“My dog just doesn’t like food!”. Sound familiar? If you think you can’t train your dog with food, then today’s post is for you.
While you can’t change your dog’s innate “food drive” per-se, it turns out there are several other factors within your control that can boost your dog’s food motivation. So let’s dive into which things to think about and how to actually train a dog who is a picky eater or who has a low interest in food.
Animals need to eat
Let’s step back for just a moment and remember a few key things:
1. Your dog is an animal. And animals need to eat.
And if your dog wasn’t eating anything at all, they wouldn’t survive. Plain and simple.
2. Eating is a behavior.
I know it might seem obvious – but getting up, walking over to the food bowl, and chewing, are all behaviors. Just like how sit, come, and lie down are all behaviors. So: If your dog is willing to walk to their bowl in exchange for food, then it’s almost assured that they would also be willing to sit for food, too.
What all of this means is that your dog IS food-motivated – to some extent.
And knowing this, you can use it to your advantage.
[Note: I am not discounting the fact that some dogs are more inherently interested in food than others. This is certainly true! I am simply saying that I believe it is most productive to:
1) Recognize the amount of “food drive” or food motivation that your dog DOES have – however large or small – and…
2) Focus on the factors that are within your control (discussed below), rather than getting hung up on your dog’s relative “food drive” as compared to other dogs – because that is outside of your control.]
Tips for increasing food motivation
Let’s get on to some actionable steps you can take to boost your dog’s interest in food rewards:
Access to food
The biggest mistake dog owners make is free-feeding. This means leaving a full bowl of kibble out for your dog at all times. Free-feeding massively reduces your dog’s interest in food.
Not free-feeding is the first thing I recommend to anyone with a “non food-motivated” dog.
Tip: Instead, put a set amount of food out at the same mealtimes every day. After a few minutes, pick up the bowl and put it away until the next mealtime.
If your dog chooses not to eat at dinner time, they will be much more likely to eat tomorrow at breakfast time. And to be clear, the goal is never to deprive your dog of necessary food, but rather to build a sense of routine and clarity that food is available at certain times, rather than 24/7. For example, if you don’t want your dog to wait overnight, simply wait an hour and then repeat the process.
Plus, once you’ve established this mealtime routine, any bonus food reward you offer in training becomes an exciting departure from the routine and is therefore more enticing to your dog. This change alone can be enough in many cases to spark a dog’s interest in food rewards.
Type of food
Next we need to talk about types of food. Usually when people tell me that their dog “doesn’t like food”, what they mean is that their dog declines to eat kibble, doggie biscuits, or dry training treats, some or all of the time.
To me, this is the equivalent of me labeling you as “not liking food” just because you said no thanks when I offered you plain crackers. One day you might want to take them, and another day not. Maybe you just find crackers a bit bland and boring for your taste. But that doesn’t mean you as an individual “don’t like food” – that would be absurd!
Now, if I offered you a delicious slice of cake, you would be much more likely to oblige regardless of the time or circumstances. Or maybe you’re not big on desserts and you’d prefer a nice juicy steak. The point is that it’s the TYPE of food that makes a huge impact on eating behaviors.
Well, duh you might be thinking. But we make this exact, absurd conclusion all the time when it comes to our dogs, who have middling or low desires to eat dry kibbles and treats.
Change how you give out treats
Rewarding your dog is a process. The “reinforcement process” – or the way in which you deliver food rewards to your dog – matters. Don’t overlook this piece of the food-motivation puzzle.
Treat delivery tips:
- 1. Rather than feeding treats calmly from your hand, try tossing them to your dog. This is a great way to spark your dog’s play and prey drives. Catching airborne treats, chasing after them as they roll, and snuffling around to find treats with their nose – all are ways you can engage your dog’s natural desire to hunt and scavenge. Some dogs will take treats that are thrown, even if they wouldn’t take them normally.
- Your dog may actually prefer to work for their food (as opposed to having it magically placed in front of them). If you’re curious why, do some digging into the topic of “Contra-freeloading”.
- 2. Up your Energy. Get excited – Your excitement is contagious! Use your voice when you reward your dog. Don’t just give them a treat silently. Praise your dog excitedly! While praise isn’t enough to use as a sole reward for most dogs, it is a powerful addition. Make it a real celebration when your dog does something you like. If you put your genuine excitement into it, it will be infectious. Don’t believe me? Try it out! Put on your best “happy talk” voice and praise your dog like they’ve just done the most amazing thing you could imagine. See how they react.
- While not all dogs appreciate loud celebrations, this tip still goes for timid or noise-sensitive dogs too. It’s about the energy and enthusiasm you put in to praising your dog – not the volume.
Consider your dog’s emotional state
It’s also vital to rule out the chance that your dog is upset or worried. This is especially likely to be the cause of your dog’s reluctance to eat food or treats if:
- Your dog declines to eat food or treats that they would ordinarily eat at another time or place
- Your dog is taking food from you and then abruptly stops
- Your dog’s body language shows signs of stress (ie tense body, intense stare, tucked or stiff tail, etc.)
If any of these things occur, you need to remove your dog from that situation, or change the environment, as quickly as possible. When a dog is anxious or uncomfortable, it won’t matter what kind of treats you’re offering. They need to feel safe before they will want to eat. So – before doing anything else, change the training picture until your dog feels at ease.
Make sure you aren’t asking for too much
Another reason your dog might not eat treats in training is if you are training above your dog’s current level of understanding. It could be that the environment you are working in is just too distracting for your dog to handle at that moment. Or the task you’re asking for is too complex for your dog to understand right now.
Remember to train the dog in front of you. Just because your dog could sit yesterday in the living room, doesn’t mean they will necessarily sit today on a crowded street.
When in doubt, break things down. Split training goals down into teeny-tiny increments. And make sure to practice new behaviors someplace calm, without any big distractions first.
Consider your dog’s health
One huge reason for low food-motivation is physical discomfort or illness. If your dog’s eating habits have suddenly changed, please visit your veterinarian for a health check. Even if your dog looks fine to you, be aware that dogs can be very good at disguising pain. If you have any doubt, it’s always best to ask your vet.
Disclaimer: These are general tips from my experience as a professional dog trainer – but I am not a vet. Always consult your veterinarian for advice about what is best for the health of your individual dog.