Thursday, January 27, 2011

Dogs: How to teach the "Come" command

Would you come to me if I was raving like a crazy man? May I suggest probably not.

Possibly  the most important command to teach your dog, and among the first, is to "Come" when you call. It will at some point save your pet's life.

Thankfully, puppies learn their new names quickly. It doesn't hurt that when we first start using our puppy's name it is with unbridled joy. It's completely natural, because they fill our hearts with love. Simon had his name down pat in just a few days.

Knowing their name is stage one. When you say it you have their attention. Then you have to teach them the actions required when using other words with it, such as "Come". 

So what are the fundamentals to successfully teaching "Come"?

First, only teach commands when you are capable of enforcing the desired response. In the case of "Come" this means having the dog on a leash or long lead. You have to be able to make the dog (gently) come to you when the command is given. Regardless if the dog comes to you under their own volition, or if you have to pull the dog to you, praise exuberantly. Go over the top. Associate a successfully completed "Come" with "I made my master happy." You can even almost make it a game.

Second, remember to always give your command "in full". Puppies only know doggie language so we have to teach them ours from scratch. A full command consists of the dogs name, followed by an instruction. "Simon, sit", or "Simon, come". Think of the conversation this way: "Simon!"… "Yes, what do you want?". You have to finish the sentence for your puppy to know what to do.

Third—and this is difficult—watch your language (verbal and body) in using the word "Come" when your dog has done bad, or didn't listen to you. A negative reaction will reinforce in the dog that "Come" means "I'm in trouble". They may come to you cowering, but that is far from the desired result. The alternate response is to either ignore you, or worse yet run away.

When Simon wouldn't come right away I would calmly walk over to him, grab him by his collar, and walk him over to where I had originally given the "Come" command. Don't continually repeat the ignored command—act. End result? Master gets his way, so why resist?

Say whatever you want when you're doing it. For example "Simon, Come (you [insert expletive here])" but say it in a voice that belies what you mean. You get to vent, and the dog won't associate the term "Come" with anger and punishment. I know it's difficult, but you must master it.

Remember, if your dog has done something wrong, you can only effectively punish if you catch them in the act. Their long-term associative skills are not like a human's. Cause and effect have a short connection time in our four legged friends.

Some trainers suggest using treats to "bribe" your dog to come. Anyone who reads my blog knows my opinion on treats as success rewards. Sadly, in some difficult cases they may have a (limited) use. I would suggest interspersing the treats with lots of praise. The treat should be a rare incentive, as opposed to the reason for obeying. And it should be stopped as soon as possible and replaced only with praise.

Teaching an effective "Come" response will help keep your dog safer. And as importantly, it will give you peace of mind. Less time worrying when you're out in public gives you more time to enjoy each other's company. 

Isn't that really what our friendship is all about?

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