Do you have a shy, anxious, or fearful dog? You’ve probably heard the advice to give them treats to help them overcome their fear. It’s great advice (unlike some of what’s out there…) but there are a few important tricks to using those treats safely and effectively!
A Note on Safety
If your dog’s behavior is a risk to you, other people, or animals, consult a qualified behavior professional. This includes dogs who have growled, snapped, or bitten in the past or any dog you are at all concerned may do so in the future. You are responsible for your dog’s behavior and their wellbeing, as well as the safety of others. Proceed carefully!
Fear can’t be controlled in the same ways other behavior can be. Your dog can’t decide to be scared or not. In order to stop this emotional reaction, you need to create a new one to take its place. This happens through the process of “classical counterconditioning” (sometimes just called classical conditioning). The situation or person that causes the fearful reaction is paired with something that causes a very positive reaction. With repetition, that positive emotional reaction becomes connected to the previously scary thing and replaces the fearful one.
Food and treats are wonderful tools for classical counterconditioning because eating is a basic need and naturally positive for (most) dogs. There’s no learning needed for your dog to have a positive feeling about food. Treats are also easy to use and can be given repeatedly at specific times during a training process.
Plan For Success
Choose the Right Treat
The best treats to help your dog feel safer are extra special and desirable. Your dog should really want them! Think about soft, smelly, and/or meaty options like cheese, hot dogs, chicken, or meat-flavored baby food. The treats should also be easy to give in small pieces or licks so you can give a lot of them, without filling your dog up too quickly.
Decide How To Give Treats
A common mistake is forcing the dog to get close to the “scary thing” in order to get the treat. This can create a dog who is conflicted about their fear of the thing versus their desire for the treat. Some dogs will decide to ignore the treat rather than get too close. Other dogs will go for the treat but then find themselves uncomfortably close to the “scary thing” which can lead to a fearful or aggressive reaction.
The safest and most effective option is to allow the dog to get the treats at a distance from the “scary thing.” Consider:
- Tossing the treats, rather than trying to hand them to your dog.
- Giving the treats yourself, rather than having another person give them.
- At least occasionally, tossing the treats farther from the “scary thing” than where your dog is standing. That way they move away to get the treat and then can decide if they want to get closer again.
Manage the Scary Thing
No matter how good a treat is, your dog can’t enjoy it if they are too scared. If the scary situation is too much for your dog, they won’t be able to think about their treat. Always work to keep the “scary thing” at a level where your dog can and will eat their treat. There shouldn’t be any barking, growling, showing teeth, attempts to run away, etc. Familiarize yourself with dog body language so you can identify more subtle signs of stress or fear as well. If your dog is having a negative reaction while you are trying to give them treats, they are too overwhelmed and you need to get away from the “scary thing” or end the interaction. Dogs cannot learn to feel safe while feeling fearful.
During training, you can keep the “scary thing” from being overwhelming by moving further away (ex. from a person or dog), making it quieter (ex. a noise), or doing it for less time or less intensely (ex. handling paws). If you are having trouble figuring out how to manage the “scary thing,” consult a professional to help you.
This also goes for times when you aren’t actively working on the issue or training. Your dog needs to be protected from feeling fearful so they can learn a new, more positive emotional reaction. This kind of management doesn’t directly address the fear but prevents it from getting worse and lets your treats have an effect. Short positive sessions can have a big impact but only if they aren’t being undone by lots of negative interactions at other times.
Using Treats for Maximum Impact
One key to using treats is the order. The “scary thing” always happens first, then the treat immediately follows it. This way your dog learns that the “scary thing” is a predictor of the treat and begins to anticipate the (formally) scary thing because good things come along with it. Every single time the scary situation or person appears, the treats should follow right behind.
Treats Can Be “Free”
Don’t always make your dog do something to earn a treat, in the face of their “scary thing.” Many dogs can’t respond to cues, like “sit” or “look at me”, when they are worried about something in the area. Instead, give them treats for “free”, just because they noticed (or heard), something that could worry them.
As training progresses, many dogs benefit from adding additional skills and giving them information about how to behave. But don’t start there and don’t get hung up on your dog listening to you in the face of (what they perceive as) danger.
Be careful not to use treats as a way to convince your dog to approach something that worries them. This can backfire and may also be unsafe, if your dog suddenly becomes defensive. Let your dog have some space and connect seeing or hearing the “scary thing” with good things from you. If they want to back up more, always let them.
As your dog feels safer, they may be more willing to approach on their own. This happens when they start feeling safer and more comfortable with the previously “scary thing”. Help your dog move slowly in their investigations and encourage them to take breaks and move away. If there is any risk of your dog becoming aggressive, enlist the help of a qualified trainer or behavior consultant before allowing your dog to approach things that scare them.
No More Scaredy Pup
Not every dog will become a confident, outgoing canine, but all dogs can feel safer and more comfortable. With time and practice, you can build a tighter bond and give your dog their best life. Treats are just one important part of that journey!
If your dog has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.