How to Approach a Scared Dog - Learn the Treat/Retreat "Game"
Step 5 of 23 in the Dogly Anxiety Channel
with Ruby Leslie of WelfareForAnimals, Training Advocate

Help your fearful dog (or shy or nervous dog) feel comfortable interacting with people by using Treat/Retreat "game" skills...

Whether you're trying to comfort your own anxious dog in nervous-making situations or working with a new foster who's a shy dog or other dogs reacting fearfully around people, Treat/Retreat teaches an indispensable skillset.

Treat/Retreat does exactly what it says - it continually treats to allow your dog to physically retreat and make choices about being in comfortable range of people, allowing your dog to gain confidence and a feeling of safety.


The first skill or exercise I teach for fearful dogs

Treat/Retreat uses your fearful dog's natural flight response, gives them space and freedom to realize the choices are in their control, and rewards right choices to set them up for success going forward.

With this technique, you're not just throwing treats for positive association with your dog's trigger (new people, etc.) or to draw your dog closer, you're strategically tossing treats giving your dog an escape route and changing your dog's emotions to approaching you (or the new person/trigger).

image-panel**alt=image showing dog with text to not approach the dog, look at the dog, face the dog, or feed the dog**text=Wondering how to approach a fearful dog? The 4 things to remember are: 1) Do not approach a fearful or scared dog, let the dog come to you and work at the dog's pace. 2) Do not look at the dog in the eyes. 3) Do not face the dog directly, turn your body to the side and walk slowly in an arc. 4) Do not feed the dog, have someone the dog trusts feed them instead.

Okay, but tell me more...

This "game" does not put your dog in a position he or she isn't ready for, while also using desensitization and counter-conditioning to help change your dog's emotions from fearful to feeling okay/comfortable/even content when encountering a new person.

With Treat/Retreat, your dog is not in a position of feeling trapped, conflicted, fearful, or stressed when meeting a person - it provides your dog with choice. And choice makes all the difference in successful progress for your dog.



A couple things to remember as you work with your dog (or any fearful or shy dogs) using Treat/Retreat or really any exercise to help a dog feel comfortable and safe to interact with you/new people.

You may have run into trouble before trying to use treats to make interactions easier - a couple watch-outs to set you and your dog up for success:

  • Do not touch a dog unless the dog moves to you and nudges you or leans against you asking for pets. (Don't let a new/trigger person ever reach in toward your dog to pet or treat; it feels threatening to your already fearful dog and can have dangerous results and set back your comfort conditioning.)

  • Maybe in the past you tossed a treat, your dog moved in toward you (or the new person), grabbed the treat, and immediately starting barking/lunging even more. That happens when you've thrown the treat too close and your dog has done what many dogs do in that situation: gone past comfortable distance to stay under threshold in an impulse to get the treat, then immediately realized, "uh-oh, I'm really close to that scary threat!"

That's why the "retreat" part of this exercise is so important - your dog is always in charge of the choice and gradually controlling the distance that's comfortable to him or her.

Let's jump into learning and practicing Treat/Retreat with your dog. (I'm using "your dog" as shorthand but you can follow these steps with any fearful dog you're working with to gain confidence and ease, whether a new dog to your home, a foster, a dog in rescue, etc.)


Steps to practicing Treat/Retreat with your dog

1) Make sure you have the highest value and tastiest treats.

You're working with one of the strongest emotions - fear - so changing how your dog sees the world is a big ask. So bring out the best, most valuable treats in your dog's eyes. That means small, soft pieces of real chicken, deli meat, or training treats made of the same type of good, smelly stuff.

2) Sit on a chair, with your body and head averted from your dog, avoid direct eye contact. Watch your dog from the corner of your eye.

3) Have your dog off leash in a safe space with plenty of room to move around.

If you have to work outside and the space isn't enclosed, you can use a super long leash (15+ feet long) for safety but make sure it's not in the way or actively held. You want your dog to feel free to move around at will and feel in control of distance from trigger-people.

4) As your dog approaches, toss the treats past your dog so he/she has to go and turn to get the treat- your dog has to retreat!

Throwing past your dog keeps your dog at a comfortable distance and then the choice is his/hers to come back toward you for more treats/positive reinforcement for staying calm and getting used to choosing comfortable proximity to the trigger-person.

5) If your dog is too scared, then roll the treat gently, with your body still in that position.

Body language is an important communication from your dog during this entire process. A cowering dog is a clear sign that every movement on your part, including giving treats, has to be done as gently and quietly as possible.

6) Whomever your dog approaches (you or the new person/trigger), continue to do this.

7) Repeat, but decrease the distance between you and your dog so he/she still has an escape but can feel comfortable getting closer to you.

8) When your dog does not show any stress signals, move to the next stage.

By stress signals, we mean any dog behavior that indicates your dog's fear even in nuanced ways. Most dogs show a range of discomfort indicators. A frightened dog behavior can be obvious like aggressive-looking barking but also subtle like "whale eyes" (showing the whites) or tense-looking/not-soft eyes or ears or even rolling over on his/her back (which can be confused with an invitation to give a tummy rub). When your dog looks truly relaxed, you're ready to move on.


9) Walk VERY SLOWLY around and throw treats or roll treats past your dog when he/she approaches you.

10) If your dog is ok, continue. If your dog barks, growls or cowers sit back down and slowly go back to step 1 and work towards even getting to the edge of your chair and then squat and then stand- BE MINDFUL NEVER TURN YOUR BACK AWAY FROM YOUR DOG.

11) You can stand, then toss a treat past your dog and move away from your dog.

12) Continue to where your dog feels ok with your SLOWLY walking around the room.

13) Decrease the distance to where you toss the treat.

14) If at any time your dog sniffs your legs (or the trigger person), DO NOT TOUCH YOUR DOG, just gently mark it with a YES.

15) Even if your dog hangs nearby but does not come near, you can drop treats near the side of your leg to make your dog feel more comfortable being in your space.

16) At this point the session can be done, and can be continued at another time.

Keep in mind that gaining confidence and a feeling of safety vs fear is a gradual process and success on any given day doesn't always translate immediately to another day or another person. But you are on your way to a happier, more secure dog and you have experience with what works. Consistency and patience help your dog's newfound comfort become a habit!

Note: in any session - on this exercise or any other - if your dog gets tired, has had enough, or is becoming too nervous to learn... take a break, let it rain treats, and start fresh another day!

17) When you do continue the session again, you'll want to warm-up with a few easy trials in the first few steps.

Then you can work down to steps 10-16 where you walk around and help your dog feel safe to be near you or the other person.

After working with Treat/Retreat to help your dog feel comfortable getting in nearer proximity to people, if your dog is still scared being handled, you can always incorporate the Bucket Game to desensitize your dog to handling.

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Next up in the Anxiety Channel on Dogly

Now that you've learned how to use Treat/Retreat to help your fearful dog gain confidence and feel comfortable and safe, you're ready to continue on to other guides in the Anxiety Channel.

If you'd like to ask any questions about Treat/Retreat or any other training questions, hop over to the Anxiety Channel for answers from any of the Dogly Training Advocates who are all certified dog trainers in the Community discussion or start any of the step-by-step guides.

And if you ever need more personalized training help, please reach out!

Ruby Leslie of WelfareForAnimals

Training Advocate
Dogly loves Ruby because she brings her rescue experiences to our dogs - to increase our bond, decrease behavior issues.

Ruby guides you

New Dogs - Manners - Enrichment - Reactivity - Barking - Walking

Ruby is certified

Low Stress Handling - Fear Free Veterinary Professional - Fear Free Shelters - Shelter Welfare - Enrichment - & Canine Behaviour