Help your fearful dog with treat targets

fearful dogs Oct 31, 2023

Have you been trying to use treats to get your fearful dog to move somewhere- like out of their safe space, or out to the yard- but they won't eat the treats? If you've been struggling with getting your dog to eat treats consistently, then training them to eat off of a "treat target" might help.


What is a "treat target"? 

I'm using the term "treat target" to refer to some item- a plastic lid, a plate, etc.- that your dog learns predicts a treat. Once your dog learns "When I see that thing, I will find a treat on it," you can start using the treat targets to encourage your dog to move in particular directions.

Leslie McDevitt's "Super bowls" game, developed to help reactive dogs (see her book "Control Unleashed" for details), uses food bowls as the item that the dog learns to target to get food. For very fearful dogs, I've had better luck with plastic lids from food containers (e.g. yogurt or cottage cheese containers). Some  members of our Confidence Builders Club use other items, like small ceramic plates, or squares of fabric. In general, I like treat targets to be at least 4-5" across, and to be a color that contrasts well with the surfaces you'll be placing them on. 


How do I use treat targets? 

Your dog can learn to use treat targets by consistently and repeatedly finding treats on the targets. For example, you might place one or more plastic lids in your dog's safe space, with a high value treat on each one. If your dog is very fearful, you might have to leave the area before they'll check out the lids and eat the treats. 

After you repeat this many times, you can start to use treat targets to encourage your dog to move in certain directions.  For example, one of our Confidence Builders Club members moved her dog's treat targets just inches (or less!) per day, toward the exit of her safe space. Over many sessions, the dog learned to move to the door of her safe space, then step over the threshold, then move down the hall, and so on, until she was comfortable moving around the entire house. 

***It's important to be careful not to "poison" the treat targets by allowing them to be associated with scary things. If your dog is just starting to explore the house by moving between treat targets, for example, try to avoid scaring or startling them while they're doing that. Even placing a treat target too far into an unfamiliar space can undermine your training, if your dog is conflicted about venturing to that location to get a treat. 


Can't I just put treats on the floor/ground?

Yes! If your dog readily approaches and eats treats on the floor, you might not need treat targets. Treat targets make it easier for dogs to spot treats, so they can be helpful for dogs who aren't great at finding food on the floor. If your dog has become wary of following a trail of food on the floor because they've been scared while doing it (or the treats lead to a destination they didn't like), then re-training your dog to eat from a treat target can give you a fresh start. (Just don't repeat your prior mistake and use treat targets to lure your dog somewhere scary!).  Another benefit of treat targets is that they become a familiar cue to approach and eat a treat- and you can take them with you to different locations. 

In the video I show a few examples of how we used treat targets to teach one of our client dogs to move around and go outside:



If you have any questions about helping your fearful dog feel safer, shoot us an email at [email protected]. We'll be happy to try to help!

Want help building your dog's confidence? Join us inside our training membership for fearful dogs, Confidence Builders Club.