My Dog Isn’t Food Motivated…Or Is She?

Lab and bowl

Anyone who has taught a group training class, anyone who has given behavioral consults, and everyone who has spent any time on dog training discussion groups has probably heard this lament more than once:

“My dog is just not food motivated.”

The glib retort to that is, “Sure she is, or she’d be dead.” True, but that’s not much help for the person who is struggling to train a dog using positive reinforcement and who has hit a roadblock. Especially with the term “not food motivated” being used so frequently and casually by dog people.

This movie shows why virtually every dog is food motivated. The rest of the post talks about the disconnect that allows us to believe our dogs won’t work for food, lists some reasons the dog and trainer might be having problems, and has a suggestion about what to do about it. I suggest you watch the movie first.

A False Dichotomy and a True One

There are two dichotomies going on here, a false one and a true one.

The false dichotomy is on the human side.  When I first heard someone say, “We are training our dogs all the time,” I thought it was rhetorical. Yes, certainly, everything about our lives with our dogs has an impact on them. Blah blah blah. I didn’t realize at the time that it was literally true. Behavior is lawful. Behaviors that bring about nice things or allow one to escape from unpleasant things get repeated. Behaviors that bring on nasty things or result in good things going away diminish. (Here’s a refresher course and movie on operant learning and its terminology if you need it.) All interactions our dogs have with us are subject to these principles.

However, the kind of learning our dogs do in the continuous background of our lives is often invisible to us. So is our role in that learning. We humans tend to see “training” as a completely separate activity from everyday life. We see it as getting a handful of food and taking the dog into a specific environment, sometimes even away from home, and trying to teach her to do stuff we want when we want it.

We might be taking a class or trying a method we saw on a YouTube video or even doing something we read in a book, but this is how we envision “training.” And if our dog doesn’t accept food in those environments we tend to conclude that she is not “food motivated,” meaning she won’t perform behaviors for food. But even the most particular, anxious, or shy dog learns and performs behaviors for food, as I show in the movie.  “Real life” vs. “training” is a false dichotomy in this sense. The dog is performing behaviors for food if she eats at all. So what’s the difference?

The real dichotomy is on the dog’s side.  If the dog will not perform behaviors for food in a training session but will in normal life, those situations are different for the dog.  It’s just not the difference we think it is. The issue is not about the abstraction of “training.” It’s something else, and it’s our job to figure out what.

The following are some of the reasons a dog might appear not to be “food motivated” in a training session.

  1. The dog is scared
  2. The dog is excited
  3. The dog is sick or in pain
  4. The dog is distracted by the environment
  5. The owner is accidentally intimidating the dog
  6. The owner is asking for too much at once
  7. There is something the dog wants more than food at the moment
  8. The dog doesn’t like the particular food being offered
  9. The dog is full
  10. The dog is free fed or overfed

Some of these overlap, and some are more likely than others to crop up only during a training session, but you get the picture.

Starving the Dog is Not the Solution

The last three points above relate to the dog’s hunger and interest in the food. So the obvious shortcut is to get the dog good and hungry, right? Positive reinforcement based trainers often get accused of starving their dogs for good performance by people who either truly don’t understand how training with food works or are promoting training with aversive tools. (Alternatively, we get accused of having fat dogs. Just can’t win!) But starving the dog to get her to perform for food is against the principles of humane training and is completely unnecessary.

Most trainers will recommend stopping free feeding (i.e., leaving an abundance of food out all day). Controlling portions helps you ensure the dog is getting the right calories and nutrition when some of it goes for training, and there are several other advantages. But there is no need for the dog to go hungry. At least one study indicates that dogs perform better on a task when they have been fed breakfast! I typically train my dogs after giving them all or part of a meal.

A good trainer can help you make a transition to training with food if you are having problems.

Toys and Other Fun

Wait, wait—I didn’t say that you couldn’t use any other reinforcers! Toys and play are great reinforcers for many dogs, and in many situations can be used effectively to teach, refine, and maintain behaviors. I know there are some dogs who will refuse food when their favorite toy or game is available because I have one. Clara is in love with a particular type of ball. When the opportunity to play with her ball is around, she will refuse food or even literally drop the food out of her mouth. But she is still “food motivated.”

I’m also aware of the notorious border collies herding and other working types who would rather do their job than eat. See numbers 4 and 7 above and keep in mind that even these dogs must perform behaviors for food.

Toys and life rewards are fantastic, and all of us would do well to develop a whole palette of reinforcers for our dogs. But most modern trainers train at least some behaviors for which food is the ideal reinforcer. One example is teaching the dog to relax on a mat. Reinforcing with food sets the stage for more calm behavior than a vigorous game of tug.

Those Perplexing Outliers

Many of my trainer friends have had a dog or two who were challenging to motivate with food, and the situations really required their expertise. I know these dogs exist, but I’m not talking about them. This post is meant for the folks who are just starting to train with food and have come up against this block. More likely than not, your dogs have one of the issues listed above.

What To Do About Problems With Food

So, you want to start this positive reinforcement training stuff but your dog won’t take food? Your best move is to hire a qualified positive reinforcement based trainer. Here are a couple of articles on how to screen for one, and a link to the Pet Professional Guild’s directory.

When speaking to a potential trainer, you can add one more question to those suggested in the articles above. You can ask, “How do you deal with a dog who won’t work for food?” (You have permission to use that phrase in this one context.) Prospective trainers should respond in a way that shows they are clearly familiar with reasons that could be happening, and that they understand this is an important issue even if other reinforcers are available to use. If a trainer says you don’t need to use food to train, this is generally a big red flag. Few knowledgeable trainers would offhandedly rule out such a powerful, efficient, and easy-to-use reinforcer.  Even if you are talking to a world expert in training dogs with play, she will know that a dog presenting the problem of refusing food may need some extra help.

I would love to hear from folks who had—and solved—some issues regarding using food for training. Below are some relevant posts that tell my own story.

Related Posts

This post was inspired by the writings of Jean Donaldson about the use of food, specifically, this cartoon on the Academy for Dog Trainers’ blog: Projecting to the Dog. I thank her for her permission to spin this post and movie off from it. That doesn’t imply that she endorses everything I say here; all inaccuracies are my own.

train4rewards train for rewards blog party

For other articles from Companion Animal Psychology’s #Train4Rewards Blog Party, click the box.

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

Photo of the Labrador retriever and food bowl licensed from CanStock Photo.

8 thoughts on “My Dog Isn’t Food Motivated…Or Is She?

  1. Substitute “horse” for dog and you’ve got the horse world covered as well! Good job! Thanks for this. 🙂

  2. Eileen, as you know, I think your blog is wonderful and I think your training articles are fantastic. However… As someone who grew up with both border collies and parents who are skilled R+ psychologists, I can quite confidently say that different breeds are very different in this regard. I never say a typical border collie isn’t food motivated, but most of them are definitely not “highly food motivated.” To be honest, they couldn’t do their working jobs if they were. These are sheepherding farm dogs who work around multiple food sources all day long and have to do so without distraction. These dogs also have wildly varying calorie requirements based on what they were doing that particular day, and the dog will automatically adjust to that.

    Many of my friends who have labs are absolutely astonished that quite a few border collie breeders freefeed their dogs. They will just leave out buckets of kibble, maybe four or five buckets for 8 to 12 dogs, and the dogs will help themselves when they’re hungry and ignore the buckets the rest of the time. It is rare to see an overweight border collie even if they are on temporary activity restriction. While lab owners generally have to work very hard to keep their dogs trim and at a healthy weight.

    Many of the border collies that I know find cooperative play highly motivating. And most of them will do anything you ask for a chance to work with live animals. But food treats just don’t interest them very much. (Of course there are always individual exceptions.)

    As you may remember, when I was trying to work with our border collie Tulip, it took literally years before I figured out that the one food she would work for was salmon. And even that only held her interest for literally about 8 calories. Where our other dog, Dilly, Who is only half border collie, is highly food motivated and will gladly take treats for as long as I’m willing to give them. ????

    I mention this because border collies have become so popular in dog sports, particularly agility. And many top trainers will use tug-of-war play or even just verbal praise with border collies for many of the rewards. Not all of them, food is still useful. And of course there are always individual dogs who have favorite treats. But there are very definite breed differences in how foodmotivated a typical dog of that breed will be. It’s the old “eat to live” versus “live to eat” issue.

    Yes, of course, every dog has to eat and therefore on some level eating is rewarding. But there are also clearly breeds which have been bred to favor a “eat to live” strategy, and really are very unlikely to overeat. Eating is a necessity for them, but not their most favorite thing.

    As with everything else in R plus training it goes back to the old “the rat is always right.” Something that the dog will work enthusiastically to get is reinforcing. Something which doesn’t elicit as much enthusiasm just isn’t as reinforcing, no matter what we the person think the dog should think.

    Food treats work great with most dogs. But you can use anything that a particular dog is willing to work for. A lot of times it’s just a matter of observing the dog in every day life for about a week to figure out what really seems desirable to them.

    At our house, for example, if one person was standing in the kitchen next to the treat jar and both dogs were there and the back doors opened, One dog immediately ran to see what was happening at the back door while the other stayed in the kitchen staring at the treat jar. One dog craved food–the other craved novelty. It was a training challenge, but a lot easier to deal with once we understood what was going on.


    1. Great examples, Robin. I was actually thinking about Tulip and two other “Training Levels” dogs with skilled owners while writing this piece–dogs who were hard to train with food, albeit for different reasons. Although I hoped to account for those who were struggling with true problems in my small section on that, I didn’t mention breed characteristics there and I will add it. Your point about “disinterest in food while working” being something bred for needs to be there.

      It is tricky writing about this issue: aiming for the majority of people who have straightforward problems about food, without erasing those who have more complex issues. Thanks for speaking up.

  3. I would add–build up a reinforcement history of working for food in a low-distraction environment before attempting to take it on the road. Every piece of kibble that is an earned reinforcer is money in the bank.
    The guide-dog school I puppy-raise for instructs us to put each meal in a jar, use it for training whenever possible, &, at mealtimes, dump what’s left into a dish, & then reload the jar, & start over. This addresses several issues: the dog is never starving hungry, but always has an appetite; the dog learns early that kibble is worth working for; a growing puppy receives the correct amount of food; there are at least 200 potential clickable training moments per cup. That’s a lot of training opportunities.
    I do use string cheese cut into ant-sized bits (thanks for the description) for Nina, because she’s one of the few dogs I know who actually chews her food, & anything crunchy/chewy really slows us down.

  4. Should have said last night (I was getting ready to leave for work) that another reason for developing food motivation in a primarily toy-motivated dog is that food rewards do speed learning–just because they can be delivered more quickly, which enables many more reps per minute. I’ve heard 10 reps per minute as a goal for learning a NEW behavior & getting it on cue.
    Nina (she’s a Flat-Coat) will work hard for food, & she likes to tug, but what really lights her fire is a tennis ball. Trouble is, we might get 2 reps a minute, tops, what with chasing the ball, prancing back with it, & releasing it. So, unless she’s really struggling to learn a new behavior, I use the ball at the end of the behavior chain to fire up the whole thing.
    Guess what I’m trying to say here is that I think there’s great value in developing food drive in dogs who, left to themselves, prefer balls or access to sheep, or sleeping on the couch.

    1. Very nice point, nina’s mum. I’m so glad you mentioned that. I am fascinated by flatcoats. Such cool dogs.

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