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My Dog Isn’t Food Motivated….Really????????


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.

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About pawsforpraise

I own and operate Paws for Praise. We offer group dog training classes and behavior consultations in a dog and human friendly environment. We think training should be fun for you and your dog. Go ahead - make a tail wag! http://wp.me/P1hBuR-2

87 responses »

  1. I’m so glad you wrote this. I hate it that “not food motivated” has become such a catchy phrase. It’s right there waiting for people who are trying hard to use positive reinforcement for their dogs and failing for one reason or other. They can grab onto a label that sounds somehow meaningful. Put their dog in that category and what is the obvious solution? You said it well. I live in an area where science based positive reinforcement training is rare. Sadly, there are people who really want that who still end up falling into the hands of a local force club or trainer because they haven’t solved some fairly straightforward problem with finding the right reinforcement for their dog.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Eileen. Interestingly, on my Facebook feed this morning, two of the first people to “like” this post were veterinarian behaviorists. I’m very glad that they did, as they are legitimate authorities on applied animal behavior science, in whom dog owners should have confidence. As trainers, we need to be humble enough to recognize that when things don’t turn out as we plan, it’s often just a function of our own training mechanics going awry. We should return to fundamentals when that happens and evaluate our execution with an impartial and self-critical eye.

      Reply
      • I use the phrase “not food motivated” all the time. I use this because my dog Sophie has some anxiety issues, and her threshold is unbelievably low. Anything moving, anything making sound, if there is anything to distract her, she will not take a treat, she will not break gaze, she will not respond to verbal cues (except she will sit when cued firmly… but will do so without breaking her gaze, as if to pacify me). She is very good in the house, and responds to basic commands, but as soon as we leave the house, it’s a different story, despite my efforts to train her otherwise.

      • There’s a difference between “not food motivated” and “not able to take food right now” that I think is important to understand, though. Because, if your dog is unable to take food, you could try moving farther from the offending stimulus, or presenting it at a lower intensity, which would enable her to eat the goodie, thus enable some desensitization and counter-conditioning to take place. A subtle difference, perhaps, but one which enables humans to see that they can use food in training if they manipulate other variables – and at the same time lessens the likelihood of thinking things are hopeless, or that punishment is necessary.

  2. Very nice article. I find that most owners who complain about this particular non sequitur are having trouble with two intersecting, key points, treat value and distraction level. They expect that the stale dog biscuit crumbs they have on hand should be enough to capture the dogs attention in the presence of the sights, smells, and sounds, of the training environment. Also, if you were to observe a typical training session between these owners and their dogs, you will see frustration creeping into the owners body language which increases the anxiety you spoke of. Reducing distractions and raising the value of the reward is almost always the remedy for these mislabeled dogs, but it requires that we figure out what those rewards should be BEFORE we step into the training environment.

    Reply
    • I’ve also found that sometimes we need to close the economy on food. Dogs that can access a food bowl, or some chicken backs in the yard, any time they want have little use for the human as an important producer of those resources. Closing the economy does NOT mean “starving the dog” as detractors seem to want to point out. It simply means shifting the WAY the dog receives the food to one where the dog gets it for doing his job. A paycheck versus a welfare check, if you will. No one is suggesting that dogs with health issues go on any program that is not in their interest, so if someone has a fear about their dog not eating and becoming emaciated, they need to speak to a vet behaviorist, as that is a professional who will understand not only the medical but the behavioral implications of what’s going on. However, as has been pointed out to me many times by my friend and mentor, Jean Donaldson, “when you hear hoofbeats, look for horses, not zebras.” Thus, MOST situations require a reasonable attempt at the normal interventions before we seek a more obscure explanation for a dog’s relationship with food.

      Reply
  3. My Rupert had little interest in food and would often go several days without eating. Wouldn’t take food outside of the house at all. Didn’t make any difference how I fed him or what I offered him he’d often walk away. He was better on raw but even that was ignored outside. He was seen by several vets and had god knows how many examinations and tests done, no physical issues causing his reluctance to eat. Trainers and behaviourists were stumped by it too, ended up just labelling him as untrainable because he didn’t see food (or toys or praise) as a reward. He spent most of his life around10kg underweight and going to be weighed at the vets every week or two to make sure he wasn’t losing even more weight. You could feel every bump in his spine, his ribs, his hips. In fact the first time one vet saw him he threatened to have me done for starving him!

    Rupert was clicker trained despite that. He wouldn’t work for food or toys or praise but would usually work for the opportunity to sniff or do a behaviour he enjoyed. It was far from ideal and the only thing he was reliable with was sit but we muddled along. I have no idea where his food issues stemmed from, he was an adult when I got him and already very reluctant to eat. I put it down to anxiety at first as he was a wreck but after 8 years he was completely relaxed in the house yet still reluctant to eat. Many times he actually seemed frightened of food and would back away looking horrified when he came across it or was offered it. Not at all normal really.

    Reply
    • I give you a lot of credit for persisting with clicker training and using motivators that you thought the dog was interested in. Sometimes I think that dogs with food issues do have the more uncommon problems of allergies, sensitivities, fear of their license tags clinking on the bowl, or other more obscure issues that vets and owners sometimes miss for whatever reason. None of it, in my opinion, and I think in yours, justifies the use of force or coercion versus management. A dog that doesn’t have a recall can be contained within a safely fenced area, or walked on a leash. But, hurting a dog to train it is unthinkable for me. I wish that we had known one another when you were trying to train Rupert. Possibly someone might have been able to come up with a suggestion for why your little guy didn’t do well in terms of eating and nutrition. I’m not at all certain that his issues weren’t from anxiety, since you said he took the raw food indoors finally, but not outdoors. That would seem to fit with a dog that has anxiety. I know they found no physical issue, but was he ever tried on a course of medication for that?

      Reply
      • Oh he most definitely had anxiety issues, the world was full of Rupert Eating Monsters that could spring from around any corner at any moment. I have no doubt that was why he refused to eat outside. It could also be why he was so reluctant to eat indoors but he seemed relaxed, happy and confident in the house. I wondered whether he associated food with some sort of punishment or other scary event because his reaction to it could be so extreme. Things he’d had before he didn’t seem afraid of, just disinterested. New foods on the other hand could actually send him into hiding for a while. He also had allergies, a fear of metal bowls and a dislike of other types of bowls. He ate off a towel on the floor in the end. Poor Rupe, he was a bit of a neurotic mess but much loved all the same.

        I asked many times about medication for his anxiety but none of the vets we saw seemed to believe he needed them. Would have loved to at least try him on some to see whether they made a difference.

        And no, hurting a dog to train it isn’t something I’m willing to do.

      • Sometimes, if a trainer is trying to desensitize and counter-condition a dog to scary stimuli, the make an error in the order of presentation of the food. So, the answer to your question is that, yes, he could have associated food with a scary stimulus. For example, if the food was presented BEFORE the stimulus, it would PREDICT the stimulus, whereas what we really seek is for the stimulus to predict the food, thus making the stimulus more palatable, creating what we call a +CER to it (positive conditioned emotional response).

  4. Pingback: What if my dog isn’t food motivated? – Communicate with your Dog

  5. I know this is an old thread, but hopefully you will see this comment! I have a dog that is not food motivated. (Has she not even read the post she’s commenting on!?) Please bear with me. 🙂
    My dog is a four year old husky/gsd rescue, he had a long line of owners before he was even one year old which ended with him being so afraid of humans that they gave up and left him in a kennel with no human contact except for feeding for almost six months. I got him when he was a year and a half old and have been rehabilitating him ever since.
    When I first got him I assumed that his lack of food motivation (and digestive upset, which will become relevant in a few sentences) was due to his severe neophobia. (He was afraid of everything from balloons, to babies, to cars parked in the “wrong spot”) But he has come a tremendous distance from where he was, and still snubbed his nose at food and had terrible bowel movements.
    After two years of expensive testing ranging from allergy tests, pancreas function panels, treating malevolent gut bacteria to colonoscopies we determined that he is grain and beef intolerant and has anorexia induced by irritable bowel syndrome. He’s now on a half raw, novel protein diet because anything else has him exploding from both ends.
    Needless to say food has historically been painful for him. He will regularly go 2-4 days without eating, and then may only pick at his food. You could offer him a dripping raw chicken breast and if he isn’t “feeling it” he will walk away. Even if he hasn’t eaten for a week.
    He is still distrustful of strangers, and large displays of emotion (such as “GOOD BOY!”) make him nervous. He never had exposure to toys before I got him, so generally doesn’t get too excited over them. The only thing I’ve found that really consistently motivates him are other dogs, and prey items. He has two canine companions, but I’m not sure how to incorporate them as an element of positive obedience exercises. And call me selfish, but I’m not going to give him one of my pet rats to play with when he gives me a good sit. 😛

    What are your suggestions for a dog that is both socially anxious and has a medical condition which really DOES “turns off” that food motivation?

    Reply
    • Hi Elizabeth,
      No one ever said it was always easy to find what will motivate an individual dog, but even with dogs such as yours, food can still be one component, just maybe not the only one, or even the primary one. Dogs that are excited by prey can often be motivated by simulant toys. For example, one of my dogs is OK working for food, but the real primary motivator for her is her frisbee disc. Another of my dogs is like yours, motivated by contact with other dogs. So, when practicing recalls with him, he may get food, but the better reinforcement is getting to go back to his playmates (Google “Premack principle” for why this works). One of the best trainers, Ken Ramirez, has some great strategies for non-food reinforcers, so I urge you to check out his site, and grab a copy of his video, Reinforcement Strategies. You can get it from Tawzer Dog Videos.
      http://reactivechampion.blogspot.com/2011/08/ken-ramirez-seminar-non-food.html
      Another thing to remember is that you do not have to train for a long time to be effective. So, if you know that your dog is interested in food at a particular moment, use it to your advantage by doing a couple of really short exercises that can be reinforced with the food your dog is presently interested in. I think it was Jean Donaldson who reminded me that first impressions are very salient to dogs. So, for example, if you are luring or capturing a behavior for the first time, make the reinforcement spectacular. If your dog likes prey items, maybe the first time you offer a reinforcement for a behavior it could be a toy on a flirt pole, or a squeaker toy that you make particularly exciting by interacting with him as you give it. Our job as trainers is to find what motivates the dog and capitalize on it. All dogs are motivated at some point by food, because if they weren’t they’d be dead. But, that isn’t to say that the dog hasn’t got something else that is really important to them, too. The reinforcement for “wait” can be simply opening the door that the dog wants to go through;-)

      Reply
    • Sounds like my Honey 😦 We had her on antihistamine which helped with her itches and behaviour, and I used to call her my Asperger’s dog. Just like my severely Asperger’s nephew she had multiple food intolerances.

      Reply
  6. Thank you so much! We do indeed have a working breed puppy, almost 4 months old, obedient about 50% of time. Since we have children, we really want to Train her to respond to positive training so as to never put them in a position of danger or helplessness when dealing with her. Bless you and thanks again!

    Reply
  7. Sandra Kelley

    My dog was a little weird at first-he was a year old when he came to me and frightened of everything. He would not eat unless I was in the room and often missed meals because of that. However, he would do absolutely anything I asked him to do simply because I wanted him to do it.
    As his anxiety lessened the importance of play and food as additional reinforcers increased-I am still his favorite reinforce but food and toys matter too.

    Reply
    • Clearly, you have established a relationship of trust with this dog, and the fact that he is now motivated by toys and food, as well as by proximity to you, is a very good thing. It’s really not about which motivator the human wants the dog to work for, it’s all about what really motivates the dog! For most dogs, that means food. For some, it means toys. For the occasional dog, the reinforcement is the interaction with their human – that’s not to say that most dogs don’t enjoy that, because they do, but given a choice between an approving pat and a piece of liverwurst, the pat falls flat;-))

      Reply
  8. Pingback: Dog training tip: dealing with a dog that isn't food motivated - K9aggression.com

  9. My dog is a little weird. It’s not that she’s especially put off by food… she likes treats, usually, and I have her trained rather well by now (she’s a border collie/springer spaniel/hound who just turned four). But often, she’ll do what is asked of her, and won’t take the reward. She’s not a huge fan of toys (unless our other dog has them, of course. Then she wants them) and she likes to chase but I can easily tell her to wait and she’ll stay beside me. The strange thing about her is that she doesn’t seem to be especially motivated by anything. Her general attitude toward reward is often “meh,” although she usually does what I’ve asked of her anyway. She loves praise, and gets excited about it, but I don’t think she loves it enough to get her to do something she really doesn’t want to do. As I said, I’ve trained her rather well, mostly taking advantage of the times that she does want treats, and mixing the rewards up often (treats, praise, a game of chase) so she doesn’t get too bored with them, but have you ever heard of this before? Her general attitude about accepting rewards can make it difficult to introduce new tricks and commands to her. She’s a good girl and one of the better trained dogs that I know, as long as it’s me that’s giving her the commands. I just wanted to know if this general non-motivation is something a lot of people run into.

    Reply
    • I find that some dogs, especially the herding breeds, prefer other reinforcements. I wouldn’t give up so easily. She might like frisbee, or a game of tug better than what you’ve offered thus far. You might be interested in the work of Ken Ramirez. He does a lot of seminars on reinforcement.

      Reply
      • Thanks for the link! And don’t worry. I haven’t given up at all. As I said, I’ve trained her quite well. She’s very well behaved, for the most part, and very smart, whether she wants the reward or not. I just thought she was a little strange and wanted to know if this was normal thing to see. I didn’t know that it was something that seems to go along with the herding breeds. Good to know!

      • You’re very welcome, Kelsey. Happy training!

      • Odd isn’t it! There’s Ken Ramirez talking about how to develop ‘non-food reinforcers.
        Yet this site is claíming that we poor silly suckers (with non-foody dogs) should develop foods as a reinforcement by pairing it with non-food thingies (like permission to run, to chase a ball, to catch a toy, to take some jumps, to get into the car, to come into the house on a cold night, to go put of the house and bask in the sun on a sunny day. . . etc, etc, etc.
        I’d say that we people NOT using food (alone) as a reinforcement are way ahead of all you people using food treats to motivate wanted behavious.

      • I’m not sure why you’d think that people who use food are not also using other reinforcements. My dog loves working for tennis balls, frisbee, privileges, etc. However, the point of this article is that almost every dog will work for food, and it’s often the most convenient thing to use. When a dog isn’t interested in food, my first inclination is to understand why, because I want to determine if anxiety is the cause. I also want to figure out if the reason is taste aversion due to sensitivity or allergy. Linda Case’s new book, “I Only Have Eyes for You” has some interesting insights on dog food and what it might really contain versus what’s on the ingredient list.

  10. How on earth is it cruel to expect a dog to “earn” his dinner? I must be extraordinarily cruel, then, as I require my four dogs to work for their meal. After all, my husband and I must work for our meals. Our children must work for a good education and a solid future, and a dog that works hard and receives loads of praise and love from his person/people is a happy dog, a dog that feels accomplished and clever and loved, a mentally stimulated dog, a not-frustrated dog, and a dog with a good relationship with his owner. And when people realize that training is quite simple and positive it becomes very enjoyable. I’ve never heard of someone saying it was cruel to require an animal to work for his feed. I guess I’m a little hung up on that completely irrational idea.

    Reply
  11. I have a 7 month old Yorkie. In the 6 weeks she’s been here, I have bought 7 different kinds of treats (soft, hard, different flavors, etc), There is a little bowl of them beside her regular food and she has not touched any of them. She eats very little of her regular food and has not put on any weight in the last month (the vet is aware of this), When she does go potty outside, I tell her “good girl” but she doesn’t respond. She makes no attempt to let me know she needs to go, even peed on the sofa today while I was petting her. She also does not come when I call her because she knows I am either going to put her in the crate or take her outside.
    I am reaching the point of giving up.

    Reply
    • Weaglette, there’s a really nice house training protocol created by Helen Verte Schwartzmann at Love Wags a Tail. It’s inexpensive but totally based in science and it might help you get your dog trained. Also, if you are leaving food out all the time, maybe that’s why she isn’t thrilled with it. Could you try having a meal time? Put her food down for 15-20 minutes, then if she doesn’t eat it, take the food away and try again in an hour. Dogs don’t automatically know where to pee, or how to come when called without training. I suggest you find a trainer through the Pet Professional Guild listings and get to class! Meantime, here’s the link for the house training help:

      http://www.lovewagsatail.com/webinar-housetraining-123/

      Reply
  12. Michelle Schagen

    Thank you for the great article! I have a 4 year old German Shepherd who, when he was younger was a delight to train and very obedient. However, he now seems to not respond to any of his previous training and I find myself struggling to get his attention long enough to train him. He’s not food motivated and never has been and so in training him I tried to use his ball as he LOVES his ball. The problem is, he sees the ball and nothing else. He is so fixated on the ball that he doesn’t listen to me and goes into a frenzy because he MUST have the ball. I’m really struggling with him at the moment and have given it some thought to send him to a training camp where they take him for 9 days and do intense training with him. This is my last option though as I really want to train him myself and work with him.

    Something needs to be done because he is just constantly excited and wanting to chase things which isn’t good when people come to the house. He’s acting like a crazy kelpie in a shepherds body.

    Reply
    • Please do NOT send him to a camp unless they are members of Pet Professional Guild – most of them use very harsh methods, such as prong collars and shock collars. Your dog may come home looking obedient, but will have been intimidated and possibly even hurt to get that result. Results can also be obtained via positive training.
      Your dog may be ball driven, but that’s OK – my Aussie is frisbee driven! She responds to my cues which have been trained with BOTH food and the frisbee as reinforcements. I suspect that your problem may lie in a simple trainer mechanics error, so you could try revisiting that. Good sources for information on training drivey dogs are:
      Pam’s Dog Academy DVD’s
      Kikopup channel on YouTube
      Dogmantics (Emily’s other site)
      Also, a terrific DVD now out from Kathy Sdao in which she highlights some of the errors we make as trainers.
      I find that every time I think my dog is wrong, it’s me who is wrong. Dogs just react to what we do, so if we haven’t found a way to make the crinkling bag NOT signal food… Or, if we have made the ball the antecedent, rather than the reinforcement…
      Many things to consider, but pain or fear should NEVER be introduced as a training method.

      Reply
  13. We have a special needs foster dog, and we’ve found it hard to get anywhere with her because she is so averse to the world. She was rescued from a hoarder with over 100 dogs who constantly bred her to keep adding more. She is about 4 years old and nearly feral, not connecting with us or our dog. She will completely disengage and freeze because of anxiety/fear, and we haven’t found anything to help us build trust. I truly believe she would starve herself (she’s underweight as it is) before she would eat with anyone around, let alone use food as reinforcement. We can’t get her attention with toys or treats, and often have to force her from cowering in the corner even to go outside to eliminate. She doesn’t move or walk around except when we take her on walks, and even that is a challenge. The rescue has tried contacting professionals in our small city, but their advice is to put her down. I know that all dogs are different, and it’s really hard to assess a situation from such little information, but if you have any suggestions, we’re willing to try anything we can to help this poor girl.

    Reply
    • Sarah, I would refer you to Debbie Jacobs’ book and web site: http://www.fearfuldogs.com. She also has a Facebook group by the same name. There are trainers on that group who will have some great suggestions, as they’ve worked with feral dogs, extremely fearful dogs, and dogs with multiple issues. Your dog might benefit from an evaluation by a veterinarian behaviorist, as some dogs seem to do better if they get appropriate medication at the beginning of their behavior mod program. Don’t give up – join the group and get some support!

      Reply
    • I don’t know how long you’ve had your rescue, but I would give her time. I adopted a puppy mill breeding dog from a rescue site that was itself not all that great. My dog had been “rescued” from the puppy mill, but was put in a cage and not fostered. She shut down entirely the first time I took her outside to do her business, so from then on, she stayed in the kitchen with her crate door open, but the kitchen gated so she couldn’t go elsewhere. It took her several months to come out of the crate to eat–which only happened at night after I was in bed. I would sit on the floor not facing her and use high-value treats to get her to come closer to me, putting the treats closer and closer to me to get her closer to me. By the 4th time, she’d figured it out and stopped taking the treats. I ended up giving her lots of “space”. I used non-threatening body language at all times, and always spoke in a higher pitched baby talk voice. I never said anything negative or reacted negatively to anything she did, but she didn’t come out of her crate much when I was around. Eventually, she started to use the puppy pads, I used a web-fronted soft harness, and eventually got her out of the kitchen. 10 months later, she has her bed in a corner of my LR-DR combo, she eats in front of me, and even comes to the kitchen at meal time. She does not like being outside, and we’ve just started a clicker training class for shy and fearful dogs (interesting read on the non-food-motivated dog above), and while the class hasn’t changed much behavior, it’s teaching me a lot about what I can do when at home. Sorry for being so long-winded, but with an anxious dog, backing off, giving space, and moving at what the dog is comfortable with is very important. Every time I thought my dog was making great progress, I’d often step it up too much and she’d regress. I’m learning to take it really slow! Good luck.

      Reply
      • I’m so glad you posted this. A critical error we sometimes make is to misunderstand the contingency in counter-conditioning a dog to accept our presence, or any other trigger stimulus. The correct contingency is to offer food as the dog *notices* as stimulus. If we offer food AFTER a trigger has pushed the dog over its fear/aggression threshold, then food is acting as a PREDICTOR of bad things, versus a predictor of good things. Hence, the dog begins to refuse food as a strategy to keep the scary stimulus at bay. This principle is why trainers sometimes use a “treat-retreat” strategy. It seems you have continued to seek help and have gotten beyond the error, so good for you! Never stop learning. The strategy that worked was to let her habituate to her surroundings, and you, without pressure. I think that some dogs don’t even want your presence at first, it’s too scary. So, the idea of leaving food that they can eat at will, at first, is OK, as is letting them come out on their own without the human intruding into their space. Once you get to the point where your dog trusts you enough to take goodies from your hand, careful DS/CC can work wonders with other stimuli. You might be interested in the Facebook group “Fearful Dogs” administered by Debbie Jacobs, who wrote a terrific book on the subject. Good luck in future training.

  14. Our 3yo Cane Corso is well-trained despite the fact she is not food/treat/etc motivated. Her only motivation/pleasure is to have all her “pack” near her. She is very muscular and extraordinarily lean (avg 95#). However, in the last 24 hrs she has eaten very little of her feed (even with enhancement) & appears to have lost some weight. She has no vomiting or diarrhea and is somewhat lethargic. Any advice? Vet today or would waiting until another feed time be prudent?

    Reply
    • Connie, all dogs are “food motivated” normally. But, that issue aside, any time an adult dog presents with not wanting to eat, and lethargy, that is sudden in onset, I would call the vet immediately for advice.

      Reply
  15. Hi,

    I have a 2 year old cocker spaniel who I struggle to motivate with food and toys – but only outdoors. She responds well to clicker and food-based training indoors but in most outdoor environments she barely responds to the click at all, or if she does she turns her head briefly but doesn’t bother to come and collect the treat. When offered food directly to her face she often turns her nose up or swallows it in an automatic sort of way but without really enjoying it. She certainly has anxiety issues to some degree – she is very sensitive to outdoor environments even without any obvious triggers (or rather I can’t detect any but she clearly can)… She is often fearful of strange dogs she encounters on walks (but not in a predictable way – some are ok, some not, it seems to depend on their size/posture/body language). We are looking into Behaviour Adjustment Training to help with this. However, in addition to the anxiety (which is not always the problem) there is the fact that she is VERY easily distracted outside. Her recall is poor because of this, despite working on it constantly. The problem is, when outdoors and off lead, it feels like there is NOTHING motivating enough to use as a reward for coming back to me. No food (no matter how tasty) or toy, is more rewarding to her than running about sniffing the ground. She will often actively ignore/reject any food or toy I offer as a reward when she does come back… I always reward her with a release to go back to what she was doing before as this is obviously what she enjoys doing. But even that doesn’t seem to be reinforcing enough – as the recall is not improving with this (or any!) reward system. I have been doing agility training with her for over a year now as well, and after an encouraging start her interest has started to wain and she now constantly runs off the course to sniff the ground, and it takes several calls/whistles to get her back to me. I have tried various food treats and toys to motivate her to stay on the course with me but to no avail. I am considering giving up the agility as it seems she is no longer interested enough to justify doing it… And inevitably I end up getting frustrated when she runs off constantly so I don’t enjoy it anymore either. I am gutted as I would love to continue doing it but at the moment it is not fun for either of us… Although having said that I am pretty sure if I had access to an indoor agility set up this would not be a problem!! The problem I think is that the environments in which we do the agility there are just too many distractions to allow her to focus on me and the course. Do you have any suggestions on how to handle these problems? I find training her outside a constant struggle, I work so hard with her all the time and feel I am not getting anywhere. I am starting to feel that this is just the way she is and things will never get better! 😦

    Reply
    • You may be over-facing her, or you might just need a bit of help in the motivation department combined with smaller criteria for her to master at a time. Have a look at this new web site on the subject of how we use progressive desensitization and counter-conditioning to help dogs such as yours to become more confident. Also, read Debbie Jacobs’ “Fearful Dogs” and see her web site of the same name.
      http://www.careforreactivedogs.com

      Reply
    • The way trainers test for anxiety is to offer a dog a really delectable treat – if they can’t eat at that moment, it could very well be because of anxiety. I suggest you have a look at the CARE site. Dogs that are anxious can benefit from a two part treatment plan. First, some work on developing a better emotional response to the things that scare them. Second, some behaviors to train that will make likelier that the dog can focus on tasks in increasingly distracting settings.
      http://www.careforreactivedogs.com. Another good site: http://www.fearfuldogs.com.

      Reply
  16. I have a german shepherd puppy. She is 9 months old turning 10 months old on October 5th 2014. She is a very smart dog but she Is Not food driven. I’ve taught her sits platz ouce ( a bunch of german commands ) and different tricks like opening the door and more so i am not making an excuse cause my dog wont sit. We first tried kibble she does not like kibble and will go for weeks without eating. We switched to raw but she got bored of it quickly. We called the vet and he came over. He said she wasnt getting enough enzymes in her diet. So he recommended Dinovite and lickochops. They’re really good and natural. My 40lb german shepherd went to 51.5 lbs in a month. Her dad is 138 lbs not over wieght and her mom was 110 lbs and not over wieght. We now take her to Shutzhund. It is a german sport consisting of tracking obedience and protection. We have to use hot dogs to train her but she is the only dog there that does not like food. She hates food. And is not food driven she sniffs the food and walks away. She is a West German showline shepherd. And no just cause shes doesnt mean showlines dont like food. I see alot at my Shutzhund club that are in love with food. I dont know how to raise her food drive any suggestions?

    Reply
    • First, be sure you are using force free training, without “corrections” – some dogs are anxious when punitive training is used, so they refuse food. If you do not know how to train for Schutzhund without coercion, there are some good trainers starting to do so, notably Shade Whitesel and Denise Fenzi. Denise offers online classes. Also, not specifically Schutzhund, but Hannah Branigan’s DVD might help for the obedience behaviors.
      I think you may either have an anxious dog or perhaps she has food sensitivities. Food aversion is a survival mechanism that helps dogs that get queasy after eating a particular food avoid that food in the future. FWIW, hot dogs in quantity are very fatty, have been known to cause pancreatitis in some dogs, and can upset dogs that don’t tolerate a lot of fat. This article mentions other common offenders related to food allergies in dogs. Not saying that’s the cause, but if you think it is, your vet can test for it. I have found, though, that anxiety or fear is the top cause for avoiding food. http://pets.webmd.com/dogs/guide/caring-for-a-dog-that-has-food-allergies

      One thing to consider – if your dog is uncomfortable in the Schutzhund milieu, try a different sport! Some dogs prefer a quieter life. So, things like scent work, rally obedience, agility, etc. might be more to her liking. Another tactic might be to give her a hiatus from training altogether for about six weeks. Then, begin again, but from the beginning, say with clicker training, so that she reframes the circumstances in which food is being offered to all good experiences. If your heart is set on Schutzhund, then you may want to see what people like Shade Whitesel and Denise Fenzi are doing – training without force.

      Reply
  17. I still say that my 10 yr. old Lab/Rott mix is not food-motivated. BUT I use other rewards for training. He’s never been much of an eater and finds very few treats appealing.

    Reply
    • If that’s the case, food motivation still isn’t the real problem – food is a primary reinforcer for all animals. Animals that aren’t motivated by food die. Your dog is 10 years old, so he’s been motivated by food for ten years!

      Food refusal is not the same thing as being generally unmotivated by food. Dogs refuse food for various reasons, including anxiety, taste aversion (if the food was previously followed by nausea, the dog may refuse that food in the future).

      Owners who don’t want to train with food often use food refusal as justification (not saying that’s you, just that the attitude perpetuates a myth). I’d be looking for the reason for the food refusal so that I could fix it and then go on using the most powerful reinforcement at my disposal. First, I might try offering my dog a higher value treat – like real meat. I’d offer it in different contexts – does he refuse it at the park, but eat it in the living room or in the back yard?

      I’d also avoid trying to tempt my dog with common food sensitivity or allergy offenders, such as wheat, soy, chicken or beef. Some roasted lamb or a teaspoon of green tripe might be more welcomed.

      Also, just because a dog might actually prefer to work for a non-food reinforcement during training, such as a quick frisbee toss or game of tug, it still doesn’t mean the dog is unmotivated by food.

      Reply
    • Does he eat enough to survive? That’s food motivation in action. Truly, if that’s the dog’s only motivation, I’d want to see if he was having difficulty with food sensitivities or allergies. Lack of food motivation is not normal behavior for animals and often indicates a problem somewhere, such as anxiety. If your dog was punishment trained in his past, or if someone did classical conditioning incorrectly and got “backward conditioning” instead, those are also possible, but again, not the norm.

      Reply
  18. > in the case of food motivation, no truth whatsoever. Any organism that rejects nourishment dies>

    This in one of my pet hates! And such a silly thing to say to people who come to you for help with their dogs!

    Not all dogs will ‘work for food’.

    Sure with most of these dogs you could starve them until they opt to eat treats. But why?
    People lean for a wide variety of rewards — why not use all the things a dog really wants to reward a behaviour instead of trying to make it tale a food treat? My Working Kelpie would vomit treats back out if I managed to coerce him into taking them in the first place. And yes, I DID teach him to take treats, to make the ‘instructor’ happy — you swallow that bit of sausage and THEN I’ll throw the ball. Then with the German Shepherd I had at the same time, she took every treat offered her, nicely, then dropped it when she thought nobody was looking. I had another German Shepherd who simply would not take a treat when ‘working’ — I called his problem the Reagan Syndrome — couldn’t walk up steps and chew gum at the same time. He was quite happy to take random treats though, so was rather easy to shape to ‘lie around doing nothing much’ 😉

    Then you have the other dogs where getting them to eat, enough so that strangers don’t stop you in the street and abuse you for starving your dog, can be a real problem. I’ve has two of them. Both German Shepherds — I suspect they both digestive problems. I know that the German Shepherd I had before food training became the fad had digestive problems.

    Now on my thirteenth dog, I FINALLY have one who behaves like Training Instructors insist that ALL dogs behave.
    She’ll do ANYTHING for food. Weird little dog! 🙂

    Reply
    • Actually, it is very difficult to convince humans of much when they don’t want to see another point of view. I will tell you that there are many dogs that prefer other reinforcers to food – that is not the same thing as being unmotivated by food.

      The most common reasons for dogs being uninterested in food at the time of training are anxiety and satiation. I have no problem with using different reinforcements than food. What I have a problem with is people who use punishment and justify it by saying the dog isn’t food motivated, as if a prong collar is somehow a better solution than closing the economy on food. Or, those who overface dogs with situations they aren’t ready for.
      That said, I’ve never starved a dog, and I’ve never met one that wouldn’t work for food once sensitivities and anxiety were out of the picture.

      Reply
      • Just seen this reply to my post. But Sorry. There ARE dogs who do not like food. Possibly you could starve these dogs enough to make them want food, but with two of mine I needed all their lives to coax them to eat. 😦
        I have always thought that there was something terribly wrong with dogs who will eat at all times. It IS unnatural.
        You might want to look up the recent research re Labradors and the genetic mutation which causes them to have a morbid appetite.
        Why WOULD a dog want to eat a food treat to reward physical activity?
        Just think sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

      • It’s extreme to say that trainers “starve” dogs to get them to work. Actually, hand feeding meals during training is a pleasant bonding experience for many dogs and their handlers. I would rather get a dog a bit hungry, then reward him versus using an aversive collar designed to cause him pain, were those the only alternatives available. Reinforcement doesn’t always need to be food, but it helps if you can use it for instances where you need a high reinforcement rate. I have no problem using real meat, and I find that if you test your own dog’s favorites by offering choices (does he like beef or turkey better, is his fave meat or cheese) then you can use that to tell the dog which responses are even more to his advantage.
        You may want to think about this study and your own attitudes when assessing your dog’s choices about food: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10071-007-0102-7#/page-1
        I would also direct your attention to this blog post by Eileen Anderson, to which I yield, as her information and research data is newer than when I first wrote this post. http://eileenanddogs.com/2016/06/14/dog-isnt-food-motivated/

      • >pawsforpraise | June 23, 2016 at 8:13 am
        It’s extreme to say that trainers “starve” dogs to get them to work.>
        No I never said that — what I did say was that I might be able to get my (weird) dogs to ‘work for food” if I starved them.
        and I posted my replies in good faith. I am sick and tired of ignorant people accusing me of using coercive or cruel methods on my dogs
        We people who CANNOT use food with out dogs (because for some reason they find food aversive — which I could go into but that would be an article) do not use coercive or abusive methods to train. I had only one dog who seemed totally unmotivated by anything (my Asperger’s dog) but with my other non-food motivated dogs I have used ball throws and catches, and with one dog a turn on the agility obstacles. I use ‘life rewards’ and yes I have used foo at meal times, and “Bone Time” to get the dogs back into the car after a trip to the beach.
        Many, many people (including the New South Wales Police Force) use tug games as training rewards.
        Then I don’t know what breeds you have experience with of what individual quirks your dogs have had. But food sensitivities and anxieties are not susceptible to instant cures.
        Yes and I finally have a foody dog”‘. She is a proper pain in the neck and very difficult to get reliable behaviour from her. I find that life and game rewards get much better reliability because of the wide variety of things you CAN use. Even if you dog is a garbage guts and will eat anything anywhere I STILL recommend using food treats only in the initial stages of training

      • I disagree. I believe in reinforcing dogs with things they like. So, if my dog likes food as a reinforcement, I’ll continue to use it (and any other reinforcements she likes as well). I’m a bit tired of people thinking food is a “bad” reinforcement. It isn’t. It’s just one of many.

      • pawsforpraise | October 17, 2016 at 6:29 pm
        I disagree. I believe in reinforcing dogs with things they like. So, if my dog likes food as a reinforcement, I’ll continue to use it (and any other reinforcements she likes as well). I’m a bit tired of people thinking food is a “bad” reinforcement. It isn’t. It’s just one of many.>>>

        NO, no, no, no. YOU are missing the point! Your are implying that there is something wrong with your dog/your training methods IF you do not use food in training. (Your dog is stressed/your food treats are not exciting enough/etc.)

        I was not even saying that food is ‘bad” — but that it is not necessary for ‘positive training’.
        Simply put I would say, do not worry IF your dog won’t take a food treat or find a food treat reinforcing. There are plenty of other rewards you can use.
        I find the people (usually agility trainers) who insist that you must teach your dog to enjoy a tug game just as closed-minded as those who insist on the use of food. Not all healthy happy dogs actually want food when they are active, and not all healthy happy active dogs want to play tug.
        As you say use whatever your dog want — at that time — as a reward for good behaviour.
        But I would add use a LOT of different rewards — never always the same — or you will get dogs (like Mad Milly) who assess the expected reward and decide then whether or not that over-rides the pleasure of running away/chasing a car/chasing the horses/killing the neighbours chooks.

      • I never said other reinforcers were bad, however, it is frequently NOT a food issue that gets in the way of using food, and it’s also not necessarily true that dogs don’t want to be reinforced with food. Check out Eileenanddogs’ blog post “My Dog Refuses Food Away From Home!” for a bit more info on the subject.

  19. My dog accepts treats inside and around our house and at friends houses. But not outside when we are on a walk or up at the open field I take him for off lead time. He has excellent recall around the houses and gardens but really needs better recall up at the field. Do you have any suggestions on what I can do to engage him better?

    He’s a jack Russell, and using treats he’s learned on the mat, sit, lay down, up, paw, wait, leave, “can have”. On lead with no treats he’s learned wait, short lead,stop, crossing, “this side” and on the path.

    He’s highly toy orientated indoors and out in the garden but doesn’t have any interest in balls up at the field but he does enjoy his Frisbee though gets bored of it after about 15 minutes. Indoors without treats he knows “bring the ball”, “not a jedi” and “Ta”.

    Reply
    • He may be too anxious to take food, so instead of going out into the neighborhood right away, you could start closer to home and build confidence gradually. If he’s refusing the food due to arousal – some of these dogs are quite intrigued with prey – then you could try some of the techniques on Emily Larlham’s DVD, “Harnessing the Hunter.”

      Reply
  20. I adopted a 1.5 year old dog from my local shelter a recently. I do not know the dogs history much, but I can assume a few things. For one, I am sure she was a run away. I left her in the back yard and went into the front yard, when she heard my voice she was able to clear a 6 good gate and took off. thankfully I was able to catch up to her and bring her home. Needless to say shes not aloud in the back yard alone anymore. my point is that she obviously spent some time as a stray, and I think it made her scared of the outside world. she is a perfect dog in the house (aside from needing to work on stay a bit), and good in the back yard, but the moment we are out we walk outside or go to a dog park she is completely unreachable. She will stare at anyone or anything making noise and will not respond to my commands or even take any treats. Thankfully she is more scared the aggressive so she hasn’t bit or lunged at any dog yet. Sorry for the long rant, but i just would like some help on how i can make her more relaxed in those situations. I would like to be able to let her off leash at the dog park knowing she will come when called.

    Reply
    • Timothy, there’s a really good resource for owners of fearful dogs. Debbie Jacobs has written a book on the subject, has a great web site at http://www.fearfuldogs.com, and also has a Facebook group called Fearful Dogs. To join the FB group, you’ll need to pay for (about $10) and watch a short webinar (well worth it). It’s a very supportive group, and I’m sure you’ll find some help there from Debbie and her crew.

      Reply
  21. I really like this article but I wish there were more examples of what to do when you figure out why your dog isn’t eating. My dog is a rescue, is almost 9 months old and frequently, I have to hand feed her in the mornings to get her to eat. I know the problem is one of two things…(a) her bowl is by the back door and she is distracted by joggers (easy one, move her bowl), or (b) she has anxiety about my getting ready to go to work because she knows I am about to leave her by herself. For problem (b), all I can do is get up 30 minutes early and sit and drink my coffee so she feels comfortable eating and that I’m not about to leave her…most of the time. It doesn’t work all the time and as a result, she misses breakfast about once or twice a week because I HAVE TO GO TO WORK. I come home every day at lunch to let her out and play with her. On the weekends or when my husband is home, she has NO problems at all eating her breakfast or dinner. Do you have any other ideas for her anxiety on being left alone?

    Reply
    • If she has mild separation distress some of the hints from Dr. Patricia McConnell’s book, “I’ll Be Home Soon” might help.
      For dogs with severe separation anxiety, Malena DeMartini Price’s book “Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs” is new and well worth the read. She has a web site, too and offers consultation.

      Reply
      • Thank you so much for the advice! We’ve found the ultimate motivator for her. She’ll do anything for her frisbee. And in addition to getting up earlier to feed her so she doesn’t associated eating with me leaving, I’ve also started to drizzle a teeny bit of the peanut butter flavored “Kong Stuffin” on top of her food (or sometimes mix it with some canned food). Once she licks it off, she’s already started to eat her food so she just goes ahead and eats the rest. And then there is always a frisbee game for at least 5 minutes after she’s goes outside to potty.

      • Hi There!! I wanted to give you an update on our sweet little Daisy 🙂 She is now almost 3, is 70-ish pounds (Vet thinks she needs to go on a diet haha) and NEVER misses a meal now. We did find out she has a food allergy to turkey (may have been just that specific brand but she was one itchy little fuzzyface for a good 2 days). The separation anxiety took a little while to overcome but we try to take her everywhere with us that we can. We live close to the beach so when the weather is nice, she knows that means she is going somewhere with sand. I wanted to let you know all this because I’ve read some of the negative comments and I couldn’t disagree more with those people. This article and the books you’ve recommended helped us a lot to learn how best to “read” her cues in doggy language. I wanted to say Thank you so much for all your help!!!! :0)

  22. I feel like I’m failing my puppy somehow. We got her him from a breeder who said he wasn’t food motivated. Whenever i say that people say it’s a great thing but I don’t feel like it is. He isn’t a very cuddly puppy either which we accept as a part of his personality but honestly we have dropped so much money on treats thta he would reject. Tripe treats, duck feet, Zukes, tricky trainers, Blue buffalo…

    I don’t feel all that confident when i train him anymore because he’ll just walk off and it hasn’t even been 15 seconds into the exercise. He’ll do 1/4 of it and then off he goes to go lie down and let out a big sigh.

    As i mentioned he’s not cuddly so petting isn’t much of a reward to him. Is it possible to turn a non food motivated dog into a food motivated one? Does that sound crazy?

    Reply
    • No, it’s not crazy. Some ways to succeed: train first in a very non-distracting area, and keep training sessions very short. Be sure the pup hasn’t recently eaten when you begin to train. Try using chicken, or tiny cubes of cheese. Also, if there are other things he likes, such as toys or balls, you can use those, too, to keep things interesting for him. There are some great training videos on youtube at Kikopup or Pam’s Dog Academy that you can use to do brief exercises that might hold his interest better.
      .

      Reply
  23. Hi, I’m posting on here to get advice from someone who can offer assistance. My wife and I just adopted a 4 year old Alaskin Malamute. She’s very well tempered and follows commands easily inside our place, however the minute we bring her for walks she gets easily distracted howls, barks, pulls on her leash and sometimes bites the leash. I’ve used diversion techniques which seem to help but, if she gets to close she loses it. I’ve tried using treats that she really likes inside our home but for some reason outside she refuses to take them or follow commands when she gets to close to other dogs usually within 10ft. We’ve just lost a 15y/o Mallamute several months ago and understand the breeds characteristics. Our new Mallamute is 30 lbs heavier, and she weighs a 100 lbs.

    Reply
    • If a dog refuses a really tasty “freebie” like chicken or beef, it’s a often sign that they’re anxious. I address that by trying to find a safer alternative for the dog. The CARE site addresses some good ways to deal (www.careforreactivedogs.com) and Debbie Jacobs’ site http://www.fearfuldogs.com would also provide good info for you to help this dog.

      Reply
  24. I have read with interest many of the previous post regarding food. Our 1 yr old Shepherd enjoys treats, but only when there isn’t something more interesting to see or do. In other words he wont go out of his way for them. He definitely has a “take it or leave it attitude”. He eats grain free food as he has a sensitive stomach. Cheese or Chicken does not work. Is there a list of treats most dogs can’t refuse? Should I not feed him until our training session is over? We just started training, so any suggestions you can give me will be appreciated.

    Reply
    • I usually suggest starting a training session with a hungry dog, and also recommend beginning in a non-distracting area, then GRADUALLY introducing distractions. Dogs need a significant reinforcement history for a given behavior before they start automatically responding to a known cue rather than ignoring it for something that used to be more interesting. We often expect too much too soon and go from the living room to the kids’ soccer game, or the barnyard, so to speak, with nothing in between.
      If a dog gets tasty food normally, it is a bit harder to motivate them, but I have used canned green tripe in a squeeze tube with some success.

      Reply
  25. This whole thread really does make me wonder why SO many people are insistent that food rewards are the best methods to training dog.
    I’ve trained mice, rats, goats, and one lizard and one cow using food. Basically these are animals that do not actually ‘share’ out lives with us
    But with cats, as well as with rats, goats and cows I’ve found that they will learn certain behaviours for some reward/reinforcement other than food. In remember a trainer from Sea World saying that she preferred training the sea lions because you could train them with games and toys.
    With dogs — you CAN coerce many of them to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do, by offering food rewards (and lures’ :-(.

    Reply
    • I’m sensing some animosity that I don’t quite understand. Science tells us that the definition of a reinforcement is something that, when added,increases the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated or strengthened. So, no matter what we use as a reinforcement, it’s only reinforcing based on whether we see behavior! You cannot “coerce” a dog to do behavior he doesn’t want to do unless he’s reinforced, and it doesn’t matter if it’s food or a toy – what matters is the dog’s willingness to repeat the behavior in order to be reinforced. Food is no different than any other reinforcement in that way. You can as easily “bribe” a dog with a toy as with a meatball, provided meatballs and toys are reinforcing to that dog. Food isn’t the devil – the devil is in the details of how you train, and in what order these stimuli are presented to the dog. A reinforcement should be a consequence, not an antecedent, unless you are purposely using a lure.

      Reply
      • I find this insistence on the use of food to train as offensive as the old “you cannot train without a check chain” mantra. There are many, many ways to train dogs — and there are many, many things that you can use with dogs as positive reinforcement for behaviours you want.
        When there at so many overweight dogs around the insistence on food treats for training is alarming. Certainly we can use food treats in certain circumstances, but I find a little training at dinner time (after I’ve put the dog’s bowl down) works more effectively that small treats. I also find it preferable to do a training session, without food (basically praise and fondling) then followed by a significant food reward (BONE TIME!) works even better.
        But basically I work with my dogs with ‘environmental rewards’ (whatever they want at that time) and games/activity. Does your dog enjoy going for walks? Then practice some behaviour you want to teach and then reward by going for a walk. Does your dog love chasing balls? The throw a ball after your dog has dome something that you have asked for. Or use tug games (if your back, knees and wrists are strong).
        You CAN train dogs positively with positive reinforcements without food ever coming into the picture (except at meal times).
        I also wonder about the diet of dogs who are always ready for food treats. are they not getting the nutrition they need form their food that they are always hungry?

        When I do use food treats in training, I only work on a few behaviours and only for a short while. And only in the initial stages of training.

  26. My dog is “not motivated by treats,” my guess is that he is just not hungry when I want to train him. I would “close the economy” on food however he is just a puppy and still growing. I am afraid that making him work for his food may neglect him of the nutrients he needs to grow. Is there an age where it could be dangerous to “close the economy” on food?

    Reply
    • Hi Mike,
      Usually, a puppy that doesn’t want to take an ordinary treat could be anxious, or could simply be uninterested because the food isn’t unusual enough compared to other interesting sights or smells. So, a couple of things to try – you could start in a non-distracting place where he isn’t fearful. Or, you can try training at a time of day when he’d ordinarily be expecting food, such as right before dinner time. Another thing to try is offering a better treat – such as boiled chicken or small bits of turkey or cheese.

      Reply
      • I had one dog who simply would NOT eat his dinner — until we had played ‘fetch and return the (pigs trotter) bone”. I could work on a few behaviours using food rewards with him AFTER his meal. At other times he would spit any food treat back at me in disgust and If I tried this too many times in a row he would leave, go find a ball — or stick, or leaf, tiny bit of old tennis ball, and bring it back to me and drop it at my feet.

    • Well, let’s then put it this way — I am surprised (and disappointed) by this insistence of ‘food rewards’ in training.
      https://www.newscientist.com/article/2086840-why-are-so-many-labradors-fat/
      Why are so many Labradors fat?

      I have owned over 15 dogs over the years. And I now have my FIRST dog who cheerfully works for food treats.

      Reply
  27. I am interested to learn more about the lure idea suggested in the article. I have a rescue dog that suffers from both anxiety and queasiness (serious chronic digestive issues). He has a board certified veterinary behaviorist and a board certified internist so I am working to address those issues but at best I can alleviate stress and pain. Eating will probably never be something he really loves. He might really enjoy the lure. Any tips for making that work? Toys are not that exciting to him. It seems that so many dog activities that could help with his confidence like K9 nose work, tracking and agility all are based around food to teach and motivate. So glad I found your blog.

    Reply
    • Ken Ramirez has a great book in which he teaches how to make toys and other secondary reinforcers work. Also, check out the recent post by Eileenanddogs. “My Dog Refuses Food Away From Home!”

      Reply
  28. Extremely good information, and excellent comments. I’m a dog traininer and have a very anxious dog that won’t except treats for training at class, but is over the top willing with praise. He is so Uber attentive to everything around him that the only way to get his atttentivettention is to praise praise praise. I now need to dig into his home life where he should have less stress and see what is going on there. I’ll bet we can get him treat motivated at home 🙂 thank you all for your great insight.

    Reply
    • If a dog is not accepting a high value treat (such as real meat) at class, then it might be too soon to incorporate him into a class environment. Anxiety often produces this response. But, since this is a client’s dog, your instinct to get him interested in offered treats at home is good. Your client should start with a hungry dog, as you know, but if there’s reluctance to skip a meal, I always gently suggest that, in the wild, the rabbit doesn’t run by every day at 5:00 (a mentor of mine deserves credit for this line, but it’s so true). An occasional skipped meal, followed by use of real meat training sessions is a great way to motivate. You aren’t “starving your dog” as coercion trainers often insist, you’re just delaying a kibble meal and replacing it with chicken or beef! Also, some dogs will warm up at class after a few weeks, as they realize that only good things happen in that space. Thank you for caring about the emotional well being of your client!

      Reply
  29. I recently adopted a farm dog (Great Pyrenees) whose owners had to move into town for health reasons. They had only officially declared him theirs in June of this year; prior to that he had been feral for approximately two years. He gets along great with our Bernese Mountain Dog, has learned that while we control the food we will not take it away once we’ve given it to him, and even accepts us leaning over him while he eats to replace his water bowl (small kitchen, two big dogs). He loves breakfast, snack, and dinner times, is still kinda stunned when we put plates or bowls down for him to lick clean before we put them in the dishwasher, but will only politely take training treats back to his bed before deciding whether or not he’ll eat it (super gentle about taking food from the hand).
    I’ve only ever had Berners who are super food driven before, training is a breeze, our current Berner will start offering behaviors as soon as he see the training bag, regardless if there are actually treats in the bag.
    Our new Pyr also seems to actively resent going outside now (he’ll wait by the door for a few moments before going out to the yard); we do make him go out for a few minutes twice a day to eliminate, though we’ve had no accidents inside.
    He enjoys pets/praise the most, is starting to get the concept of sit, but I have no idea on how to reinforce stay as a command as any happy sounds from me has him coming to me. He also doesn’t know his name really yet. And come is only reliable if we’re calling him to come in the house.
    Thoughts and ideas would be appreciated.

    Reply
  30. Elizabeth Theban

    My dog is happy to receive treats, but she never eats them. She is a 10-12 (rescue with unknown age at adoption) year old toy poodle who has been doing this for years; we’ve had her for about 8 years. We have tried many different treat types but she just leaves them around the house until we pick them up because we keep stepping on them. She usually will go in the backyard just fine (lately having some issues due to a neighbors pitbull entering our yard. and will only walk until the end of the block, she freaks out and runs back when she realizes she can’t see our house anymore. She also never seems to excited for toys or to play, only playing maybe once a week for like 5-10 minutes. What would you suggest for further training?

    Reply
    • It sounds as though she’s fearful. So, perhaps a behaviorist would be a better choice to assess her. Also, try some more appetizing treats, such as diced chicken or turkey. Sometimes, dogs develop taste aversion to treats that contain wheat, corn, soy etc. (www.iaabc.org) Also, join Debbie Jacobs’ Fearful Dogs Facebook group.

      Reply
  31. My current border collie is now 2 years old but I can remember cheering when I saw her first empty food bowl. She is much better now but it isn’t uncommon for her to leave some of her dinner in the bowl even though she gets the same amount every night. We have also trained her that she is supposed to take food back to her dog-bed to be eaten. She will literally carry a crumb back to her bed before she swallows it. If I say ‘Want a cookie?” (dog biscuit not human one) she runs back to her bed and lays down to wait. Needless to say if she gets offered food and has no ‘appropriate’ place to eat it, she won’t even take the treat. She also isn’t at all protective of her food. She learned shake, lay down and roll over in less than 10 minutes without a food reward in sight and it seems she enjoys learning and wants to please. She loves people and is non-aggressive to other dogs but is stimulated by movement so at obedience classes won’t take food from anyone, including me. She already knows lots of commands and which behaviour is appropriate and this was all learned without the motivation of food.

    Reply
    • Hi Meredith,
      If she’s not taking food at class, a couple of suggestions. First, be sure your food is high quality – perhaps use turkey, meatball, etc. Don’t feed her before class. Assess for fear – if she’s afraid, she might not want to eat (fight/flight). Also, you can try using a toy versus food. If she takes neither, try training the behaviors first at home, then add distraction very gradually.

      Reply
      • Not all dogs really enjoy food. In fact I feel strongly that those dogs who are “highly” motivated by food are probably genetically unhealthy.
        This an excerpt from The Australian Daily Mail on line.
        “A variant of one gene in particular, known as POMC, was strongly associated with weight, obesity and appetite in Labradors and flat coat retrievers. Around a quarter – 23 per cent – are thought to carry at least one copy of the variant.
        Labrador retrievers are obsessed with food because they have a genetic variant associated with obesity and appetite. This may help explain why they are prone to be a little portly.
        Scientists found Labs (stock image) working as guide dogs were more likely to have the gene traits proving it’s interest in food was linked to how obedient and trainable the dogs will be. This desire for treats made it a favourite for man because the eager-to-please gun dogs are easy to train provided they get a tasty reward

  32. I don’t think you can necessarily infer that because some dogs are predisposed toward weight gain others “don’t really enjoy” food. If you have research that shows a genetic factor associated with “not liking food” please post it. THAT would also be an abnormality. Food, like sex and water, is necessary for life and the perpetuation of the species.
    What I find particularly interesting is the occasional human obsession with not using food to train dogs. While there are many other reinforcements, few are as salient and simple to use.
    Sometimes I do see people who seem to collect “non food motivated” dogs. Upon further scrutiny, there’s sometimes a correlation to the fact that they prefer not to rely on food for training, or there’s a mistake they’ve repeatedly made in some respondent conditioning scenario that has the dog refusing food that has become predictive of an aversive event of some kind.
    As I’ve said many times, food motivation and food refusal are different. I’ve pointed you to current material on the subject. At this point, I think it’s apparent that you and I disagree, so I’m not going to continue to respond, as the conversation is circular at this point and probably not all that useful to the readers. But thank you for participating and sharing an alternative point of view.

    Reply
  33. This article is crap. I’ve never read something more uneducated or untrue. Please do your research before ever posting again.

    Reply
    • I thought about not approving your rude and condescending comment (which was accompanied by a probably not so coincidental ratings drop for this post). I decided, however, that it would be disingenuous of me to withhold it. I believe you may not have grasped that I make a clear distinction between “not food motivated” versus “can’t take food at the moment.” Those are two very different concepts. A dog’s failure to take a treat is pretty much never because the dog isn’t generally motivated by food (because, again, food is a primary reinforcer for all living beings), but rather for other reasons. Examples: anxiety/fear, taste aversion/food sensitivities/allergies, previously established “backward conditioning” scenarios. As to my being “uneducated” I assure you that is not the case. I hold a B.A. in Psychology and a life membership in Psi Chi Psychology Honor Society. I assure you that I’ve done my research in many other ways as well, including seminars, workshops, and other continuing education opportunities with industry leaders such as Karen Pryor, Ian Dunbar, Jean Donaldson, Ken Ramirez, Kathy Sdao, Dr. Patricia McConnell, and Dr. Susan Friedman.

      Reply

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