You encounter a shy, nervous, or fearful dog at the shelter or at an adoption event. You squat down, try to make eye contact, and encourage the dog to come to you. The dog doesn’t. She stays still, licks her lips, turns her head up and away, as though catching a scent in the air. She licks her lips.
You move a little closer, thinking she’s just shy and maybe you should approach her instead of waiting for her to come to you. You scoot forward a step. She yawns.
You pull out your baggie of treats, thinking that if she is worried about you, maybe you giving her a treat — a peace offering — will show her that you are friend, not foe. You hold the treat out on your hand. She stands up tentatively and creeps forward slowly, with a tiny, low wag to her tail. She grabs the treat and retreats.
You offer another treat, she comes to you more quickly. The third time, she doesn’t retreat as far. You smile as you feel a little rush of adrenaline — You’ve won her over! Breakthrough!
We’ve all been there, right? Offered super-delicious treats to frightened dogs, and then felt like a dog charmer when the dogs approach us instead of cowering at the back of their kennels? Of course. It seems natural and is so tempting to do, but could we be setting them up for failure?
When we bribe a fearful dog to approach using treats, we are creating conflict in the dog. We are saying: Come to me even though you are scared of me. When this request is repeated over and over by different people, it creates a new habit in the dog — approaching people it is scared of in exchange for a food reward. The dog learns that it can approach, get a cookie, and then retreat. It’s when something unexpected happens — this particular stranger doesn’t have a cookie, and happens to sneeze, shuffle his feet, or stare directly into the dog’s eyes — the dog might bite.
We can do fearful dogs a BIG favor by teaching them to stay safe when they are frightened: If you’re scared, don’t approach me. Stay where you are. If a dog understands that he has the choice of whether to approach a new person or not, that dog is much less likely to end up in conflict and in trouble.
We want so badly to win fearful dogs over with food and love, but instead, let’s win them over on their own schedule. Some dogs warm up right away; others will never warm up. Some are somewhere in the middle.
When meeting a new dog, pay careful attention to the dog’s body language. If the dog does not approach or seems worried as it approaches, just be cool and ignore it. Wait and observe. Look for calming signals (yawning, lip licking, sniffing the ground, blinking), and offer them in return. Take the dog for a walk or offer a toy, but don’t use treats or pet it before it is begging for your touch. Many dogs will eat or freeze for petting when they are nervous, but a dog is unlikely to play or actively solicit petting while it’s worried. After that barrier is broken, the treat bag comes out and a world of new possibilities opens up.
But rather than using treats to win the dog’s trust initially, use casual indifference and patience. Teach it: You don’t have to come to me if you are worried. It’ll be the biggest favor you can do.
DISCLAIMER: Author is a student of dog training at the Canine Center in Austin, not licensed professional dog trainer. Contents are one person’s observations, not written-in-stone best practice. Use at your own discretion!