What is a “food motivated” dog?

With the rise of reward-based training for the family dog, food treats have become a popular way to teach dogs new things. Most people participating in training classes, or just trying things at home on their own, have no trouble with this. They offer the dog a treat; he takes it and eats it, end of story. Then there are those who would like to use treats to reward their dogs, but they describe their dog as “not food motivated.” Here are two main thoughts to consider on this subject:

First, treats can be a very clear and effective way to reward your dog. But they are not the only way. Make a list of all the things your dog already likes, and find a way to use those things as rewards.

If your dog loves tug of war, save that as a reward for training coming-when-called. If he loves toblondielick blast out into the back yard, save that as a reward for sitting still until you release him (if he gets up before you’ve released him, close the door before he slips out). If he loves people, reward him with their attention only when he’s got all four paws planted on the ground. This approach is based on a law of learning called the Premack principle (in other words: eat your broccoli and you may have dessert).

Granted, if you are trying to teach a very precise behavior or small movement on your dog’s part (a certain trick for example), food is much easier to deliver accurately, quickly, quietly, anywhere, with less of a pause between repetitions, and with more nuance since you can vary the types of treats. It is also (generally speaking) superior as a reward if you are trying to keep your dog’s relative arousal level in check (for training relaxation on a mat, for example, or working on reactivity toward other dogs), and can even help monitor it (if your dog suddenly starts grabbing at the treats or stops swallowing them, he may be winding up too high or too low to learn anything useful at that moment).

Which brings me to my second thought. No matter how strongly you believe otherwise, your dog is motivated to eat food. Otherwise (how shall I put this?), he would no longer be with us. What may be lacking is his ability to take treats as rewards in training situations. While there are extreme cases in which a few more steps need to be taken, the following tips nearly always do the trick to teach a dog to eat treats during a training session: 1) Do not ‘free feed’ your dog his daily meals. Put mealtime on a schedule and take away uneaten portions after 10 minutes. 2) Use treats that your dog likes, not ones that you think he should like or wish he would like. I know a dog who used to turn his nose up to steak, but would jump the Empire State building for a bit of cheese. 3) Be willing, at least initially, to use ‘people food’ as training treats. Fed in tiny quantities (a handful of pea-sized treats), this should not make your dog fat. Fed in the context of training (not people supper time), this should not cause your dog to beg. And fed using common sense, this should not make your dog sick (dogs are omnivores and natural scavengers, so they are built to handle a varied diet; avoid items toxic to dogs).

Instead of thinking of your dog as “not food motivated,” think of him as reward motivated. This should open up whole new possibilities for your training.   

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