Come Command: What You May be Doing Wrong

Come Command: What You May be Doing Wrong

As a dog trainer, one of the most frequent complaints I get is owners who say  their dogs won’t come to them when they call them.  Many times owners inadvertently sabotage their well meaning intentions through actions misinterpreted by the dog. Here are some things you might be doing wrong and how to correct yourself:

1. Don’t use the dog’s name to mean come. 

Time after time I have observed clients repeating the dog’s name over and over again - “Bailey, Bailey, BAILEY!”... only to have the dog look up at them and then go about their merry business. The dog’s name is the attention grabber - the “huh” - if you will, whose purpose is nothing more then getting the dog to look in the caller’s direction.  To communicate effectively, follow up the “huh” with a “what”. The name has to be followed up with the command the owner wants the dog to respond to and that is to “come”.

2. The owner’s tone tells the dog he’s in trouble. 

In this scenario, the owner has a way of drawing out the dog’s name to give it a “when-you-get-over-here-are-you-going-to-get-it” tone of voice.  It sounds like “Baay - leeeee".. Always try to associate the dog’s name with something good so that when it comes time to call him, he won’t automatically try to avoid the person calling him. If the dog is doing something bad, say, “Hey!”, “Stop!” or my favorite “Aaach!”. Leave the dog’s name out of it if the dog needs to be reprimanded for something.  If the dog’s name is overused, the dog will “tune out” every time he hears his name being called.

3. The dog gets punished for coming.  

A dog is much less apt to come to anyone knowing punishment is waiting for him when he gets there. Many times after the owner has been shouting for the dog to come and the dog finally comes, the owner reprimands the dog several times because it did not respond after the first, second, or third time he had been called. In the future, the dog will remember it got punished the last time he went over to the owner and will be much more hesitant to respond to the command in the future.

4. The dog never learned what the word “come” means. 

We humans speak a language the dog does not understand.  If we rewarded a dog for coming every time we said “cheese doodles,” then he would come every time we said cheese doodles. The same principle applies to teaching dogs commands in foreign languages or by using hand signals without verbalizing the commands. The best way to teach a dog what the word “come” means is by using the word when the dog is on his way towards us under his own will. The perfect example would be playing a game of fetch with the dog. While the dog has ball in mouth, happily returning it and running towards us, use the word “come.” This way the dog will learn that coming means “to move towards us.”

This principle works in many other areas of dog training. If the dog is doing something cute or something we want to see more frequently, then by all means, call it something.  If the dog is lifting up a front leg, tell him to “shake.”  As the dog is jumping into the car, tell him to “jump.” If the dog is coming towards us, tell him to “come!” I once taught a Dalmatian to smile on command using this technique. Every time she would smile, I would give her a treat or lots of praise. Now all I have to do is say “smile!” and she gives me a hilarious grin. This is a great party trick. 

5. The commands are not consistent. 

In the doggie mind there is only black and white - there are no shades of gray. What this means is that one person in the household can’t say, “here boy” while another person says, “ get over here right now.” All commands should be as simple and precise as possible. One or two syllables are best. Remember, the dog does not understand our language.

6. The commands sound like requests. 

A command is a command. A command is not a request. Some people give commands with a pleading tone in their voices that says “Please, will you?” It sounds like “siiiiiiitttttt” or “coooommmmmeee.” For commands to be given effectively, they have to sound like what they are: commands. I tell owners to give commands like they were drill sergeants. For women it helps to lower their voices a few octaves. I also instruct owners to practice the come using different intensities in their voices: “come, COME, COME!” When an 18 wheeler is bearing down on the dog that is playing in the middle of the street, the owner is not going to use a conversational tone in their voices. The owner will instinctively yell, “COME!” as in “come NOW!” If the dog has been conditioned to a command given with different inflections, the dog will not be alarmed or confused when he hears it.

7. The dog is given no praise for coming. 

Coming is the one command that owners should be completely ecstatic for the dog executing. When I train people to train their dogs, I tell them to throw up their arms, yell “Whoopee!” or “Hooray!”  and shower the dog with tons of love and affection. For people who are incapable of showering the dog with such an enthusiastic greeting, then offer the dog a food reward for coming. If the dog is greeted with no response or a very unenthusiastic response, why should the dog listen or come at all?

8. The command is not reinforced. 

To teach a pup to come, I first teach him to sit and stay.  While the dog is on leash, I tell him to come, tug slightly on the leash and give him a treat when he walks a few steps towards me. I will also enthusiastically praise the dog verbally.  Once the dog will come from the end of a six-foot leash, then I will tell him to come while being attached to a ten foot leash.  The leash gets longer and longer until he will come from across the yard on-leash.  Now if the same dog were 50 feet away off-leash and I told him to come, I seriously doubt that he would.  To expect a dog to come from a very short distance on-leash, to a very long distance off-leash would be the same as going from the second grade to getting a master’s degree.  Once the leash is removed, there is absolutely no control over the dog.  If the dog is off-leash and the dog does not respond after the first “come”, then I tell the owner to just go get the dog.  If the owner repeats the command over and over, it does nothing but teaches the dog to ignore the owner until after the third or fourth request.  We want the dog to respond after the first request.

 In advanced training, I teach owners to give commands with their backs turned away from the dogs because it this is more realistic that the dog will not be facing the owner when it hears a command, unless of course, the dog has eyeballs growing out the back of its rectum.  If the dog will respond to a command with the owners back to them, they are more likely to come from across the park. 

9.  Coming means play time is over.  

Imagine the dog were outside at a park or on the beach romping and playing with all of his doggie friends. The owner told the dog to come, it was put on-leash, put into the car and driven home. What message does this convey to the dog? Coming to my owner means the party’s over.  In the dog’s mind he will be much less inclined to come the next time he is called by the owner. To get around this I will tell the owners to call the dog several times during a play session, tell him to sit, give him a treat, and then say “Go play!” This way the dog knows that coming does not necessarily mean we’re going home.

Come is not a command to expect consistent results when the dog is off leash. If it is taught, repeated, praised consistently with endless enthusiasm and frequency by the owner, it can be mastered. Once the dog has learned what is expected of him, the dog is pleased knowing he is pleasing the owner. Every time the dog is instructed to come, the dog is given a choice. Through proper training, the dog will learn that coming to the owner is the best choice.

Article submitted by: © Claire Newick RVT (Biography & Additional Information)

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