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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/Retreat Dog Game?

Coined by respected dog trainer Suzanne Clothier, the treat and retreat dog game is the perfect game to play when dealing with dogs who are on the shy and fearful side that become reactive when exposed to certain triggers, such as strangers entering the home. I have 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 hand a treat in hopes that the dogs would get closer and mellow down. As soon as they got the treat, 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 to fix 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. "What? You may think . . . I always thought you used treats to help modify behavior?" Not in this case though. I would still use treats but in a different way.

What was happening is that the 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 stuck in a conflict: "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: rehearse the reactive behavior.

That's when we successfully introduced the treat/retreat dog game. The treat retreat game doesn't put the dog in a position where he must make a decision that may cause conflict and stress. Rather, it allows the dog to move away and get rewarded for it on top of that. It's a win-win situation because the dog learns to associate guests with treats, 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.

Playing the dog treat retreat game.

Playing the dog treat retreat game.

How to Play the Treat Retreat Game

In order to play the treat retreat game, you must have 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.

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. Here are the rules of the game:

  1. Arm your volunteers with kibble and tasty, bite-sized treats that are very high-value.
  2. Tell your volunteer guests to avoid making direct eye contact with the dogs when they enter your home, as many dogs find this threatening.
  3. Upon entering the home, have your volunteer toss the high-value treats past the dog. This way, your dog has to retreat to get the treat.
  4. Repeat, repeat, repeat, with different people and at different times of the day.
  5. Once your dog gets the hang of it, it's time to raise criteria. After all, you want to progress, no? Have a volunteer toss the higher value treat between himself and the dog so the dog must move closer to the person, but right afterward, toss a lower value treat (the kibble) past the dog.
  6. Repeat, repeat, repeat with different people at different times of the day.
  7. Further raise criteria. Have a volunteer hand feed the higher value treat, but right afterward, toss a lower value treat (the kibble) past the dog.
  8. Repeat, repeat, repeat with different volunteers, different times of the day until the dog is less tense, looser and starts taking more initiative in greeting guests.

Why Does Treat Retreat Work? The Exact 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 in situations they are not ready for, but if you want to delve deeper into science and learning theory, here is what makes it work.

First and foremost, we are working on changing 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. At the same time, though, we are moving very gradually in the process; we are not letting guests come in and pet your dogs on the head and hug them. We are moving gradually, so we are also desensitizing your dog to seeing people come into the home with a gradual, systematic approach.

When it comes to learning theory, we are using for a good part negative reinforcement in this game. Negative reinforcement takes place when a dog gets away from something perceived as unpleasant and feels relief from doing so, which ultimately causes this behavior to reinforce and repeat.

In this case, moving away from the person to get the treat allows the dog to get away from the scary guest, which gives relief, and therefore, the dog feels compelled to engage getting away more and more, which is better than barking, lunging, snapping seen in a session of counterconditioning gone wrong because of sloppy implementation. The dog, therefore, gets two rewards: increasing distance from a potential threat and a tasty treat on top of that.

At the same time, though, we are also using positive reinforcement. In positive reinforcement, desired behaviors are rewarded so they reinforce and repeat. The dog indeed is rewarded for initially increasing distance, and then for taking initiative by taking treats and coming closer, so the the behavior of coming closer and greeting guests should increase over time. For more on learning theory, read "the four quadrants of dog training."

Read More From Pethelpful

As seen, the treat/retreat game is very useful, and helps in cases where owners have worked too fast and too close, with the end result of increasing a dog's level of fear and stress instead of decreasing it. This game is great for those dogs who aren't progressing because they have learned to take treats and then bark/lunge/snap in approach avoidance (to make you move away because you have crossed their comfort zone) or quickly back away to get back to their comfort zone.

The treat retreat game helps establish more trust in people and teaches dogs more acceptable ways of coping with conflict and strong emotions such as fear, while at the same time, the dog gets to choose how far or how close to approach. A win-win situation for all!

An Example of Treat/Retreat in Classes

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.


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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