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How to Play the Treat and Retreat Game With Your Dog

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Why play the treat retreat game with your dog?

Why play the treat retreat game with your dog?

What Is the Treat and Retreat Dog Game?

The treat retreat "game" is a revolutionary method that has been designed with socially shy dogs in mind.

Courtesy of this method, many dogs struggling with humans and their interactions have learned to better cope and eventually even enjoy being around people they once feared.

Coined by respected dog trainer Suzanne Clothier in 1994, treat and retreat has been helping many socially awkward dogs world-wide feel more comfortable around humans as they become equipped with the skillset necessary for them to feel more comfortable.

My Personal Experience With Treat-Retreat

In the past decade, I have personally used this method with success several times.

On one occasion, the dog owner was on the right path, yet was lacking that level of finesse that would have made a whole lot of difference.

Her two reactive dogs would bark, growl, and even snap when strangers entered their "territory," so she tried having all her guests drop or handfeed a treat in hopes that the dogs would get closer and mellow down.

As soon as they got the treat though, they recognized how dangerously close they were getting to the person, so they would suddenly start barking again with their hackles up. The owner was therefore getting nowhere and was wondering why the plan was not working.

How did I work on the problem? First of all, I told the owner not to have her guests directly hand out treats or toss them in front of them. You may think: "Wait...I always thought you used treats to help modify behavior?" Not in this case, though. Yes, I would still use treats, but in a different way.

What was happening is that these dogs were going over the threshold; the stranger surpassed their comfort zone, and the dogs reacted once they realized how close they were to their trigger.

They were basically stuck in what I like to call the "approach-avoidance dance." "Should I get the treat or not?

Yes, the treat is so tempting, yum, but holy cow, this person is too close for comfort! Bark, bark, bark!!!" That's the last thing you want a reactive dog to do, that is, feel overwhelmed and rehearsing reactive behaviors.

That's when we successfully introduced the treat and retreat "game."

The treat/retreat method can help your dog feel safer around people

The treat/retreat method can help your dog feel safer around people

Benefits of Using Treat and Retreat

Treat and retreat doesn't put the dog in a position where he must make a decision that may cause conflict and stress. Rather, the dog is free to approach and move away as he feel comfortable.

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It offers a win-win situation because the dog gets to form positive associations with humans, but at the same time, this method doesn't put pressure on the dog as feeding treats directly does.

We will take a closer look at how to play the treat/retreat "game" in the next paragraphs.

How to Play the Treat Retreat Game

In order to play the treat retreat game, you must have some tasty high-value treats and a volunteer who is good in "reading dogs" and willing to follow instructions.

To play it safe, it's always best to enroll the aid of a dog behavior professional using force-free training and behavior modification techniques to at least show you how to do the initial work.

Nowadays, Suzanne Clothier has created a wonderful Treat and Retreat course so dog trainers certified in Treat and Retreat would be the first professionals you would want to enlist.

Here are some rules of the "game:"

  • The dog needs to be able to take treats in presence of humans at a certain distance.
  • The dog needs to be in a large space. We are talking quite large here, so about 25 to 50 feet.
  • The owner must be on one side with the human (or even better dog trainer) on the opposite side.
  • The human or dog trainer must be sitting and avoid direct eye contact (although every case though may require an individualized approach.
  • The dog must be able to move freely as needed. Long lines can be used for safety, but they need to never interfere with the dog's movement as this would defeat the main purpose of this exercise.
  • The human or dog trainer will toss a treat directed to where the dog chooses to be, and then, after eating that, another treat is tossed farther back, followed by another one.
  • The human or dog trainer will need to pay close attention to the dog's body language and ensure that the dog is not over threshold.

The good news about treat and retreat is that it is a rather forgiving method.

If a treat happens to be tossed too close for the dog's comfort, that second treat tossed farther away can help "soften the impact" so to say.

You also have the option to immediately toss another treat farther hoping that the dog goes for that, and in the meanwhile you can recover the too-close one.

Have a Professional Help You Out

While treat and retreat may seem like a simple "game" in reality there are many factors and subtleties to keep into consideration, therefore, for safety and correct implementation you may want to have a dog trainer familiar with this method guide you through or you can even enroll in Suzanne Clothier's treat and retreat course, which, by the way, is even open for dog owners!

A Word About Territorial Dogs

While I have used treat and retreat in the home with my client, it is preferable to avoid working in the dog's territory as the lack of space can be a big issue.

While I was able to successfully work in my client's home with her two dogs, nowadays, as I have gained a deeper understanding of this technique, I start in a larger area that is neutral and therefore out of the dog's perceived territory.

The treat-retreat method can be helpful to puppies too!

The treat-retreat method can be helpful to puppies too!

Why Does Treat Retreat Work? Some Dynamics for Science Junkies

Interested in learning why the dog treat retreat method works? We have seen in the previous paragraphs that it helps prevent dogs from being put into situations they are not ready for, giving the dog free choice, but if you want to delve deeper into how dogs learn, here are some mechanics, although it's important to understand that not all methods necessarily fit perfectly into specific categories.

First and foremost, we are working on attempting to change the dog's emotions, a process known as counterconditioning. We want Rover to go from acting fearful to being more inquisitive and happy to see people. Ideally, we're looking for a positive conditioned emotional response.

At the same time, though, we are moving very gradually in the process; we are not letting people directly approach the dog and pet the dog on the head. We are starting with people sitting and not staring and then progressing to moving gradually, so we are also desensitizing the dog to people with a gradual, systematic approach.

However, even when applied diligently, these two methods can have some flaws.

For instance, just because your dog eats and appears more comfortable around people, doesn't necessarily mean he is ready to face all the humans in the world. In order for things to work well your dog primarily needs to feel SAFE.

A Trust and Relationship-Centered Method

Here's where the treat and retreat game comes extra handy and fills a much needed niche. With this method, your dog is given free choice, he is basically free to move at his comfort level.

It's unfortunate, but many socially shy dogs struggle with acknowledging that they can move away from triggers. This often leaves them feeling lost and stuck in sticky situations to fend for themselves.

Through systematic exposures, treat and retreat helps shy dogs finally feel "listened to" and this empowers them providing them with a great sense of relief.

Last but not least, by using treat and retreat, dogs are more in control of their interactions and this by default helps them feel safe.

Suzanne Clothier's work is relationship-centered and aims in creating a foundation of trust between dogs and their owners.

A deep relationship helps dogs feel safe and they are helped immensely when their humans provide a secure-base effect. Clothier's book: "Bones Would Rain from the Sky: Deepening Our Relationships with Dogs" helps dog owners gain a deeper understanding of their dogs paving the path for a profound relationship of trust and safety

As seen, the treat/retreat game is very useful and helps in cases of socially shy dogs and situations where dogs have been forced to endure too intense exposures or cases of behavior modification gone wrong, with a sloppy implementation which only increases a dog's level of fear and stress rather than decreasing it.

This "game" is therefore optimal to help shy and fearful dogs overcome significant hurdles that put a dent into their social lives.

The treat retreat game overall helps dogs establish more trust in people allowing them to feel safe as they are free to choose how far or how close to approach, which is a win-win situation for all!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 24, 2014:

Connieow, your approach was spot on and worked wonders to change the emotions about the UPS driver, kudos to you!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 09, 2013:

Thanks Leslie, this game is great and I use it many times!

lesliebyars on September 09, 2013:

Great hub and this will come in very handy. Thanks so much for sharing. Voted up, useful and I tweeted it.

Connie S Owens from El Cajon, CA on September 09, 2013:

My little girl use to act like she could eat the UPS driver where I use to live, he was bad at following directions. The new driver is better at it. He has them sit, then gives them the treat. The barking is now a welcome, not an I want to eat you, fear based response. It did take time and I do not do this with everyone.

The timing is everything. You could reward the wrong behavior.

Thank you for the insight.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 08, 2013:

Thanks epbooks, this treat and retreat game can be quite helpful for owners of reactive dogs. thanks for the votes up and share! truly appreciated!

Elizabeth Parker from Las Vegas, NV on September 08, 2013:

I love these hubs- great advice on so many diverse...and necessary topics. Voted up and shared!

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