A common mistake that many owners make when trying to help a fearful dog become more comfortable around something they’re scared of is attempting to lure the dog closer to the scary thing with a treat. Though the thinking behind this strategy is well meaning, it can often backfire and increase the dog’s fear.
Many highly food motivated dogs will follow the treat closer to the scary thing to get the food, but once they’ve eaten the treat they suddenly realise how close they are to the scary thing. This can cause the dog to startle or even panic, likely making them more afraid than they were before.
This is particularly important with dogs that are fearful or aggressive towards humans. After the dog has followed the treat in beyond their comfort zone and right up to the human, there is a big risk that once the treat is gone they may snap or bite upon finding the human so close.
When working with fearful dogs it is critically important to let the dog go at their own pace. Progress should be slow, steady, carefully analysed, and never ever rushed.
This reasoning also applies when socialising young puppies to potentially scary things; you can reward them for choosing to move closer to something novel that they are unsure of, but try not to lure them in blindly with a treat.
If you have a fearful dog we highly recommend working with a professional positive reinforcement trainer who is experienced in dealing with behavioural issues, and not just teaching obedience. There is a world of difference between simply luring a dog towards something scary with treats, and a systematically applied desensitisation and counter conditioning protocol implemented by someone with a sound knowledge of behavioural science. A good trainer will help set up a plan of action individualised to your dog, and coach you through the process.