"My dog isn’t food motivated."
Occasionally when I start training with a new client, they will tell me that their dog isn’t food motivated. When we explore that further, we usually find that their dog is food motivated, (dogs need to eat to survive after all) but there is another reason their dog is not interested in the food rewards they have been offered. Here are some of the top reasons why;
1. They are overwhelmed by the environment or something in it.
If you found yourself in a genuinely frightening situation, a bank robbery for example, and someone offered you some crisps or a sweet, you are unlikely to think, ooh yes that sounds nice and help yourself. In fact, you’re unlikely to be able to even notice the person offering you the food. If your dog is frightened of other dogs or people, they might feel the same as the hostage in a bank robbery.
Likewise, if you are super excited about something you are unlikely to take notice of the food let alone the person person offering it to you. If you have a young dog or a dog that hasn’t really practiced much self-control they might feel like this when they go somewhere new and exciting or when they see their friends (human or dog).
When it comes to dog training the trick is to train in advance (remember advance training is a strategic investment in preparedness) and then gradually build exposure at a distance and pace that your dog is comfortable with.
2. They don’t like the food you are offering.
Labrador owners usually have it easy. As a breed, they generally appreciate any kind of food but not every dog is like that. Just like humans some dogs are pickier than others. My little lurcher Pippa is one such dog. It took us a while to find a food that she would eat. When we first got her she was pretty underweight and were desperate to get her to eat but she could go days without touching her food.
Thankfully, we eventually found something she liked but we couldn’t use it for rewards when training. For training we found that we really needed to use meaty treats, such as chopped up chicken, beef and ham which we now prepare and freeze in boxes so we can just take out a handful when we need it. This also means we can keep things varied so she doesn’t get bored of the same thing, whilst also avoiding waste.
If you don’t know what your dog likes do a bit of market research with them. Place a variety of similarly sized things (dogs tend to go for big things first) down on the ground and then see if you can spot a preference. Which food did your dog go to first? Was there something they ignored completely?
3. They are full.
It's important not to starve your dog before a training session. When their blood sugar is all over the
place, concentration becomes a challenge, and they might get frustrated and "hangry" while learning something new. On the other hand, a dog who's just finished a big meal won't be motivated by food rewards either.
You can address this by feeding slightly smaller meals when you know you will be training. For instance, if you are going to be working on loose leash walking on your morning walk, you might only feed your dog half of their breakfast and use the rest for training on your walk.
Understanding your dog's motivations and preferences is key to successful training. So stay patient, keep experimenting and you'll find what works best for your furry friend!