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Treat and Retreat – Something to try with a shy dog (or your own dog)

September 29, 2013 15 comments

Man and Dog Lying on FloorBack when I was a pet sitter, I would schedule an initial meeting with my potential clients and their pets as way for all of us to get to know one another. This meeting was their chance to interview me and to determine if I would be a good fit for their pet, but it was also a chance for their dog or cat to get to know me.

I think many of my new dog clients were surprised when I showed up for the meeting and didn’t make an immediate beeline towards their dog, or in some cases, completely ignored them. It might seem like an odd thing to do for a pet sitter, but I had a good reason for doing it. I wanted the dogs to know that THEY were the ones who got to decide how they wanted to interact with me.  I let them decide how close they wanted to get to me, whether they wanted to be petted or just wanted to sniff me first. If they wanted one of the treats I carried in the pouch hanging at my side, they could have one but they got to decide whether it would be from my open hand or tossed to them (because they felt safer there).

Being a professional pet sitter requires you to work with people as well as their pets, but when it came to my client’s dogs, I wanted them to know from the beginning that I respected their need for space.

Earlier this year, I wrote about attending an educational seminar with Suzanne Clothier. In the day-long session, Suzanne demonstrated (with a Great Dane) how to tell at what distance a dog is comfortable meeting a new person (in this case her and the other attendees). As she explained at that time, every dog is different, but each one has a spatial parameter in which they feel comfortable and uncomfortable. What most people, including experienced dog owners, don’t realize is that space is often much larger than our own.

In her demonstration with the Great Dane, Suzanne used a game that she developed herself when working with dogs. It’s called Treat and Retreat. It’s a wonderful way to observe a dog and to get a better understanding of the spatial perimeter at which they feel most comfortable. It’s also a great way to help a shy or fearful dog to gain confidence and maybe even shorten their spatial perimeter. Even though I didn’t know it as Treat and Retreat back then, it is very similar to what I did with Daisy in the early days.

I thought it might be fun to share a video of this game with you. It’s definitely something you can try with your own dog. As you watch the video, notice how the dog in the video tells the people in the room, the people tossing the treats, at what distance she feels most comfortable. Also, notice how the trainer has them switch off throwing the treats near and far, allowing the dog to retreat to a more comfortable distance. You also see as the dog progresses that the people tossing treats start walking around and kneeling down. This is after weeks of work and progress,but it is a great example how treat and retreat can help a fearful dog.

If you do decide to try this with your own dog, I would love to hear what you discovered. Were you surprised by anything? How close or far did your dog get to you? Did it make a difference if you were sitting down or standing up? Let us know.

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