Labrador Recall Proofing – Or How to Get A Really Reliable Recall


One part of Labrador recall training that is often skimmed over or missed out, is proofing.

To have a really reliable recall, you need to proof your recall training carefully, and that is what this article is all about.

When dog recalls are unreliable

Teaching your Labrador that ‘here’  or ‘come’  means he must run towards you, is relatively simple.

Or is it?

We can easily teach dogs to obey the recall in the safety and calm of the home or garden.

But labrador owners are often very upset and confused when the dog disobeys the recall signal when he is placed in a more distracting and tempting environment.

They cannot understand why he ignores the recall whilst he is playing with other dogs for example. The really want a reliable recall.

And they are worried that they have a ‘disobedient dog’.

In actual fact,  he is not disobeying at all,  he has not yet learned to generalize the command.

That is to say,  he does not understand that the command ‘come’  has the same,  in indeed any,  meaning in the new situation.

What is recall proofing?

The way we teach the dog to generalize is through a thorough system of ‘proofing’.

labrador retriever dogAnd the second and longest part of teaching the recall lies in this proofing process.

It is also sometimes referred to as dog distraction training.

Any good recall training program will include detailed instructions on proofing

Here is a quick summary of the basic principles.

Proofing your Labrador’s recall command

Effective recall proofing takes time.   It is not something that you can achieve in a few days.

To give you an idea of what is involved in proofing your Labrador’s recall, I suggest you start by making a couple of lists on a sheet of paper.   Divide your page into two columns.

  • Locations
  • Activities

You will need to make a list of the locations in which you want to be able to call your dog back reliably.

0001-152850752This will include the different places you like taking your dog to (eg the beach,  park, moors, etc)  and where he will be running free.

You will also need to list the different ‘activities’  that might distract him.

Such as people jogging, dogs running around, cyclists passing by, children playing,  etc.

Your next step will be to set up  a series of training exercises which introduce one distraction at a time at home.

Then ideally set up a similar exercise in each location on your list.

How to set up your dog to win the recall game

It is important to introduce distractions into your recall training at a low level to begin with and gradually increase their intensity

For example,  if you want to teach your dog to recall away from other dogs,  start by setting up an exercise where the other dog is sitting quietly on a  lead next to his owner.

Gradually progress to calling him away from a dog that is walking up and down with his owner,  and eventually to calling him away from playing with another dog.

Control the consequences of your dog’s behavior

You will need to make sure your dog cannot reward himself for disobeying you.

If you let him play with the other dog when you have called him back all your work will be undone.

You can use a long training lead to keep control over your dog during this process.

Don’t be afraid to get help with your dog’s recall

If you cannot find a way to set up these kind of exercises using friends and relatives,  you will need to pay a dog trainer to help you.

Use rewards effectively when teaching recall

Increase the level of difficulty of each exercise gradually and in stages and use powerful rewards until your dog is reliable in each exercise.

Training with treats  is not bribery or cheating.  It is an effective training tool.  Remember to decrease rewards gradually,  and never fade them out completely.

More help and information

Here are some more links to help you with your recall training

This article was written by Pippa Mattinson. Pippa’s recall training book Total Recall is a complete recall training programme for dogs and puppies. Designed to help any dog owner who wants to keep their pup safe, happy and well trained.

(paid link) You can buy Total Recall from Amazon by following this link(paid link). If you do, The Labrador Site will receive a small commission which is greatly appreciated and won’t affect the cost to you!

The Labrador Site Founder

Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.

She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program 

Pippa's online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website


  1. Hello, found this article great. Decided to make a start with my 2 year old lab x retriever, she comes ‘sometimes’, we live on seven acres with no fencing so she has free reign. For the most part when we call she comes, unless there’s a better offer like the neighbours goats etc. I started outside with your stage one, but once she knew I had treats she would NOT leave my side, what do I do?? I tried walking away but she would just follow me, I tried waiting til she gave up but she just waited too!

  2. We have a 4.5 month lab, George. He’s our first dog so went I to this as blind as a pair of bats.
    He’s beautiful and incredibly intelligent however recall….pah! Anything that moves he’s distracted by, leafs, cyclists, joggers and worst of all dogs. If there are none of these in sight his recall is perfect but like many others it seems, we loose him at the slightest distraction.
    He ran up to the wrong dog (who was on a lead)only this morning and with the owner barking demands at me because her dog would “rip him apart ”
    It made me realise that I can’t put him in a situation like being off lead if I can’t trust him. It’s not safe for him more than anything.

    We too have been to group training which was pointless and we have also had one-2-one sessions (which we actually disagreed with her techniques- one of which was to not say his name only for recall….trying not to say your dogs name is near on Impossible let alone letting every friend and family member to do the same!!)

    If it wasn’t for the hunting aspect I’d consider gun dog training him but as an absolute last resort.

    One thing we here ALL the time is “he’s still a puppy/don’t expect too much he’s doing really well for his age/mine still hasnt outgrown that stage and hes 6/ I remember those days”

    All of which don’t help unfortunately. Neither of us even pretend to know what to do besides continuously carry chicken, fish and kibble on us as rewards for coming back.

    We desperately need help with this before he gets himself really hurt.

  3. I have what I feel like is an odd question regarding my lab’s recall.

    We’ve been working through your book and she’s nearly perfect, with one really annoying exception. I really believe that she knows when I’m calling her away from something/someone/somewhere that she shouldn’t be. For example, a neighbor that likes dogs and will play with her, I recall, she comes then I release her to go say hi. The neighbor who is scared of dogs and she won’t be allowed to say hi to, I can only recall her if I notice the neighbor when she’s really far away…otherwise, all bets are off. Similarly, I can recall her from hunting moles in an open field where I can release her to go hunt more, but not from someone else’s yard, where, obviously, I can’t let her dig up moles.

    I have brought freshly roasted chicken, toys to tug on, acted like a nut…nothing works when she won’t be allowed to return.

    Any ideas?

    • Make sure you are using your cue in the same way/tone, maybe a whistle would help? If you’re only calling her away from the things you describe then she will learn that the cue predicts the neighbour etc., each time you call her from the situations you describe, make sure you do 10 recalls that aren’t about calling her away from something.

  4. I have similar problems with our lab mix. He’s 7 months old, fantastic, friendly and well behaved. He was the easiest puppy to train in every respect except for recall in distracting environments. When it’s just us in an off leash environment like a dog friendly nature trail or dog park, he never leaves our side and his recall is excellent. However, when he sees another dog or person for that matter – doesn’t really matter how far away they are, he’s gone – off to greet them without a backward glance. He ignores us completely and MUST go see them. I realize he’s still very much a puppy, and exceptionally friendly, but he has had a few close calls with dogs who are not a fan of puppies running up to them, even in friendly greeting. He actually started licking a dog in the face who was growling at him! I have been told by other dog owners that they had similar problems when their dog was young, and that it would come with age. He does go out with a dog walker and a large pack of dogs everyday for playdates while we’re at work, so he is very well socialized. He just seems to love everyone he meets! I would rather have my happy go lucky, well socialized pup versus a very nervous, anxious or aggressive one – so I am very happy in that respect, I’m just afraid he might someday become injured by another dog or worse.

  5. I am on my 4th lab, and this is the first one that is “too friendly”. She wants to greet and play with every person and every dog that she sees, no matter who/where. I have trained all 4 the same way and have had excellent results, but this one is just “too friendly”… Even if a dog is giving off very obvious, do not bother me, aggressive body language is fair game (in her mind) to attempt to get into a play session. All my training has only been using positive reinforcement, so I am very reluctant to use anything negative. But I have to do something since I can foresee the future accidents. She knocked someone in the knee the other day while she was playing with another dog, and that person felt that her knee was injured. So I have to work on this right away. Pippa, I’ll try your book, “Total Recall”, and hopefully that will give me a hand. If not, I’ll have to go to a local trainer. Unfortunately, I live in a very rural area.

  6. OK ,I know it isn’t for everyone but have you thought of going to gun dog classes in your region ,you don’t have to pick birds if that isn’t your thing .You could stick to training dummies and maybe eventually do working tests .It might satisfy their hunting instincts .One tip I have is always wear the same clothes and shoes for this activity ,mine know what is to follow and love the working side of it .

  7. This article about ‘proofing’ makes so much sense. Unfortunately for us, we didn’t know anyone we could ask to help us with this. We went to an obedience class with our puppy but it made matters worse – she got massively excited every time we went and just wanted to charge off to greet all the other dogs and people. The people who ran the class were clueless (we now realise – we’d never had a dog before so we trusted them), we got no advice on how to deal with the behaviour, we were just told to ‘keep her on a lead’. We just did not realise how vital it is to stop your dog from randomly socialising with every dog it meets. It can be a real problem if your friendly lab charges up to a nervous dog (ever noticed how they tend to belong to nervous owners too?). The owner starts shooshing, the lab gets excited and starts barking…. We then got a personal trainer in who did two one to one sessions with us and got much further, she’s now brilliant at home and very good on a lead, but training on walks with a long line meant she behaved as long as the line was on her (she knew we could get hold of her). The moment we took the line off… off she went on the hunt again and she charged off to meet every dog in sight. Finally in desperation we tried an E collar. It works, she usually behaves beautifully with it on and we barely need even to use the bleeps, but she is now becoming resistant on occasions. I read the above about Boris and my heart sank. Is Ellie going the same way? What can compete as ‘reward’ with the excitement of hunting, for an obessive hunter?

    • Hi there, and I am sorry to hear of your problems

      Recall issues are very common and very upsetting. There are no easy answers and it is quite difficult to get long term results with punishment, because it does not deal with the dog’s underlying motives.
      Successful recall training with a dog that has strong hunting instincts requires a combination of effective training and exercise management. Training on its own is not sufficient. Using a training lead without the dog becoming ‘aware’ of the source of your power is a tricky one but it can be done if used correctly from the beginning. Recall retraining can take a very long time when the dog has got into bad habits.
      My new book ‘Total Recall’ addresses these and other recall issues, and you might find it helpful. It comes out in July. In the meantime, your best bet is to find a really good local trainer that can help you on a regular basis for several months.