As discussed in an earlier post[i], there are several skills that dogs and owners must learn in order to live safely in our cities and towns. The first key survival skill to teach a dog is to come when called. This is needed when your dog is off leash and is getting himself into some sort of trouble, when you need him to come inside the house, when he’s annoying the neighbors, when you’re ready to leave the dog park, when someone leaves the gate open, etc. It will help you to avoid emergency trips to the veterinarian, wildlife encounters or visits from your local animal control officers.
Ideally, the dog should know his or her name. This is an important component of all training, simply because its an attention getter. Calling a dog by his name lets him know that he should stop what he is doing and pay attention to you.[ii] Unfortunately, this isn’t something that can be effectively taught in a shelter environment, where I work with most of my canine friends, simply because we don’t have the dogs long enough and because most owners will change their pets’ names upon adoption. So, we have to concentrate on teaching “come”.
The first step is to have the dog in a controlled area, such as a fenced yard or large room, that is large enough for him to have some distance from you without being out of sight or earshot. You can put a long line on him to keep him from going too far away, if needed.
The next step is to make the dog want to approach you. There are a lot of things you can do, depending on the dogs’ preferences. Remember, the key thing is to have him enjoy being with you. The most important aspect of this is to never, ever, punish your dog after calling him to you. Never do anything to make him associate “come”, or being called to you, with any negative action on your part[iii]. This must be all positive training. So do something that makes him run up to you: bounce his favorite ball, show him a high value treat, get all excited and goofy, or run away so he’ll chase you. It really doesn’t matter what you do, as long as the dog happily runs up to you. While he’s doing so, clearly say “Come”. And then reward him when he gets to you, with a treat, toy or whatever you used as an incentive.
He’ll learn fairly quickly that “come” means good things happen when you call him to join you. Once he’s gotten that message, you can gradually reduce the stimulus that you’d been using, and gradually change the reward to simple praise and a show of affection. You can also add begin to add distractions, such as changing the environment that is used for training, scattering toys around, having other dogs nearby, etc.
Keep the training sessions short, just a few minutes at a time several times each day. This will keep him interested and provide all the reinforcement that he needs to develop and retain this skill.
Summing it up:
- Never ever use a punisher for coming. Do not call him to you when you are angry or feel that you need to correct his behavior. The training must always have a positive reinforcer.
- Figure out what he would value (treats, play, chasing you) and use that as the reinforcement for coming. Offer that to him as a reward.
- Once he reliably comes when called, you can reduce the reinforcer and substitute praise and affection.
- When he reliably comes to you when you call him, you can add in distractions such as other locations, or the presence of other people and dogs.
Although it isn’t a survival skill, it may help to add a “sit” command when he comes to you, to avoid having him jump up excitedly or do some other undesirable behavior. Adding a “sit” enables you to keep him under control while leashing him up for a walk, for taking him home from the park, etc. More on that later.
[ii] Meyers, H. (April 13, 2021) How to Teach Your Dog Their Name. AKC. Retrieved from https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/how-to-teach-dog-name/
[iii] Miller, P. (2008) The Power of Positive Dog Training. Indianapolis, IN. Wiley