Motivating the unmotivated dog.
When you talk to people about reward-based training, the mention of food rewards often sparks the question about what to do if you have a dog who doesn’t like food?
Firstly, all dogs like food, otherwise they wouldn’t survive. It’s not a question of ‘liking’ food, it’s about what motivates them and whether food is important to them in the context you’re offering it. If you have a dog who will gratefully receive food at any opportunity then you probably don’t think about how you developed this motivation, it was just there. For other people, teaching a dog to enjoy food rewards is a huge challenge, but it can be done!
I have yet to meet a dog who never develops any interest in food rewards, it may not be their biggest motivator, but it’s always possible to create food motivation. If you have a dog who isn’t naturally ‘foodie’ then there are some simple ways to develop this motivation. Think of it as the first step of training!
No More Food Bowls
The first, and probably most important part, is to remove the food bowl. Eating from a bowl is boring and unproductive. It’s a waste of a great bonding and training opportunity. When food becomes more interesting then motivation for it increases. It’s no wonder dogs start being picky about eating when the whole experience is so dull and repetitive.
Everyone has an excuse for why they can’t stop using a bowl … they have limited time, they feed raw or wet food, the dog is too young or too old, he needs medication, he only eats if it’s in a bowl … but these are just excuses and if you plan a little more and get creative then it’s never impossible.
When time is an issue then pre-prepare some meals in enrichment or activity toys. If you’re unprepared, scatter the food in the garden or hide it in a blanket for your dog to sniff for. Enrichment toys, like snuffle mats and Kongs, are interesting for your dog and easy to prepare. Sniffing, chewing or licking activities can also promote calmness while using lots of mental energy.
When possible, find the time to be involved with your dog’s eating, this could be as simple as hand feeding, throwing the food for your dog to chase or catch, or playing a game of hide-and-seek with the food. If your dog understands some basic commands then practice these in exchange for food rewards.
You don’t have to throw the food bowl away immediately, start by weighing out your dog’s daily food allowance and use as much as you can during the day, then anything left at the end can be given in the bowl, or ideally in an enrichment toy.
Committing to this new way of feeding your dog will gradually increase their motivation for food. It won’t happen overnight, so persevere and really make the effort to be creative about how you feed your dog. Remember primarily to make the food EXCITING and VALUABLE.
Experiment with Food
If your dog doesn’t ‘like’ food rewards then you may be using the wrong ones. Dogs will have preferences about food, so try something more exciting like cooked meat or homemade liver cake.
Start with high-value foods and don’t hold back with these initially because when your dog’s motivation for food increases then you can start to include lower value items, like dry food.
Mix up the Rewards
For dogs, reinforcement is everywhere… toys, squirrels, other dogs, people… every dog will find different things reinforcing. Food may not be top priority because there is something far more reinforcing to the dog in that moment. Food motivation can be increased by actually rewarding them for eating a treat. For example, give the dog a food treat and then play with a toy, or give the food treat and then let the dog off the lead.
Think about what your dog really loves and how you can use this to reward them for eating a treat. By rewarding after they eat, the eating will be paired with something positive and reinforcing, which over time will increase the value of the food reward. The food reward itself then becomes highly reinforcing.
Many dogs who have been trained using food rewards will find the process of receiving the treat as reinforcing as the actual tasting or eating of it. It’s not unusual to see a dog who will work hard to receive something as bland as a speck of grass or paper because they have such a strong positive association with the action of being given a treat.
Little and Often
Training is a slow process for many dogs and it can be slower for those who aren’t naturally excited by food. Dogs can find learning stressful and frustrating so if we expect too much or become frustrated with them, this can turn it into an unpleasant experience which can create a negative association with food rewards. Keep each training session short and end it before the dog loses interest or becomes too stressed. If your dog isn’t responding as you want then don’t keep going until he gets it right, it’s better to end on an incorrect behaviour than push for perfection and risk creating a negative and stressful training session.
When building food motivation, keep it easy and relaxed. Start with simple behaviours, such as eye contact or a nose touch. Showing your dog that learning is really fun will also improve their motivation for food rewards.
Is it Really About the Food?
Sometimes we say our dogs don’t like food, when in reality they are simply not in the right headspace to eat. A dog who is over-aroused, perhaps fearful or highly excited, is less likely to be able to eat. In a high arousal state, food is not top priority, so consider how your dog is feeling when he won’t take the treat from you. If he happily wants food rewards inside the house but immediately loses interest on a walk or in the presence of another dog then that’s a sign he’s no longer in a state to eat and this can be an indicator of stress.
In this situation, working on lowering stress is as important as teaching the dog to find food reinforcing. Focus on building food motivation in a location where your dog is relaxed (e.g. at home) and gradually progress to different locations.
A huge benefit of working with food rewards is that they can give us a clear indication of when our dog is no longer coping. If he stops taking the food rewards then it’s likely to be a sign that something has caused him to feel stressed. For reactive or fearful dogs, it can tell us about our dog’s tolerance or threshold level, if he stops taking food when he’s 20metres from another dog then that’s a sign he’s too close and no longer coping.
For dogs who struggle to eat because of stress (whether that’s fearful stress or excited stress), it’s important to carefully control and manage their environment in order to keep their stress levels to a minimum. Working simultaneously on increasing their food motivation and lowering their stress levels is an essential part of the training process, and from here effective behavioural modification can begin.
Building food motivation can take time and it’s not something which changes overnight. There can be many reasons why a dog lacks interest in food rewards, it could be to do with stressors in the environment, the type of food being offered, how it’s offered, or previous associations, as well as other influencing factors. Carefully consider what may be influencing your dog’s lack of interest and make a plan about how to start building his motivation or managing his environment better to help lower his stress levels.
It’s always a good idea to seek help from a professional trainer who can thoroughly assess underlying factors and guide you in ways to improve food motivation. There is always a way so don’t be too quick to label your dog and decide food-based training won’t work for you, it’s just another step along the training process!