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How to Use Food Rewards to Train Fearful Dogs Without Creating Emotional Conflict.

Updated: Mar 4

A fearful white and brown dog laying down on the floor with food scattered around him too afraid to eat.
Fearful dog shut down during scatter feeding.

Working with fearful dogs to build confidence is a passion of ours at #CareyTrainsMe. Our fearful-to-confident dog board and train program we use food to train and build trust. The golden rule for working with fearful dogs is to start by scattering the dog's food on the floor in your proximity until they are comfortable and work up to hand-feeding from each member of your household.


The big question is: Does the dog feel less fearful because they're eating from our hand? Or are they scared and have experienced food insecurity, but the only way to access food is to eat by hand? Is there an emotional conflict? And are they overcoming their fear?


We can try to answer these questions by looking at the dog's body language. Before you start working with your fearful dog, make sure you understand calming and distance-seeking signals and the ladder of aggression. Successful desensitization and overcoming fear will initially show stressed behaviours that subside. You mustn't progress further if you see continued stress signals. Stay in this space and continue to do repetitions without advancing.


It is human nature to be goal-oriented and to get the animal closer and closer to you. Hand-feeding does not necessarily indicate a fear-free state. Do not skip the repetition to lure the dog in and reach for them. Keep scatter-feeding until you see calm, relaxed body language. The same applies to hand feeding, wait until the dog is comfortable before you move or advance.


Make it a best practice to toss a treat away from you if you need to move your body and change position or if you are in doubt that a dog is genuinely ready to take food from us or be petted by us, the best thing we can do is take the pressure off interacting with them. Let the dog come to you, and do not advance. Tossing a treat to your dog and then walking away is always much better than staying close to them and trying to interact with them if what they may want is space. This is also an excellent way to end a session.


Your goal is to create a positive association that is consistent over time. Your fearful dog needs to foresee and experience a predictable positive outcome to build confidence, trust and overall optimism. They can decide when they're ready to be closer to us, and we are all winning.


Treat Retreat Game

To play the Treat Retreat Game, you'll need some tasty high-value treats, a dog leash (for safety, if you don't trust your dog around people), volunteers, and a basic knowledge of dog signs of stress. For added safety, it's always best to enlist the help of a dog behaviour professional who uses force-free training and behaviour modification techniques to guide you through the initial steps.

Here are the rules of the game:

  1. Prepare Your Volunteers: Equip your volunteers with kibble and tasty, bite-sized treats that are very high-value.

  2. Avoid Direct Eye Contact: Instruct your volunteer guests to avoid making direct eye contact with the dogs when they enter your home, as many dogs find this threatening.

  3. Toss High-Value Treats: As your guests enter your home, have your volunteers toss the high-value treats past the dog. This encourages the dog to retreat to get the treat.

  4. Repetition is Key: Repeat this process with different people and at different times of the day.

  5. Raise Criteria: Once your dog gets the hang of it, it's time to raise the criteria. Have a volunteer toss the higher-value treat between themselves and the dog, so the dog must move closer to the person. Right afterward, toss a lower-value treat (the kibble) past the dog.

  6. Continue Practice: Repeat this step with different people and at different times of the day.

  7. Further, Raise Criteria: Take it a step further by having a volunteer hand-feed the higher-value treat. Right afterward, toss a lower-value treat (the kibble) past the dog.

  8. Keep Practicing: Continue this process with different volunteers and at different times of the day until the dog becomes less tense, more relaxed, and starts taking more initiative in greeting guests.

The Treat Retreat Game is a valuable tool for helping dogs feel more comfortable around guests and reducing their anxiety during social interactions.

If you have a fearful dog and are looking for guidance, please book a free consultation with Carey. A board and train may be exactly what your dog needs to become a confident city dog."

A Dalmatian dog laying down infant of human being hand fed during a dog boarding and training program.
Gentle and consistent hand feeding with out sudden movements or hovering advancing.

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