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Why Isn't My Dog "Food Motivated?"

"I would love to train with positive reinforcement but my dog refuses treats!"

As dog trainers and behavior consultants, we hear this phrase really often from dog owners getting started with training. Some dogs will happily eat and train in the living room with all kinds of treats, but the second you step out the door, all of a sudden you can be waving salmon and steak in their face and they refuse it! Others struggle to get their dogs to eat through training entirely- no matter the distraction level. Does this mean your dog just "isn't food motivated?" Not at all!

A specific dog's drive to train for treats and food is completely specific to their individual self and situation, so there isn't a generic response that explains away every single dog's lack of "food motivation." To pinpoint the causes requires you to do a little thinking and problem solving about your own specific dog.

Factors That Influence Food Motivation

  1. Health/Illness/Pain: Your dog doesn't need to have constant diarrhea or vomiting issues for there to be an underlying health reason that affects their food drive. Many symptoms of an underlying health condition can be much more subtle, and some medications or medical conditions can influence your dog's appetite significantly! If you struggle to get your dog eating consistently through training, the vet should be your first stop in addressing this issue.

  2. Poisoned Treats: Not meant in a literal sense, but instead in the context that "training" or eating treats from you may have been accidentally poisoned in the past. Some dogs learn that any time treats are in the picture, something undesirable or stressful is about to happen to them (think: being "lured" with treats to be locked in their crate if they have stressful feelings about confinement, for example). Dogs will learn really quickly to avoid eating treats if the only time those treats are offered is because something unpleasant is about to happen!

  3. Treat Value: This one can be tricky- we need to make sure our dogs are being offered treats they actually enjoy, and the treat value needs to match the difficulty of the task or distraction level we are working in. So, those milkbones or plain training treats might work around the house, but may need to become something even tastier or more "valuable" for your dog when out and about in a challenging situation. However, it's also important that we aren't constantly operating at feeding our dogs the "highest" value treat possible just to get a small amount of engagement from them in any training context. So, if you find your dog will ONLY work for cheese, hot dogs, and sardines just to get them to do a simple behavior in a low distraction environment, they also may need a bit of work on building their food drive just like a dog who will outright refuse treats all together.

  4. Fear Or Stress: Many dogs are not going to want to eat much when they are stressed. Think about something that makes you really afraid and stressed out- for me, I'm really afraid of heights. If you put me on the edge of a 200 foot cliff and offered me my favorite slice of cheesecake, it would be the last thing on my mind that I would want in that situation if I was already actively having a panic attack and in total fight or flight mode. The same happens with our dogs- if your dog is stressed or feels unsafe, on a physiological level they are likely not experiencing the same hunger or sensory cues they normally would in any other situation. If your dog is refusing treats that they otherwise love in the context of a distracting or potentially stressful situation, they are likely too stressed for any quality learning to occur, and you need to take a step back in your training before building up to that level of difficulty again.

  5. Fullness: This is relevant for all dogs, but especially with puppies and small breeds. Your dog only has a limited amount of space in their body for food! While we NEVER want to use deprivation or the discomfort of hunger to motivate our dogs to train, we also need to keep in mind how much our dogs have already had to eat prior to the training session. If your dog only has 10-15 repetitions in them before they start to lose interest in treats, it may be that they're getting full and don't want to keep eating! This can apply especially if you are using really large treats or pieces of food to train with- in general, we recommend training treats are given in pea-sized bites per repetition. You will just need to mitigate how large your treats are, and ensure that your training sessions are short, yet high quality for optimal learning with the few repetitions you have.

  6. Excitement And Arousal: This goes closely hand-in-hand with stress. While all arousal-based issues are certainly not always an indicator of stress, these kinds of high emotional states in our dogs can make eating a difficult skill in that context. If someone asked you to solve math equations while you were in the middle of a rave, would you struggle a bit? The same happens for our dogs! If you struggle to get your dog engaged in training or wanting treats when they're in a state of high excitement or arousal, take a step back and build a smaller training plan that "splits'' the stimuli that excite your dog into small enough pieces that they can handle, before building up as they're successful. For example, this can look like training at home with a stuffed dummy dog before taking your dog out training near a dog park. And remember- an overstimulated/over aroused dog doesn't always look like a frantic, barking and lunging dog. Simply lack of ability to focus or stay connected can be a sign too!

  7. Breed Traits: Think about your specific dog's breed traits and the things they are meant to do- some dogs naturally have a lower "biddability" than others when it comes to training, and eating food through training doesn't come naturally to them. For these dogs, building "taking food" through training as a skill needs to be built. This is NOT to be mistaken for stubbornness. Dogs who struggle with food drive are not doing so out of spite or an unwillingness to cooperate, there are far deeper factors at play than that!

  8. A Different Reinforcer Would Be Better: I don't generally recommend completely "ditching" the idea of working on building food drive and just using a different reinforcer instead, but in some situations it may really be the case that there is something accessible in that context that may work better than a treat! These can be toys, a game of tug, fetch, "access" to something they want in the environment (released to go outside, chase a bird, greet a new person, get on the couch, and so on), etc. If there is something obvious in the environment that your dog wants in a training scenario, and it's something safe for your dog to have or access, use it to your advantage to reinforce desired behavior!

A Few Tips That May Build Food Drive

Changing Up Your Treat Delivery

Some dogs may prefer to have their treats delivered in specific ways. For some dogs, especially more sensitive dogs, having a treat “pushed” in their face between two human fingers is not a very pleasant or fun way to receive food. Try tossing treats on the floor for your dog to “chase down,” dropping treats one at a time into a dish on the ground, or practice having your dog come to eat food from your hand, instead of you bringing your hand into their face to clever the treat. Some dogs who really enjoy sniffing may like to have their treats delivered by dropping them into a snuffle mat, or to sniff out in the grass when training out and about.

Reduce Your Criteria For A While

Sometimes we need to focus more on just building “eating” as a habit in various contexts before trying to add complicated behaviors into the picture. Many people have an idea in their head when training that the dog must “earn” each and every treat delivered to them, and get stuck on trying to ask their dog for various behaviors before giving a treat. For dogs with low food drive, we can’t ask them to do complicated behaviors or learn something new, if they’re not motivated to work for the reinforcer we have in the first place! Eating in different environments and situations is a skill for many dogs, and one that some will need to build on completely outside of the context of a “reinforcer” for a behavior. So, dial back on the “commands” for a while.

Instead, just spend some time bringing your dog to various environments and contexts and offering them food for doing “nothing.” Then, make note of how high the value of the reward you used, what environments your dog was happy to eat in, and what environments they refused food in. From here, you can continue to adjust treat value levels as well as keep building on practicing eating for “no reason” in environments your dog struggles with until you see an increase in their ability to connect with you and eat in various situations that you need it. Don’t try to shove food in their face, beg, or nag them to eat if they refuse. Simply hang out in one spot, let them take the world in around them, and offer a treat periodically, but take “no” for an answer if they refuse initially. If your dog starts showing signs of stress (barking, lunging, salivating, heavy panting, frantic behavior, or subdued behavior), this is information that the environment is too stressful and you need to find an easier context for your dog to practice eating in first for a while before increasing difficulty again.

Let Them “Practice” Working For Food

Mealtimes can be a great opportunity to give your dog chances to rehearse problem solving or working for food. This can be done through strategic enrichment feeding both during meals and throughout the day. Most dogs with low food drive will need to start small with really easy activities before trying to build to more difficult or complicated puzzles. If your dog walks away from an enrichment activity, that means the activity was too hard for their current skill level! Not sure where to start? Check this video out!

After your dog has had some practice at easier levels, you can then build on this skill with some DIY enrichment games too!

Use Another Reinforcer Your Dog Loves To “Reinforce” Eating

Some dogs are really toy-driven, and will find access to their favorite ball or a game of tug to be the most rewarding activity over anything else. Other dogs would really love the opportunity to access a rabbit pelt to play with, or chase down a flirt pole over eating treats. Use this to your advantage to build food drive! By asking your dog to eat food, then “marking” and rewarding this behavior with a reinforcer they love, you are actually building value in eating and taking treats through positive associations! Check this video out for a great example of a training session encouraging a dog to eat, and rewarding each repetition of eating with access to their favorite ball.

Try “Capturing” Desired Behavior For A While

If training sessions themselves have become “poisoned” for your dog because you’ve spent a lot of time nagging at them, trying to beg them to eat, or making training seem like a drill session instead of a fun activity, your dog may need to get some easy cookies for a while to build back their motivation to train. In the morning, try portioning out 50 valuable treats and placing them in your treat pouch that you’ll be wearing for the entire day. Now, try to find 50 different instances in your day that you can “capture” your dog making a desirable choice. This can be resting calmly, not barking at a sound outside, greeting you with 4 on the floor, or just giving you eye contact or checking in with you. All of these behaviors MUST be unprompted- we are not asking or cuing the dog to do anything in these situations. Each time they make a good choice unprompted, mark “yes!” and feed one of your 50 treats. Doing this exercise multiple days in a week should start to build your dog’s enthusiasm to take treats, as they are being delivered in moments of good choices, and the context of the training is very “low pressure.” This method is known as the SMARTx50 training method by Kathy Sdao, and is known to be a great way to get your dog making more frequent desirable choices in their day to day routine, as well as build their relationship with you and with the context of training with food entirely.

If you’re really struggling with trying to figure out why your dog’s desire to take food through training is low, your best bet is going to be consulting with a professional positive reinforcement-based trainer alongside your vet to figure out some underlying reasons, as well as strategies to start addressing the skill and building on it for training purposes. Sooner or later, these skills will pay off and you’ll have a more trainable dog to work with on building the behaviors you desire them to have!


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