Are there times when you feel that your dog isn’t really food motivated? Having a dog that is motivated by food is very helpful in the beginning stages of training new behaviors. Sure, we can use other reinforcers as well, but food is very simple and easy to use in most training scenarios, where using something like play as a reinforcer can at times be a bit more challenging (such as during leash walking). Rather than just accept that your dog “isn’t really food motivated,” why not take some simple steps to change that?
Some dogs are naturally more motivated by food than others. While it may have something to do with their personality in some cases, it is more often the result of the way you feed your dog and how much you feed. It can also have a lot to do with your dogs health and exposure to different types of food (puppies often take a little while to warm up to new foods similar to children – older dogs who haven’t been exposed to many types of foods will do the same).
If any of the things listed below are true for you, then you should consider adjusting the way you feed your dog.
- My dog is not very interested in his/her treats when in class, outside or in other distracting environments.
- My dog just seems to be uninterested in training, or lacking motivation in general.
- My dog doesn’t eat right away when I put his/her food down or sometimes skips meals.
- I need to add things to my dogs kibble just to get him/her to eat anything.
- I want a dog who is HIGHLY motivated to work for me.
First of all, it is NOT natural for a healthy dog to not be motivated by food (unless of course they are full). Food sustains life, so refusing food means that they are either being given too much, or they are holding out for only the good stuff. Certainly dogs have their own taste, but they should be willing to eat just about any dog treat or kibble you offer them, maybe with just a few exceptions. Before making changes to the way you feed your dog, it is important to consider your dog’s health & nutrition.
Consider Your Dog’s Health & Nutrition
Before we go on to talk about how to address your dogs lack of food motivation, it is important to consider your dogs health. Digestive issues can often disrupt food motivation (and affect your dogs overall behavior). If your dog has occasional or regularly loose stools or occasional vomiting episodes, it may be time to take a good look at your dogs diet & overall health. Even high quality foods may just not be the right fit for your dogs system, and trying a food with a different protein source may produce better results. If you are consistently struggling with these issues despite the type of food you put your dog on, it may be time to see a vet specializing in nutrition (not just your regular vet) or consider switching to a raw food diet. A prescription diet from your may firm up your dogs stools, but be sure your dog actually seems to feel better too (and that they are increasingly motivated by food). Prescription diets also often contain less than desirable ingredients. Other health ailments such as parasites can cause loose stools and vomiting as well, so it’s important to be sure your dog is in good health.
I’d like to share with you a personal story about my own dog which illustrates how health impacts food motivation. I’ve included the story below after the Increasing Food Motivation Steps so you can see how some simple changes can make a big difference.
Increasing Food Motivation Steps
Once you have determined that your dog is healthy and on a proper diet, begin following the steps outlined below to increase your dogs food motivation.
· If you are free feeding (leaving food out all day to eat as they please), STOP. Food is a very valuable training tool, and by giving your dog free access to it, they find no need to work for it. Really, why wouldn’t they blow you off when you ask for a sit if they can just eat later when they are actually hungry?
· Meals should be given 2-3x a day and left down for 10 minutes ONLY! Whatever is not eaten after 10 minutes gets picked up and put back in the food bin (not added to the next meal). You will continue this routine until your dog is regularly eating at each meal. Depending on your dog, that might be after a day or two or a few weeks. Don’t worry, your dog will eat when they are hungry!
· Having your dog sit & wait for his/her meals can also help to increase food motivation. Working for it really does make them appreciate it more! They may not be willing to offer this behavior initially when the food doesn’t hold much value, but as the value increases, your dogs motivation to work for you will too!
· On days you do training with your dog, be sure to adjust the amount of food they eat according to how many treats were given (less kibble because of more treats).
It is important to keep in mind, for dogs who have been on their own eating schedule for quite some time, it may take some tough love to get them back to being hungry for meal times again. Be patient, they will eat when they are hungry (assuming they are healthy)! If you are finding that your dog is fasting for more than 2 days, it is time to go see your vet (and probably a nutritionist too).
Feeding “People Food”
Contrary to popular belief, feeding your dog people food will not automatically make him a beggar, nor is it generally bad for your dog (depending on what you are feeding, it may actually be very good for your dog). Giving your dog an occasional tasty “people food” treat is not a problem, but just like cupcakes and candy, the special stuff should be saved for special occasions, or in our case, for training. Pieces of chicken, cheese and even peanut butter can prove to be very motivating treats for training.
So does this mean you can’t feed your dog “people food” except during training? Well, that would be our recommendation (the dog should work for the things they value most), but the occasional leftover snack given to your dog in their food bowl after they have eaten their regular meal won’t do any harm (to avoid begging, never feed these foods from the counter, table, or your plate). The key is to make sure your dog is willing to eat their regular meal (and is excited to do so) before giving them special treats. Mixing things in with your dogs regular meal will create a dog who will only want to eat his meal if the special stuff has been added. Instead, consider the special food your dogs dessert after they clean their plate.
- DO NOT feed your dog other items during this process just because you think they are hungry. They WILL eat when they are actually hungry.
- If after a week or two your dog is still just picking at it’s kibble, try a different kibble with a different protein source (ex. Switch from Chicken to Fish) or consider switching to a raw diet.
- If your dog becomes more excited to eat it’s meals, but is still leaving some kibble after 10 minutes, you are feeding too much. Feed that much less at each meal and monitor your dogs weight. Your vet can tell you what your dogs ideal weight should be. Typically you should be able to see the first rib or two and your dog should have an obviously tucked tummy & visible “waist.”
- Stop adding things to your dogs food to get him to eat more.
- Keep in mind, that a decreased appetite can mean that something is wrong with your dog. It could be as simple as an ear infection or uti or something more complicated. Watch for changes in your dog’s eating routine. Those changes are so much easier to spot if they are typically excited for their meals and eating it up immediately.
To illustrate the importance of proper health & nutrition, here is the story about my own dog Apollo.
When I first got Apollo, he was nearly two years old, very scrawny (most if not all ribs showing) and didn’t seem very food motivated. There were times when he wouldn’t eat his food, but would guard it ferociously from the other dogs (even though he didn’t seem to want it). When attempting to train him using food, he appeared to get bored quickly and go find something else to do, so I started trying all different types of treats (including “people food”), and after trying well over 30 things, I found just a few that he was actually excited to eat. Now I had always told my clients that it wasn’t natural for a dog to not be food motivated. Food sustains life, so if they aren’t motivated by food in general, (not just one type of food (their kibble for example) – each dog has their preferences just like us), it’s either because of how or how much we feed them or maybe they are struggling with an underlying health issue. In Apollos case, there were a couple things going on. He grew up on the cheapest of cheap “Puppy Chow,” which the first three ingredients are whole grain corn, corn gluten meal, chicken by-product meal. If you know anything about canine nutrition, you know that those ingredients don’t really cut it (see dogfoodadvisor.com to learn more & see how your dogs food rates). His previous owner told me he kept him on Puppy Chow instead of Dog Chow (adult version – no better) because he struggled to keep weight on (struggling to keep weight on is also not natural).
So what was my first step? We went to the vet of course, and sure enough, Apollo had a parasite. We treated the parasite and put Apollo on a healthier kibble and quickly saw an increase in food motivation (still not highly food motivated – but much better). But Apollo still had somewhat loose stools on a regular basis. Over his first year or so with us, we tried several different types of kibble, but none of them really made the stools better and even though he had put some weight on, he was still scrawny (not muscular like a rottie should be). After two bouts of pancreatitis, we decided to switch him to a raw diet (our other two dogs had already been switched to raw for other health reasons – allergies & excessive urination/water consumption) and we haven’t seen a loose stool since (excessive urination & water consumption also ceased and allergies greatly improved – I’ll be blogging more about raw food in the future)! I’m happy to say he is now a solid, muscular dog as he should be and boy can you tell he feels better! He now eats literally anything I give him, even things my other dogs won’t. So, it turns out in Apollo’s case an underlying health problem requiring proper nutrition was present along with the parasite.