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Treat & Retreat - Befriending the Shy Dog

"Just give him food so he'll like you."

It sounds good in theory, but it often backfires.  Why?


It happens every day.  The fearful dog is staying as far away from the stranger as the environment or his leash will allow, sometimes growling or even barking.  Everything about the puppy's body language says, "stay away!"  So the person, in an attempt to make friends, offers a treat.  The pup stretches forward, rear legs extended behind him.  He snatches the treat and rushes back to his safe place.


One would think that soon strangers would be associated with good things and the pup would look forward to visitors and all would be well, wouldn't you?  Sometimes it works.  But this scenario often makes things worse.  It could even increase aggressive behavior.  What?  That can't be!

Let's look at what really happens when fearful dogs are baited in with food.

In the above scenario, the pup is not interested in a social interaction with the stranger.  He is conflicted, wanting to stay safe but magnetized by the food in the stranger's hand.  He is drawn into the danger zone.  His heart is racing, adrenalin is pumping and it is all he can do to muster the courage to grab the offering.  The instant he has the food he rushes back to safety.  Relief is the biggest reinforcer - he got away.  He survived.  Each time he is baited in, he is way over threshold.  He is practicing terror and relief, not relaxation and friendliness.






















Classical conditioning is pairing an emotion with a stimuli until the appearance of the stimuli results in the emotion.

It would seem, then, that pairing food with strangers would work - and it does, IF we are aware of which emotion we are actually pairing. 

We must be careful to always be sure the dog feels safe without conflict or fear.

This is what we want to see:

  • A relaxed dog's face is soft, his jaw and ears are relaxed.  His tail is relaxed and his weight is evenly distributed on all four feet.

  • When the association is made, he should look happy and expectant when you say his name, eager as you approach, relaxed and confident,  in anticipation of the goodie that follows.

  • His tail may wag softly as you appear, hopeful that you are going to toss another treat.  He should trust that you aren't going to come into his comfort zone.  He should feel safe at all times.  He should have the option to say, "no thank you" and he should be praised for retreating if he starts to worry.


This is what we don't want to see:

  • Arousal - weight forward, face and body muscles tense and gaze focused on the target.  Low blink rate. Tail high.

  • Fear - weight shifted back, poised for escape.  He may be looking for an escape route.  His ears are back or shifting and his tail low.

  • Every time you shift position, stand up, leave and come back, it all starts over again.  You are still scary.


      If his ears flip back, if he looks for an escape route, if he retreats or vocalizes, stop and revise your plan!


Treat - and then RETREAT.

Say the dog's name and toss the dog a treat. 
     Dog learns strangers make good things happen.  
And then, while the dog eats the treat, MOVE AWAY. 
     You are not only giving him a treat, you are also rewarding him with distance.


  • Approach on a gentle curve, passing casually by the dog, not walking directly toward him.

  • Be aware of his comfort zone - don't go closer than he feels safe

  • Don't make eye contact.  Look from the corner of your eye, blink and keep your eyes soft and squinty.

  • Say his name softly and toss food well into his comfort zone.  The goal is not to bait him closer but allow him to collect it inside his safe zone.

  • Don't hang around; leave as soon as he collects the food.  Glide in, glide out.

  • He may start to follow you.  If you notice he is getting closer than he should, toss the treat behind him to increase distance.


Signal your intent.  No surprises!
Any time you need to move and it might alarm the dog, let him know.   Say his name, "I'm getting up now" - "I'm coming in the room" then toss treats away from your path of travel so he moves away from where you are going.  We want him to feel safe and not get stuck.


























Signs that you should stop or increase distance:


  • Dog is pacing or appears anxious (panting, lip licking, yawning, approaching and retreating.

  • Dog vocalizes (whining, growling, barking or noisy yawns)


If the dog is bothered by feet moving, slow down or stop and remain sideways to the dog, not facing him. 

Stay further away and move in a more gentle arc or you may stand still, remain sideways to the dog.  Toss the food and as the dog reaches to eat it, take one step away.  When he raises his head, say his name and toss another treat.  You may toss the food behind him to help him turn away while you leave.


Signs that your dog is over threshold (you missed the above signals and are in too deep):


  • Dog is strongly focused - toward the trigger, or away in attempt to flee.

  • Vocalizations - growl, bark, whine

  • Stress panting

  • Quickening of gait, body tension, neck erect, chest out, tail stiff like a flag pole or scorpion tail.

  • Lowering of body, crouched or slinking posture.

  • Darting eyes, clamped or tucked tail.

  • Bristling of fur or whiskers.

  • You move away and he chases you, barking.


Slow is fast when it comes to helping a dog feel safe.   Don't rush!

How does baiting the dog in for treats sometimes evolve into aggression?

The food is good, but the stranger is still scary.  Approaching the stranger is still scary.  But the dog can get the food and survive.   If other strangers repeatedly offer food, the dog will be more and more likely to rush in too close to all strangers in hopes that they have food, too.  The dog still feels defensive, but approaches with more confidence that he can get the food and get away.   Now he's stuck in a pattern of getting too close.  He looks friendly but he's still afraid.  People mistake proximity for "I'd like to be petted" and reach for him.  He panics and snaps.  People withdraw, shocked.  He learns that threatening to bite works.  He adds aggression to his toolbox.  When threats (air snaps) don't work, he will bite.


Note: Often when owners hear their dogs growl or see bared teeth, they respond by punishing the scary reaction to make it stop.  This is the worst thing you can do, as now the dog is afraid to communicate and is stuck.  He appears "fine" and bites "without warning." 

"The Petting Consent Test" - should you pet this dog? 

Never corner or trap a dog.  The dog should have the option of initiating contact or not.  He should always have an escape route and the choice to increase distance should always be honored.


As the dog becomes comfortable and approaches in a wagging, hopeful way, rather than a fearful, cautious manner, you can sit on the floor and allow him to sniff you.  Lean back or away, not toward him.  Sit with your shoulder to the dog, not facing him.  Keep social pressure off - ignore him, don't engage him.


Remember, just because he is curious enough and comfortable enough to investigate your shoes, this doesn't mean he wants you to pet him.  Give him all the time he needs to build trust. 


When he is begging you to engage him, scratch him briefly under the chin and see what he does next.  Does he leave (that was too much) or does he ask for more?  Follow his lead.


ALSO:  Thresholds - Recognize & Respect Them


This handout may be reprinted in its entirety for distribution free of charge and with full credit given:
© CAROL A. BYRNES "DIAMONDS IN THE RUFF" Training for Dogs & Their People -
ditr_training @ -


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