The ‘COME’ command is the most important skill for your dog to learn.
A dog with a well-established recall is a safe and engaged dog. It is well worth the time and effort in getting the ‘come’ command established.
Nick, one of our Expert Authors, explains the rules of the ‘come’ command and how to establish a reliable recall with your dog.
- The come command is not negotiable.
This means that if you ask your dog to come he has to come. A dog that learns that he can ignore the command is a dog who will continue to ignore it.
- Returning to the owner should be highly motivating for the dog.
There should be nothing more pleasurable for your dog than returning to you when asked.
- The come command should be strongly reinforced.
The dog should be reinforced with highly palatable food rewards or a cherished toy when returning to you.
Note: I prefer food rewards because we want to keep the dog engaged with you while training. Dogs are more likely to move away from you once they have a toy.
Establishing a decent recall
As early as 8 weeks old, you and your puppy should start to establish the ‘come’ command. Use a clicker or a verbal mark such as ‘yes’ to reinforce the command (refer to our clicker training article for more information).
- Ensure that you have some highly palatable food rewards on hand to reinforce the command.
- Whenever there is distance between you and your puppy call him by saying the word ‘come’ in a very encouraging tone of voice.
- As you do this, show the puppy the food reward in your hand and back away from the pup.
- Movement is motivating and by backing away you will draw the puppy in. Keep repeating the command and when the pup reaches you mark it with a click or verbal mark and immediately deliver your food reward.
Dogs of any age can learn this skill, and variety is important when reinforcing a skill as it ensures that returning to you when commanded is highly attractive to your puppy/dog. Mixing it up (using 1, 3, or 2 food rewards at time) and different types of rewards (e.g. cheese, apple, ZIWI Good Dog Rewards) makes the exercise super interesting for your dog!
Every time that there is distance between you and your puppy/dog take advantage of the situation and issue the ‘come’ command. This might be when you are outside toileting the puppy or when the puppy is at the other end of the yard investigating and exploring his new environment.
- Toss a food reward in one direction and tell your puppy to get it.
- As the puppy is retrieving the reward back away from him to create distance.
- As soon as the puppy eats the reward and turns towards you excitedly call him with the ‘come’ command while you are backing away from him.
- As he approaches you keep repeating the command to establish it.
- When the puppy gets to you mark with a click or verbal mark and reward with multiple rewards.
- Then throw a reward in the opposite direction and repeat the exercise as above.
- Complete 4 - 5 repetitions and complete this exercise regularly during the day.
Using a longline
Once you have established a solid recall you can start establishing the command away from home in more stimulating environments.
A longline is an intermediary between the lead and being able to run freely off lead. A longline is a 3-4m (10-13 feet) lead that you can clip onto your puppy or dogs collar. If introduced properly the longline can create a highly engaged puppy or dog who looks to you for instruction even while off-lead.
Take your puppy or dog for a walk to a quiet local park or sports field where there is minimal stimulation. As your dog’s recall becomes more established we incrementally take them out into the world to train in more stimulating environments.
- Walk your puppy/dog up and down maintaining engagement and looking to promote good leash manners such as walking beside you at heel on a soft lead.
- Once your puppy/dog is in an engaged learning state clip the longline on and remove the collar.
- Clipping the longline on before you unclip the collar and vice versa ensures that your puppy/dog is always tethered and therefore safe.
- Ask your puppy/dog for a sit and mark it with a reward. Then ask for a look (eye contact). This is called checking in and shows that your puppy/dog is looking to you for instruction.
- Once your puppy/dog has checked in with you release them with an ‘out’ command such as ‘finished’ or ‘release’.
- As soon as your puppy/dog gets 2-3m (6.5-10 feet) away from you place gentle pressure on the longline encouraging your puppy/dog back towards you and give the ‘come’ command at the same time.
- As soon as your puppy/dog turns mark it and as they approach you reward with multiple reinforcers.
- Follow steps 1-4, and then after 20 -30 seconds issue the ‘come’ command and encourage your puppy/dog back to you before marking and rewarding.
If you practice these steps of letting your puppy/dog run free on the longline for varying amounts of time (no longer than 30 seconds) before repeatedly issuing the ‘come’ command you are establishing an engaged and motivated puppy/dog who becomes accustomed to returning to you and looking to you for instruction (as opposed to a disengaged puppy/dog who takes off and does as he wishes).
Once the puppy/dog is responding well on the longline and is totally engaged you are ready to let the dog run free. Start by practicing your recall in a small fenced-off area (such as a friend’s fenced yard or a fenced tennis court) so that they are safe and you always have the element of control.
Start with some longline training to re-establish engagement and then ask for a sit and a check-in. Once you have your puppy/dog responding accordingly release them with your ‘out’ command and let them run free without any tethering. They are running free because they have earned it and you have put the time and effort into getting them to this stage.
Now call them with the ‘come’ command after 30 seconds again. If they return to you which we expect by this stage mark and reward with multiple rewards before releasing and repeating. If they don’t return to you, go back to your longline for a couple more sessions.
Take your time in developing these exercises and building up an engaged and motivated dog or puppy. Teaching recall can be a lot of fun and ultimately means you have a safe, responsive companion so it is well worth the effort!