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Treat and Retreat Game - For Shy and Fearful Dogs | Pupford

December 28th, 2023

Filed under Training

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It is not uncommon for some dogs to be shy or fearful when meeting new people. This could be due to a lack of proper socialization, being in a new or unfamiliar environment, or other situations that bring upon feelings of stress and anxiety.

As a professional dog trainer, one of my go-to ways for working with fearful dogs is by implementing the Treat and Retreat Game.

In this blog post, we will discuss what the game is, the benefits, and step-by-step instructions so you can use this to help your own shy and fearful dog.

  1. What Is The Treat and Retreat Game?
  2. What Are The Benefits of The Treat and Retreat Game?
  3. What You Will Need to Play The Treat and Retreat Game
  4. Step-by-Step Instructions For The Treat and Retreat Game
  5. Additional Tips

WHAT IS THE TREAT AND RETREAT GAME?

dog that is shy and fearful

The Treat and Retreat Game is a positive reinforcement training game coined by dog trainer Suzanne Clothier in the early 1990’s.

This is a dog-centric training technique that helps fearful dogs build confidence around new people and in new environments.

This game gives the dog control over how much interaction they are comfortable with and allows them to retreat - create distance between them and whatever they are scared of, at any time.

As a dog trainer, I have used this technique while working with dogs in shelters and rescues who were too afraid to exit their kennels or approach me, as well as with dogs displaying fearful aggression such as barking, lunging, or growling at strangers.

WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF THE TREAT AND RETREAT GAME?

Builds Confidence

The Treat and Retreat game empowers your dog by allowing them to choose how much interaction they are comfortable with. But also rewards them for choosing to back away when they are uncomfortable. This is very important, especially for dogs who may be displaying fear aggression behaviors.

Learn more about fear aggression, also known as a Fight Response, in our article about the four fear responses in dogs!

Avoids Bribery

This technique is specifically designed to help the dog choose to move away when they are uncomfortable and avoid bribery.

This technique reinforces the dog twice, once when allowing the dog to retreat from the scary new person or thing and then again with the treat. Because food is a primary reinforcer for dogs and they need it for survival, we can run into the problem of accidentally bribing them to approach us in exchange for a high-value treat.

This especially occurs when they are in a new environment such as a shelter, and they are unsure how reliable resources will be.

Instead, this technique teaches them that they still get the high-value reward, even if they choose not to approach or interact with us.

Strengthens The Bond With Your Dog

By allowing your dog the choice to approach or avoid strangers you are building their trust and strengthening the bond between you.

Dogs are more likely to be confident if they know they can rely on us to help them make good choices. If we were to force our dogs to greet strangers or to be in situations that make them uncomfortable we are only going to exacerbate their fear and anxiety.

Related: Fear, Anxiety, and Stress (FAS) in Dogs

WHAT YOU WILL NEED TO PLAY THE TREAT AND RETREAT GAME

dog that is nervous around people

High-Value Treats

Have a variety of high-value treats on hand. This should be something your dog rarely gets that is extra smelly and delicious. Some great options are the Pupford Salmon Jerky, deli meat, hot dogs, or string cheese. Just make sure you are giving them small pieces at a time.

A Safe Space

Ideally, you would like to start this exercise in a space your dog feels comfortable in. But if they are still acclimating to a new environment this may be difficult. Just make sure there is enough space for your dog to retreat, it is free of potential obstacles or hazards and is as quiet and calm as possible.

Helpers

If you have recently brought home a new pup and they are fearful of you, you can play this game without a helper initially to first help them build confidence and trust with you. If your dog is afraid of strangers or other people in the home you will need a helper. First start with someone with your dog is semi-comfortable with or is at least used to them being around the house, and then build up to people they have never seen before.

STEP-BY-STEP INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE TREAT AND RETREAT GAME

dog sniffing for treats

Now that you know what the Treat and Retreat Game is and what you will need to get started, let’s get to the nitty gritty - how to play the Treat and Retreat Game!

  1. Start by standing or sitting in front of your dog, this can be you or the helper depending on the fear and situation. For dogs who are extremely fearful or shut down, sitting on the floor is best because it comes across as less threatening. Simply ignore your dog, do not stare at them or reach for them, and sit facing sideways to them.
  2. Toss high-value treats one at a time behind your dog. This allows your dog to move away from you or whatever they deem a threat and still get the reward. This avoids bribery as we discussed previously and creates a positive association. This is also intrinsically rewarding since all fearful dogs want is more distance from what they are afraid of.
  3. When your dog looks back at you, toss another treat to them or behind them.
  4. Continue to do this as they slowly move closer to you and continue to reward them by tossing treats behind them. This allows the dog to be in control of how close they get to you or the helper, which helps build confidence.
  5. Keep a close eye on your dog’s body language, if they are showing any signs of discomfort you may need to slow down the process, create more distance, or end the session for the day.
  6. Remember to keep these sessions short and sweet. Overcoming fear will not happen overnight and it is unlikely that a fearful dog will approach you or the helper until after a few sessions.
  7. If your dog does approach you or the helper, offer a high-value treat with an open hand. Do not attempt to touch them and continue looking away from them. Once they have taken the treat, reward them by tossing another treat behind them for them to retreat to.

If you are more of a visual learner, here are some video demonstrations of the Treat and Retreat Game!

ADDITIONAL TIPS FOR THE TREAT AND RETREAT GAME

Working with shy and fearful dogs requires patience and practice. Here are some additional tips when working with shy and fearful dogs.

  • Start at a distance that your dog is comfortable with, this may be a couple of feet, across the room, or even across a field. If you start too close your dog will not make progress as quickly or may even worsen their fear.
  • Give your dog the option to say no. It is okay if your dog is not overly social and doesn’t want strangers to pet them.
  • If your dog is displaying fear aggression or has a history of nipping, get them acclimated to a muzzle. This will keep your dog, you, and those around you safe from injury.

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