Dog training: Come

Call your puppy, “Rover, Come Here,” praise it each step of the way, take hold of its collar and scratch its ear with one hand, and give it a treat with the other. It’s as easy as that! Most puppies will approach their owners at the drop of a hat. Ordinarily, most three-month-old pups will approach virtually anything that has a pulse. A typical Labrador pup, for example, would run up and introduce itself to a fallen leaf.

Why praise and rewards work

Praising your pup is common human courtesy, in appreciation of the common canine courtesy of complying with your wishes. During early training, it is important to praise your pup all the time it approaches, because a young puppy may not come all the way to claim its reward. For example, if your pup comes 90% of the way and then becomes distracted, it will receive no reward for 90% of good recall. And 90% isn’t that bad of a score. In fact, human nature being what it is, most likely the owner will become irritated and reprimand the pup when it arrives. Now, most puppies have a simple solution for this dilemma: “What if I just don’t come at all!” The pup came most of the way when called, and it deserves to be rewarded most of the time. Do not think of a puppy-recall as an all-or-none response with the idea of reserving the reward for when the puppy gets to you. Instead, especially reward your puppy’s first step towards you, and then continue to reward the pup all the time it approaches. Then, the next time, perhaps it will come 95% of the way. Hey! We’re getting there!

At some time in its life, your puppy will: 1) start towards you but run off when it sees a distraction, 2) run off when you reach for its collar and 3) not even bother to come at all. Later on in training, we will reprimand the pup if it tries to run off, however, punishing the pup during early training would only decrease its tendency to come when called. Also, it would be unfair to reprimand the pup for doing something wrong, if we have not previously praised the pup for doing what is right. And so, for the meantime, praise your puppy all the time it is headed in your direction. If the pup does not come or if it reverses direction mid-recall, immediately get the pup’s attention by shouting its name, and then quickly run away from the pup. Immediately begin praising your pup as soon as it is headed towards you once more.

Why give the pup a treat? Well, eventually, we want to consider a recall an all-or-none response and the food treat represents the icing on the cake – a special reward for your pup once it has completed the entire exercise. Since your pup receives the treat immediately after you have taken hold of its collar, in no time at all, it will eagerly anticipate you grabbing its collar. This in itself is an invaluable exercise. Repeatedly offering a food treat each time you take your pup’s collar makes for an infinitely ‘grabbable’ dog. One day, you may need to grab your pup in an emergency. Should this happen, your pup will love it.

Puppies are easy to train to come when called. But that’s not the point. Your mission, Mr. Phelps, is to get this pup thoroughly trained before it reaches adolescence and starts training you. A growing puppy adds numerous, new and annoying improvisations to the training arena as it embarks on a predictable developmental course through adolescence. One problem may lead to another. At first, the pup starts to duck its head, to balk and to flinch as the owner reaches for its collar. The pup is eager to approach the owner but does not want the owner to take its collar. This is just the tip of the iceberg, an important harbinger of more serious problems to come. Next, the pup will run up to the owner but will not come closer than arm’s reach. Instead, it scurries around at a distance playing ‘catch me, if you can’. And eventually, the pup does not bother to come at all. Why? Largely because, in the space of only two or three months, the owner has efficiently and effectively, albeit inadvertently, trained the pup not to come when called. How? The owner has unknowingly fallen prey to the very human foible of punishing the dog when it comes. Not only does the pup not want to approach the owner, it dare not.

How to train your dog NOT to come

Training a dog not to come when called does not necessarily entail reprimands or physical punishments. Luckily, few people would do something that silly. Unfortunately, some do. Some owners call the dog to ‘express disapproval’ if, for example, they encounter a wet spot in the rug or the confettied remains of a telephone directory. It doesn’t take the brains of Einstein for a dog to learn when its owner calls with maniacal overtones, it is seldom in the dog’s best interests to go and see what’s up. Usually though, owners punish their dog for coming when called in more insidious and pernicious ways. There are two common scenarios.

      • The owner calls when the puppy is having a fine old time playing in the park or sniffing in the yard. The puppy obediently and trustingly bundles up to its owner, who snaps on the leash and takes it home or brings the dog indoors. Now, just a couple of canine neurons are more than sufficient for the pup to put two and two together and realize “Puppy Come Here” signals the end of an otherwise extremely enjoyable play session. Hence the pup learns whereas it is fine to periodically check in and visit the owner most of the time when playing off-leash, it must avoid its owner at all costs should it hear the dreaded words, “Puppy Come Here.”
      • The puppy is contentedly sacked-out, snoozing on the rug in front of a blazing fire, and the owner says, “Puppy Come Here.” The puppy interrupts its peaceful slumber to see what the owner wants, and the owner picks it up and puts it in the kitchen or shoos it outside into the cold before leaving for work. The pup quickly learns that approaching the owner at home when they say “Puppy Come Here” usually heralds eight hours of excruciating boredom and confinement to the kitchen or a whole day sitting on the porch in the freezing rain.

NEVER call your dog to punish it! If for example your dog soiled the house in your absence, it’s too late for punishment now. Your dog cannot possibly associate the delayed punishment with the crime, but it will definitely associate the punishment with approaching its owner, i.e., you! Just put your dog outside while you clean up the mess. And in the future, until you have housetrained your dog, don’t let it have the run of the house when you are not at home. If you do call your dog and punish it, not only will you still have to housetrain your dog, but also you will have to repair your dog’s damaged confidence and retrain it to come when called.

NEVER use “Come Here” as a control-command to get the dog’s attention to stop it playing or investigating, until you have practiced and perfected reliable, integrated recalls. Until then, use “Sit” or “Down” – much simpler emergency control commands – and then say “Come Here” once you know you have the dog’s attention (because it is sitting). A reliable recall is one of the most difficult commands to maintain, whereas “Sit” and “Down” are the two easiest.

NEVER call your dog to confine it. Instead use a place-command, such as “Go to your Crate,” “Go to your Mat” or “Outside.”

Excerpted from How to Teach a New Dog Old Tricks, by Ian Dunbar.

Ian Dunbar is a veterinarian and animal behaviorist, founder of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and the author and star of numerous books and videos on dog behavior and training. He lives in Berkeley, California with his wife, trainer Kelly Dunbar, and their three dogs. The Dunbars are contributing editors to DogTime.