command right before you do the action that brings about their excited obedience.
Are You Using the Come Command At the Right Time?
Try not to ask your dog to come in if they haven’t had a chance to enjoy themselves. This goes back to setting them up for success.
For example, if you’ve just let your dog outside, give them time sniff all the new smells from the previous evening and do their business.
It’s even better if you can get eye contact first before asking them to come.
Does Your Body Language Call Your Dog In?
If your dog starts to come toward you, and you lean forward or step toward them, they may be getting mixed signals and jump away at the last moment. You don’t want them to decide a game of chase is more fun.
Make sure if your dog seems to change their mind, that you aren’t sending the wrong message. If this is happening, focus on running away and let your dog catch you instead of running toward them.
Has Your Dog Created a Game of Getting Away?
The scenario in our intro of a dog bursting out the unattended door happens more often than you would think.
I understand people have kids who don’t watch out for the dog, or they get busy with the daily routine.
However, you have to understand that each time you let your dog escape through the door and have a wild run through the neighborhood, you’re setting your training back. It’s also dangerous for your dog.
This scenario is teaching your dog how fun it is to escape and run away from you. If you believe this may happen, you have to take proactive steps to prevent it.
For example, if your kids forget to close the door during certain times of the day, plan for this and put your dog in a room or crate where they can’t escape until you know the door is secure.
Learn how to prevent door dashing through training, or make sure that they don’t have a chance to engage in it.
Do You Have a Strong Bond?
The come command is sometimes reflective of your bond with your dog.
Just like a child is more likely to come running up to someone they love when they call, your dog will begin to respond to your voice more as your relationship and mutual respect grows stronger.
If your relationship is new, work on other bond-building activities through play, walks and training. This will only help your recall.
More Recall Games To Reinforce The Come Command
Anytime you can turn training into a fun game, you become a better trainer.
While we’ve highlighted the more mainstream training methods above, some dogs respond differently and may need to learn through other avenues.
Even if they master more conventional training, it’s also fun to reinforce the recall through play.
Puppy Ping-Pong With Resistance
While the previous version of this game detailed in the training above was to get your dog familiar with the come command, you can make things more intense by adding resistance.
This means that once the dog understands that the other person has amazing treats, the person that currently has the puppy gently holds them back by the leash while the other person acts engaging.
This resistance creates frustration on the puppy’s part, which builds drive and translates to more excitement. Once they are released with the come command, this makes for an even more intense recall.
Puppy In The Family Circle
If you have a large group of people, you can all have treats and put your puppy in a circle.
Then, one person will call the puppy and give them a reward. After this, someone else will call the puppy.
Make sure everyone praises and rewards, and only one person calls at a time.
If the puppy goes to the wrong person by mistake, they should ignore them until they find the person calling them. Keep the activity short. As with all training, you want to leave your pup wanting more.
Catch Me If You Can
This game is fun to keep your puppy close to you. Run away from your dog. As they catch up, drop some treats on the ground.
As soon as your Lab has finished the treats, run away again and as they catch you, drop more treats. This game just rewards your dog for staying near you, but it’s also useful to reinforce the recall.
Hide and Seek
As your dog gets older, you can play hide and seek games. Have someone hold your pup and run away with a high-value treat.
Get your Lab excited as you run away by acting enticing so they want to follow you. Have the other person calmly hold them back.
Then, hide just out of sight or maybe at first still in sight, and call as your handler releases them. When they find you, praise them, give jackpot treats and throw a big party.
Remember, every time you train the come command it should be rewarding, exciting and fun for your dog.
If you create this positive experience consistently each time they come, you will soon have a dog that will reliably come back to you like a boomerang every time you call.
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