Having a reliable recall ("come") is one of the most important skills we want our dogs to have. Our house is a constant flurry of opening and closing doors and gates so we need to have our dogs stay home and come back when called.
There are three basic steps we follow:
1. We make being with us more fun than any other activity. (see #3)
We don't call the dog to us if we are going to do something unpleasant.
We just go get the dog instead.
2. We start small--first call within the same room, then from a room that is out of sight,
then from the back yard, then the front yard and
finally in a strange place. But we almost always use a leash in a strange place.
3. We always, always, always reward come with the dog's favorite food.
Once we have dozens of really good, quick responses then we
might be able to get away with a lot of praise and a good rub occasionally.
When Paisley first arrived she didn't want to come when called even from the back yard.
She just seemed unsure--like she couldn't figure out what we were asking.
We started small and in a matter of weeks we have gone from having to go outside to bring the dog in, to being able to call her from way across the street.
We won't trust her for long periods of time off-leash--at least not until we have a couple of years of reliable recall behavior.
Retrievers are one of the easiest breeds to train to come. It's instinctive for them to return to their people. Our beagle, Molly was a completely different experience. Frankly she was torture in the recall department. Her brain and ears turned off completely once she put her nose to the ground. We made a lot of progress with some intensive work but we never really could trust her off-leash.
Some trainers don't use the "come" word until they have a really reliable recall. Some use a different word for a formal "come" call--maybe 'here' or a different version of the dog's name--and they only use that 'official' word for a recall once the dog comes reliably. We generally just use the dog's name because we aren't that fancy and we aren't training for a competition.
When teaching come we use our dog's name and lots of clapping, whistling/attention-getting noises until she comes. If we can see that she isn't coming right away we stop calling and physically go get her. And then we offer lots of petting/ear scratches even though we had to get her...
We want to make being with us more fun than sniffing the neighbor's grass. That involves really good food (raw beef or lunch meat is Paisley's fav...) or sometimes a game of fetch with a ball.
We always, always reward come. Even when it is a deeply ingrained behavior, we always make coming to us worth the effort. We can fade the reward for most other training but for come we almost always use a food reward. Sometimes that means carrying on a long stream of "good job, good boy, way to go..." until we get to the kitchen where the treats wait.
Yesterday I took Paisley to a soccer practice and she hopped out of the car without her leash. She started to wander away to sniff the exciting new smells all around us. I felt a moment of panic but when I called she turned and trotted to me and waited while I put on her leash.
We are well on the way to a great recall!