You don’t have to have a dog for long to know they are easily food motivated.
Treats have always worked wonders with my Siberian husky during training and have always been my go-to reward when he’s been a good boy.
But what happens when your dog doesn’t show any interest in the treats you offer during training?
If your dog isn’t food motivated, does that make training frustrating or nearly impossible?
The good news is all hope is not lost.
Even if your dog isn’t food motivated, there are other ways you can grab his attention. But first, you need to understand why your dog has become resistant to food and treats.
Likely causes of lost food motivation
The dog is stressed: Healthy dogs don’t turn down food, especially treats. When a dog eagerly accepts food from you, it means the dog feels safe and secure around you. If a dog is unsure about you, he will be nervous or uncomfortable about taking food from you.
The dog fears the food is a trap: Remember when you were a kid, and you didn’t want to take a gift because there were strings attached like you get to go to the movies, but you have to clean your room first? Well, dogs are smart that way, too. If the dog feels like the treat is really just a way for you to trick him into taking a bath, he won’t take it.
The dog could be sick: If your dog formerly was food motivated but now won’t take any treats from you, there may be something wrong. Your best bet is to schedule a checkup with the vet.
Taste aversion: Your dog may have just decided your treats aren’t enough of a reward. Rather than offer a dry dog biscuit, offer a small piece of steak instead. Because dogs have powerful noses, consider offering something a little stinky like tuna or salmon.
The dog is overweight: Be careful. You may have been too generous in the past. An overweight dog may no longer be food motivated and become unwilling to perform on command.
Rebuild your dog’s food motivated drive
Now that you have identified one of the probable reasons your dog is no longer interested in treats, how do you then bring back her appetite? Or should you find new methods of positive motivation to use during training?
Limit free feeding: I usually leave a bowl of dog food out at all times. This allows my dog to eat whenever he wants. This, however, works against your efforts if you’re using food to motivate your dog during training. He doesn’t need the treat because he knows he can eat any time. But to ensure he’s food motivated for training, you need to make sure he understands he’ll get a food reward when he does a good job.
Use good treats: Would you take 50 cents to mow a lawn? Or a bowl of spinach for cleaning your room?
Dogs are the same. There are certain treats and foods that are just not motivating enough. This is the dog’s way of saying “minimum wage” isn’t worth their time. If this is the case (and I hope it isn’t), then the best way to re-engage the dog is to crank up the value of the treats given.
A grilled piece of chicken, steak, or sliced cheese might be the perfect attention getter. Or, if manufactured treats no longer work, consider baking some treats of your own.
Substitute play or petting: If your dog is no longer food motivated, no matter how enticing your treats may be, consider another reward. When your dog does what you want, provide not only verbal praise, “What a good boy!” but also intensify the belly rubs or even butt scratches. Another option, let your dog play for a bit with his favorite toy.
Your dog will soon realize his good behavior warrants that response, and he’ll continue. After all, your dog wants to make you happy. He needs guidance to know how to do so.
Starving causes more harm
Making the dog work for food is often a double-edged sword. But only if you take it too literally. Motivating your dog to train using food can lead to dog owners starving their dogs, or conversely, ending up with an overweight dog (we always want to spoil them, don’t we?)
You need to strike the right balance. You don’t want your dog to go hungry. This would be just reckless and poor dog parenting.
If your dog is packing on too many pounds, another option is to use your dog’s mealtime as training time. Rather than treats, reward your dog for training with his regular food.
Determine the cause of stress
Have you made changes like moving, adding a new dog, or even changing your work schedule? Dogs are creatures of habit and sometimes struggle with changes to their routine. Work to reduce stress, and your dog’s appetite will return. If it doesn’t, consult your vet.
Also, take care to make sure your training sessions don’t run too long. Keep training time short and fun for the dog — and you.
Consider where you’re training your dog. Are there other people, dogs or animals nearby? What about traffic. Get your dog’s attention and keep it focused on you for a successful training session.
There may be times when your dog may not be food motivated. If it happens occasionally, don’t worry.
But if it becomes a regular occurrence, dig deeper to understand why it’s happening so you can develop a strategy to keep your dog’s training on track.
Rosie Tran is a dog mom to rescue pup Lola and the founder of ChummyDoggy,
where she shares love, tips, and tricks to help others become better dog parents.
Follow her on Twitter @RosieTran20.