Tips on how to approach, win over a fearful dog |

Tips on how to approach, win over a fearful dog

Let’s start with a test. If your dog is fearful of new people (or men, or kids, etc.) how many of you would give the person a treat and have them hold it out for the dog to come and take it? How about having the person approach the dog and offer the treat?

Based on experience, I estimate that most of you would assume one or both of these options are reasonable. In fact, both methods are likely to force a fearful dog to either escalate his response and nip or bite or run away.

A fearful dog will approach only so close to a scary thing, carefully maintaining a safety zone. The size of the safety zone is specific to each dog. A common error is to move too fast to close the distance between you and the dog, thus encroaching on the dog’s safety zone and making him more fearful.

Some highly food-motivated dogs may close the distance only long enough to get the treat and then quickly retreat. Conversely, if you close the distance by approaching the fearful dog, they are likely to (a) become stressed and move away, or (b) become so stressed they use their teeth in an attempt to create more distance!

“A fearful dog will approach only so close to a scary thing, carefully maintaining a safety zone. The size of the safety zone is specific to each dog.”

So how should you introduce a fearful dog to a new person? First, you need to encourage the dog to move comfortably toward and away from the person.

Second, the dog must develop confidence in being near the scary person and willingly maintain a decreased safety zone.

A good method is commonly called Treat and Retreat. Load up on lots of small, very good treats in a pocket or treat bag.

Let’s say the dog will only come within 8 feet of you. Toss a treat over the dog’s head so he has to turn and move away from you to get it. As he turns back to you, toss a treat so he has to move towards you, but still far enough away that he’s in his safety zone.

Continue tossing treats over the dog’s head and then tossing one a little closer to you, gradually closing the distance. Now the dog is willingly moving away from and toward you.

Don’t move too fast and stop if the dog seems unwilling to come any closer. The dog must determine how quickly you can proceed and closing the whole distance may take several short training sessions.

Once the dog is willingly approaching within a couple feet, incorporate a simple cue like “Sit” before tossing the treat. Don’t reach for the dog to give a treat yet, just continue to toss it.

If the dog already knows other cues, like “Down,” you can also ask him to perform those. Executing a known cue will help build the dog’s confidence around you.

Never lean over or reach for a fearful dog. Stand up straight and toss the treat on the floor. When the dog is comfortable enough to take a treat out of your hand, turn sideways and reach your hand out to the side.

Each time you work with the dog, you will need to start at a comfortable distance (for the dog) and then work to close the space over the course of the training session.

For less food-motivated or extremely scared dogs, train before a meal so the dog will be more food motivated.

Carla Brown, CPDT, is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of The Savvy Dog in Truckee. She can be reached at

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