Dog Training Tip: Training Come

Training your dog to come when called makes life with a dog much more enjoyable, but it is also a skill that could save your dog’s life some day. Here are a few tips that you may find helpful. This is not a comprehensive set of instructions to teach a recall, but some simple tips that can improve your recall training and, as a result, your dog’s performance.

  1. Avoid repeating the command if your dog is not doing the behaviour. If you continue to say “Come….Come….Come” then you are likely making the word meaningless to the dog who has not fully learned what the word “come” means; or, your dog is learning that “Come-come-come” means come to you; or you are teaching the dog that he/she does not have to come when you ask the first time.
  2. Set your dog up to succeed. Don’t make it too hard for your dog. Your dog might be sniffing something AWESOME and it might be really hard to draw your dog’s attention away. If it’s a difficult situation for your dog, then move closer to your dog. Or remove the distraction.
  3. Start off being a “vending machine” then become a “slot machine” that pays out really well sometimes. This means that you want to start off with a high rate of reinforcement (the dog gets something the dog likes every time you call the dog to you) until you reach the desired level of performance. Then you gradually fade the reinforcements for the behaviour at a rate that maintains the level of performance you desire. And you fade the reinforcements gradually in an unpredictable pattern — like a slot machine.
  4. Use the power of the Premack Principle in your training. This is basically using what the dog wants to do as the reward for doing what you want the dog to do. If you want your dog to leave the fun in the backyard to come into the house where you are, why not use a chance to go back and play as the reward for coming to you. You may want to start this by calling the dog to you, pop a super yummy piece of food in your dog’s mouth, and then, as a bonus, let the dog leave you and go back to the fun.
  5. Never tell your dog to come to you for something the dog will not like. If you want a dog to repeat a behaviour (e.g. coming to you), then you want the dog to learn that the behaviour (coming to you) made a good thing happen immediately after. If you want your dog to come to you for a reason that the dog is not going to like (and if you are working on improving the dog’s recall), then insert a good thing right after the recall, and try to include a bit of time or a few other events in between you calling the dog and the “thing the dog is not going to like” (e.g. a bath, nail trim, leaving the fun).
  6. Don’t lump your training. If you are working on improving your dog’s recall (coming to you when you called), be sure to reinforce the dog for the recall within 3 seconds and don’t insert other commands before you give the reinforcement for the recall. For example, if you call your dog to you but then ask the dog sit before you give the piece of food, your dog will understand that the food is for the sit, not for coming to you. If you want to improve your dog’s recall and train your dog to sit after your dog comes to you (or if you have a rule that the dog must sit before getting a piece of food) then try giving two pieces of food: one for the recall and one for the sit. After your dog’s recall is improved to a level of performance and reliability you desire, you can gradually fade out the food reinforcement immediately after the recall and wait for the sit before you give the treat.
  7. Use a longer leash to train a recall. Remember, the leash is a safety line, not a fishing line. Set things up so your dog comes to you when you call, and use the long leash as the safety line to prevent your dog from running off, or if you have to use it to guide your dog away from something.
  8. Be sure you have your dog’s attention before you give the command.
  9. Never punish your dog for coming to you. See points 5 and 6. Even if you are frustrated that your dog did not come to you the first 20 times you called, or if your dog took off out of the house when someone opened the front door. If your dog comes to you, do not punish that. EVER.
  10. If your dog has learned to ignore the word “come” then pick a different word and start training all over from the beginning (using these tips as a guideline)
  11. LURE vs BRIBE vs REINFORCEMENT.  A reinforcement is something your dog likes/wants at that time. It might be food, toy, play, affection, attention, access to something. It’s the dog that decides if the thing is reinforcing or not. (NOTE: most dogs do not like pets on the top of the head, or rough/vigorous petting near the head or face. People may like it, but most dogs learn to tolerate it.).  To illustrate the difference between a LURE and a BRIBE, let’s use a piece of food as an example. If a dog is learning a new skill (or learning to perform with added level of difficulty), a piece of food can be used to lure the behaviour. For example, a piece of food in front of the dog’s nose can be used like a magnet to get the dog to move towards you. The food appears and the dog follows it and as a result, performs the behaviour you are trying to get. Once the dog has learned the behaviour you must fade the use of the food as a lure, otherwise it becomes a bribe. For example, if the dog has learned to come when called, and if the situation is not too difficult for the dog’s skill level, you should wait until the behaviour is completed before bringing out the food from your pocket or even putting it in your hand.  If you show the dog the food before the dog does the behaviour, then the food becomes a “bribe.”  It’s like saying to the dog “see this piece of yummy food I have in my hand? If you come to me you I will give it to you.” Instead, you want your dog to think “Hmmm, good things often happen when I come right after I’m called. Let’s see if the good thing happens again. Maybe it will be a really awesome thing like that other time.”

Happy Training!

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