Wondering how to train a dog to come when called? Here’s a little story to illustrate why doing so benefits everyone involved.
When my Border Collie, Mack, was around 2 years old, my family and I went hiking with him.
We were hiking in an area where dogs were allowed off-leash, so Mack happily bounded from the front to the back of the line of people, enjoying his freedom and keeping tabs on where each person was.
As we approached another young family with a puppy, I called Mack to my side. While we talked with the family, we let Mack and the puppy play together. The dogs quickly initiated a game of chase and took off down the winding trail — and were 100 yards away before we noticed they had run off.
The family had no way of getting their puppy back. He didn’t know “come” yet.
After a second of panic, I yelled, “Come!” and clapped loudly — something Mack had been taught to recall to. Nearly out of sight now, Mack heard me and quickly turned around to fly back down the trail toward me – with the puppy in tow.
Everyone was relieved when the dogs returned, tongues out and looking pleased.
Had I not spent time teaching Mack “come,” both dogs could have been lost. Had another dog been playing with the puppy and not known the command, that puppy’s day could have ended very differently.
“Come” saves dogs’ lives every year. This command allows you to give your dog more freedom. It prevents annoying keep-away games.
In short, it’s an important command that’s worth teaching to every dog.
How to Train a Dog to Come When Called
Have you ever asked, “How do I get my dog to come every time?”
Perhaps you’ve attended a basic obedience class and your dog even knows what “come” means, but when another dog, a person, smell or anything distracting is around, it seems like they suddenly have amnesia.
Teaching your dog a reliable recall starts with teaching the dog the meaning of the word “come” — but it doesn’t end there.
In this 4-part expert guide on how to train a dog to come when called, we’ll cover:
- How to build motivation
- How to get your dog to come when distracted
- How to transition to off-leash activity
- How to maintain the “come” command
Part 1: How to Build Motivation
Have you ever watched a dog come at lightning speed and wondered how that pet’s human managed to get that type of response from their dog?
The answer is motivation.
Training a dog to come when called starts with teaching the dog what the word “come” means and motivating your dog to want to do it. Conveniently, you can teach both at the same time.
How to Train a Puppy to Come to Their Name
If your dog ignores you when you say their name, the first place to start is to teach them to respond to their name. This is easy to do:
- First, grab some of your puppy’s kibble. Say your puppy’s name. If they look at you, give them a piece of food. If they don’t look, toss a piece of food by their paws.
- Next, practice saying your puppy’s name and tossing or giving a piece of food. Do this until they consistently look at you when you say their name before you offer food.
- Throughout the day, randomly say your puppy’s name. When they look at you, show them the piece of food. Hold it out to them until they walk to you.
- When they arrive, give them the food. After practicing this, your puppy should automatically start walking over to you when you say their name, even if you don’t show them a piece of food first.
- Once your puppy responds well to their name, try to avoid using their name when you scold them so they continue to pay attention when you say their name.
How to Teach What “Come” Means
Once your puppy knows to look at you or come to you when you say their name, it’s time to add the “come” command.
If you already use this with your dog, but they don’t respond to it well — or if you used it and then punished your dog when they came — then choose a different word to use, such as “here” or “beside.”
- First, recruit at least one friend or family member to help you. Give each person some of your dog’s favorite treats, dog food or favorite toys (if your dog is hungry when you practice this, even better!).
- Have one person excitedly say your dog’s name and tell them, “Come!” As soon as your dog looks at them, the person should run away excitedly, waving their arms and laughing to get your dog excited.
- When your dog sees them and starts to chase after them, have your assistant praise your dog while they’re coming. When your pup catches up with them, they should offer several pieces of food, one piece at a time, while they hold onto the dog’s collar. If your dog likes toys better, have the person play a short game of tug with a toy after holding on to their collar for a couple of seconds.
- After your dog has been rewarded, have the person tell your dog, “OK!” to let your dog know they can leave now.
- Once your dog has been told “OK!” have the next person call your dog and run away excitedly.
- Practice this game with your dog until the dog comes even while you’re standing still and hiding the reward behind your back.
- At this point, you can also hide in easy-to-find locations and call your dog from there. Hiding helps your dog learn to look for you. Give your dog noise hints if they don’t find you quickly, though.
Part 2: How to Get Your Dog to Come When Distracted
If your dog won’t come when called outside but comes running during training inside, distractions are probably to blame.
Just because your dog knows what the word “come” means doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll do it around distractions. As with any skill, your dog needs to practice their recall around distractions to improve and be able to do it in harder settings.
How to Use a Long Leash
Treats are wonderful for motivating a dog to come, but what happens when your dog is more excited about chasing deer than they are about your treats?
Training your dog to come when called starts with training your dog to want to come, but you also need to teach your dog to come even when they don’t want to. A long leash works great for teaching this part.
- Buy a long leash that’s 20–50 feet long. For added safety, use a padded back clip harness to avoid any potential neck injuries.
- Grab your treats and hide them somewhere out of your dog’s sight — in a pocket or a treat pouch tucked under your shirt generally works. Your dog shouldn’t see any treats until after they’ve come to you.
- Make a list of distracting locations, starting with the easiest locations first. These might include your yard, your neighborhood, a field, a nearby park, a large pet store and a grassy area overlooking a local dog park. Don’t practice inside the dog park, though (for safety reasons).
- Put the harness on your dog and attach your long leash. At first, let your dog wander about 10 feet away and get slightly distracted by something. Clearly call your dog’s name and say, “Come!” in an excited tone of voice.
- If they come willingly, praise them and give them a couple of treats, one at a time, while holding on to their collar. After they finish the treats, tell them, “OK!” and let them go back to whatever they were doing before.
- If your dog doesn’t come the first time you call, immediately reel them in with the long leash. Calmly praise them for coming when they arrive, have them sit in front of you, hold their collar for a second, then release them by telling them, “OK!” Always act pleased that they came — even though you forced them — but don’t give any treats this time.
- After you release your dog, practice “come” several times around the same distraction until your dog comes to you willingly 5 times in a row.
- When your dog has mastered the command in the current location, move on to the next location on your list and practice “come” there with the long leash until they consistently do it. Gradually work through your list of locations until your dog comes to you in all the locations.
How to Teach a Dog to Come Without Treats
When your dog can come in a variety of locations around all types of distractions while on a long leash, it’s time to phase out your treats:
- Gradually increase how many times your dog must follow the command in a row before they receive a treat. For example, call your dog to you 3 times in a row, praising your dog each time that they come. After the third time, give them a treat also. As your dog improves, require that they come 5 times, 8 times, then 10 times before they receive a treat.
- Next, reward your dog with treats only for a “come” that they follow better than average. For example:
- Reward your dog when they run straight to you, but not when they walk over slowly.
- Reward your dog when they come immediately even though a new dog is approaching.
- Reward your dog for coming back while already running toward something in the opposite direction.
- Finally, don’t give treats regularly when your dog comes at this point, but occasionally surprise your dog with a couple of treats when they come. The periodic rewards keep the training fun for your dog, since they never know when there might be a treat involved. Imagine that your favorite dessert magically appeared in your refrigerator occasionally — wouldn’t you check your fridge more often and get a little excited every time you opened the door? If the dessert were always there, though, you would probably get tired of it, right?
Part 3: How to Transition to Off-Leash Activity
Are you wondering how to train your dog to come back when off the lead?
Once your dog can come while on a long leash in a variety of locations and around many different distractions, and you’ve phased out most treats, then it’s time to transition to an off-leash “come.”
Unfortunately, some dogs should never be let off a leash outside an enclosed area.
Here are a few reasons why your dog may not do well off-leash despite training:
- Your dog is highly prey-driven.
- Your dog is aggressive. Aggressive dogs should never be off-leash outside of a secure fence regardless of reliability.
- Your dog can run extremely fast — fast enough that they could be out of range before you could call them.
- Your dog is deaf and doesn’t have a vibration collar on that they have been taught to come in response to. A distracted dog might not look up to see the hand signal.
- You are near a road or another dangerous area. No matter how good your dog’s recall is, accidents happen, so avoid letting your dog off-leash near roads and other dangerous areas. Better safe than sorry.
Use Life Rewards When You Train the Dog to Come When Called
What if you could convince your dog that the best way to get to the squirrel that they are bent on chasing is by coming to you first?
In dog training, teaching your dog to do one thing to receive something else afterward is called the Premack’s Principle, and it’s a wonderful part of teaching your dog to come reliably.
- Set up your training environment so that something your dog loves is just out of their reach while they’re on the long leash. To prevent being pulled over, give your dog only about 20 feet of the leash, but have the temptation be about 25 feet away. If you have a lot of squirrels in your backyard, choose a tree with a squirrel in it. You can also set dog-safe food at that distance, have a friend stand at that distance or position yourself that far from a friend’s friendly dog — if your dog gets along well with other dogs.
- Clip your long leash to your dog and say, “OK!” When your dog gets about 10 feet away from you, heading toward the temptation, quickly tell your dog, “Come!” before they hit the end of the leash.
- If your dog immediately turns toward you and comes, praise them, give several treats and quickly say, “OK!” When you release them, walk with them toward the temptation so they can reach it and enjoy the reward of pestering a squirrel or greeting a friend.
- If your dog doesn’t come and tries to get to the temptation first, they will hit the end of the leash without reaching it. Give them 2 seconds to realize what happened and let them correct their mistake and come to you instead. If they don’t come to you, reel them in with the long leash.
- Once they come to you, willingly or not, tell them, “OK!” after they sit down. Don’t give any treats this time. After you release them, instead of letting them get to the temptation as a reward, when they get about 10 feet away, call them again.
- Repeat letting them get 10 feet away and then calling them and reeling them in if necessary. Do this until they come willingly before they hit the end of the leash.
- When your dog comes willingly, praise them, give them treats and, this time, let them reach the temptation after being released.
- Practice this training in your current location around the same temptation until your dog comes to you first, before trying to get to the temptation. When your dog consistently comes to you around that temptation, choose a new location and a new temptation just out of their reach to practice around.
When you train a dog to come when called, always use lots of praise, as seen in this video:
Make Things Weightless
Once your dog responds well to “come” with a long leash on, it’s time to make the leash less noticeable and add distance.
- Buy a lightweight 50-foot leash that easily slides through grass.
- A climbing accessory rope and a small metal clip also work for this. Look for rounded rope that has a core in the middle and a sheath on the outside. Picture a full-sized climbing rope — the accessory rope should look like a very thin, small version of that. Choose the smallest rope size you can hold in your hands without getting rope burn, with a weight rating that’s greater than how hard your dog can pull.
- Attach the new long lead to your dog’s harness and practice with the lightweight rope in a variety of distracting locations. Practice letting your dog get farther away before calling them back. Try to keep them from feeling the leash tug — unless you must reel them in due to disobedience.
- Once your dog is coming well from farther away without needing to be reeled in often, if it’s safe to do so, let the end of the leash drag on the ground while you walk around. Occasionally tell your dog to come. If your dog doesn’t come at any point, calmly go over to the end of the dragging leash, pick it up and reel your dog in until they’re in the area where you originally called them from.
- While practicing, if your dog comes to you while you’re walking around without being called, offer praise and a treat for the automatic check-in. By doing this, you’re building your dog’s natural desire to stay with you and keep their focus on where you are while off-leash.
- When your dog always comes immediately while on the long leash, pays attention to where you are without being told and periodically comes over to you on their own, unclip the long leash and attach a short 6- to 10-foot lightweight drag leash to them.
- Practice with the short drag leash on. If your dog disobeys your “Come,” calmly walk over to them, step on their leash, pick it up and lead them back to where you originally called them from. Once there, clip the long leash back on and practice your recall until they willingly come at least 5 times in a row. Once they willingly come again, you can go back to the short leash.
When your dog comes to you consistently while wearing only a short, lightweight leash, it’s time to take the leash off.
When you do this, always be aware of cars and other dangers. No matter how good your dog’s recall is, avoid letting them off-leash around roadways and other potential dangers.
- Practice “come” in a variety of locations off-leash. Occasionally surprise your dog with a treat to keep things fun, but always make sure the treat is a fun surprise and not a bribe that they can see so your dog isn’t dependent on the reward.
- If your dog doesn’t come at any point, calmly walk over to them and lead them back to where you called them from. Have your dog sit, clip on the long leash and tell them, “OK!” to release them again. When they’re a few feet away and distracted again, call them back to you, reeling them in if necessary. Repeat the training in the same location until your dog comes willingly 5 times in a row.
- If possible, practice several times over the next 2–4 weeks around the same distraction from before. Do this until your dog consistently comes around that distraction every time while off-leash.
- Whenever you find a distraction that your dog does not come well around, practice recall on the long leash around that distraction until your dog is reliable once more.
Part 4: How to Maintain the “Come” Command
If you’ve said, “My dog won’t come to me anymore,” you’re not alone.
After spending a lot of time and effort teaching your dog to come for their safety, you can find it quite discouraging when your dog’s recall starts to disappear.
There are a couple of reasons why a recall can get worse with time — and there are ways to prevent that from happening.
To maintain a recall:
- Avoid punishment for coming.
- Stay consistent.
- Refresh the training.
Avoid Punishing Your Dog for Coming
Have you ever told your dog to come — and when they arrived you locked them into a crate, bathed them, forced a pill down their throat or did something else unpleasant to them?
If so, your dog probably thinks you were punishing them for coming. So the next time, they may stay away.
Or have you ever told your dog to come, watched while they ran after a squirrel for 5 minutes and, when they finally did come, scolded them for not coming sooner?
If so, you punished your dog for coming to you, even though you intended to punish them for avoiding you 5 minutes earlier.
It’s all about timing — the punishment came when your dog arrived instead of while your dog was running off.
- There will be times when you need to call your dog for unpleasant things, for their safety and yours. If you call your dog away from something dangerous, praise them enthusiastically and reward them with treats or toys when they arrive. Once they’re safe, practice with lots of rewards several times in a row to convince them that “come” is still normally something wonderful.
- If you regularly need to call your dog to you for something unpleasant, teach different commands or get your dog and lead them to where you need them to go. When I need my dogs to come inside the house, for example, I call, “Inside.” If they don’t listen, I go to them and we practice the command with a long leash until they respond to it well again. Whenever it’s time to leave the park, I say, “Let’s go!”
If you don’t mean “come” when you say it, your dog won’t take you seriously.
When you use this command, be prepared to enforce it if your dog disobeys. That usually means going to get your dog and bringing them to where you called them from, or having an impromptu training session with a long leash.
Try to be as consistent in real life as you are during training sessions.
Refresh the Training
At almost 12 years old, my Mack has started to forget some of his training. When your dog gets rusty with their training, it’s time to give a refresher course.
When Mack needs this, I dig out my 50-foot leash, grab several treats, go somewhere distracting and practice his recall several times for a couple of months.
Mack gets excited about this, his focus on me improves and he is reminded that “come” is not an optional command — and not one that he can obey at the pace of a snail.
Final Thoughts on How to Train a Dog to Come When Called
When you’re teaching and maintaining this command, remember to be consistent, make things fun and always be careful and follow local laws when letting your dog off-leash.
Enjoy your dog’s newfound freedom and the many adventures you will have together now!