I wish I had a nickel for all the times I’ve heard the phrase “my dog isn’t food motivated” as an excuse for why someone can’t get their dog to sit, fetch, come, or whatever behavior they are trying to teach. Such owners often simultaneously cite their dogs’ stubbornness, breed, drive, or other characteristics as proof that they cannot learn what other dogs can. So, how much truth is there to those assertions?
Well, in the case of food motivation, no truth whatsoever. Any organism that rejects nourishment dies. So, if you think your dog is truly and totally unmotivated by food, you should check his pulse right away!
I find it endlessly amusing that the owners of independent breeds seem largely unaware that the Internet is filled with just as many assertions about their particular breed being food motivated as it is by their particular breed being unmotivated. When training, it’s best to just look at the one dog before you, assess the situation unemotionally, and proceed according to the science and good training mechanics. But, a caveat. If you go around thinking that your dog is different, special, and no one understands, you are making excuses, not proceeding according to science. If behaviorists can make gorillas push their butts into a needle to get an injection, then certainly the same principles by which they do that can help you train your dog to come – if you use them and use them correctly.
The key to early learning and to retention is that you MUST use a reinforcement that the dog wants and use it at a high rate at first, then at an intermittent rate later. So, what are those reinforcements and how can we insure that our dogs get reinforced sufficiently to facilitate learning?
The reinforcement that most dogs prefer is food. There are some legitimate reasons why a dog might not take food in a given circumstance, however. One of the most common is anxiety. A dog’s system is designed to travel light when they feel they may need to fight or flee. Another is taste aversion. If a dog eats something that makes him queasy, even days later he can decide not to eat that particular food again. A third reason is satiety. If the dog just had dinner, he may not be very interested in continuing to eat, just because you want to work on “sit.” Some dogs refuse food in the presence of another, some won’t eat without the presence of another.
Trainers who want to use food as a reinforcement have some options on how to make it more appealing to a dog that doesn’t seem interested at the moment (we’ll talk about other reinforcements beside food in a bit). Firstly, the trainer can remove the dog from any anxiety-producing environment to a safer place to begin the training sessions. See if the dog will take a delectable “freebie” such as beef, chicken, lamb lung, tripe, etc. If he will, begin training. If not, lower your expectations and begin in an environment where he can take the treat, which indicates less anxiety.
Many dogs who won’t work for a store bought treat in the presence of distractions will work for something of higher value. It can pay off to do a “hierarchy of treats” test with your dog. What does the dog like better if you offer chicken and beef simultaneously, for example?
Dogs that are fed very high quality food, or fed raw, for example, might not have a very far jump to make in terms of raising the desirability of the food treat in terms of scent or taste. So, what do we do for those dogs? A couple of things. We might “close the economy” on food. That means that the dog must work for each morsel, or not get fed. There will be dogs for which you can partially close the economy, and dogs for which you can completely close it. Here’s where the force trainers usually jump in with their rants on how cruel it is to only feed a dog for working. Well, if the behavior you want to teach is a life-saving one, such as “Come!” then you need to decide if closing the economy on food is better than shocking the dog with a remote collar to enforce your will. Personally, I, and I assume my dogs, would prefer closing the economy on food, which leads to positive reinforcement for behavior (come, get fed), rather than being shocked, which leads to positive punishment (the shock) followed by negative reinforcement (the shock stays on until the dog complies, then it is removed).
It is doubtful that any dog, despite a temporary lapse in appetite, or a temporary removal of free food will deliberately starve itself. If you have any doubt as to whether it would be harmful to close the economy on food with your particular dog, then seek advice from a veterinarian behaviorist who is familiar with such protocols. Most failures of closing the economy on food are caused by nervous owners, some of whom even feed raw diets to their dogs as an “ancestral diet.” I guess I often wonder why they don’t seem to understand that, for the ancestral dogs, the rabbit didn’t run by every evening at five o’clock just begging to be consumed for dinner, as a mentor of mine once put it. Dogs didn’t always catch what they hunted, so they went for a while without a meal fairly often sometimes.
Notwithstanding all of the above, it is true that some dogs prefer other reinforcements to food. Dogs with a lot of drive or work ethic often respond well to tug games or frisbee/ball tosses as reinforcement, and it’s fine to use those. But, in my opinion, it’s silly to reject food that a dog likes in favor of a tug that you have to work to get him to like. Conversely, if you have to work to get your dog to respond to treats, and he is perfectly willing to work for a tug game, use the tug game.
In all my years training dogs, I have met exactly one dog who prefers praise to all else. That’s how rare it is, folks.
Some dogs like a good chase, and are blase about food or toys. If I had one of those, I’d figure out how to set up a lure in my yard and use it as a reinforcement!
Claiming that your dog doesn’t like food or toys, then just shrugging and putting a shock collar on him is a trainer failure, not a dog failure.
I regard it as part of my job as a trainer to make some form of positive reinforcement salient to the dog. It enables me to reject “Do it or I will hurt you” in favor of “Do it and I will pay you for your work.” I’d rather close the economy on food, and seem temporarily mean to my detractors, than to put a shock collar on a dog and prove that expediency trumps kindness. It never should. And it doesn’t have to.