Many dogs refuse food away from home at times. Don’t panic if this is happening with yours. It doesn’t mean that she is “not food motivated” or that positive reinforcement training somehow “doesn’t work.”
Fear is one reason a dog won’t eat away from home, but there is another common reason. In this post, I’ll discuss what I believe to be the next most common reason: competing reinforcers.
Why Won’t He Eat?
Your dog may refuse food because he is scared, excited, has a medical problem, is more interested in the environment, is full, or for another reason. I can’t determine in a blog post which it is for your dog. If your dog refuses food when away from home and you are not sure why, check with your vet. Then, if it’s not a medical problem, get help from a positive reinforcement-based trainer.
It’s super common for a dog to refuse food because there are currently things more interesting to him. In behavior science, those are called competing reinforcers. When we are new to training, this possibility rarely occurs to us. Instead, it seems like the whole training game is broken somehow.
It’s not broken. This is a common situation and the exercises that fix it are central to good training.
The suggestions in the rest of this post pertain to dogs who refuse food in new locations and situations but are not scared or ill. You can view an example of that scenario in the embedded movie.
The Common Culprit: Competing Reinforcers
Let’s say you have trained your dog to respond to a few cues in your living room. Perhaps you have trained “sit,” “down,” “target,” and “stay.” Maybe even basic leash manners. You decide to take the show on the road and drive your dog to a local park. You bring some good food and a clicker if you use one.
You get your dog out of the car and cue him to sit. But your dog is at the end of his leash, straining to smell something on the ground. You cue him again. Nothing. He doesn’t even seem to hear you.
You wait about five minutes. He is scanning, sniffing, and straining at the leash. But you finally get a little scrap of attention from him. You click the eye contact and start to offer him something yummy. But at the sound of the click, he turns away and starts sniffing again. He ignores the food completely. Or if you get it into the vicinity of his mouth, he lets it fall out.
This is perplexing. At home, your dog is a real chow hound. He will do anything for food and loves his training sessions. What’s happened?
If your dog is not afraid, what has likely happened is that there are competing reinforcers. That means that there are things more attractive to him right now than the food. New places are thrilling to many dogs. Novel odors! New things to see, like dogs, other animals, or even people! These can all overpower the attractiveness of food.
We can’t decide for our dogs what is the most enticing thing at a particular moment. Often, it’s something other than what we are offering. And remember: they are reinforcers, just like your food can (usually!) be a reinforcer. Once they become accessible, they reinforce the behavior the dog performed to access them.
We can relate to this situation. Imagine that you rarely get to go anywhere, but today you have travelled with a friend to a beautiful lake in the mountains. You get out of the car, and there is the clear, inviting lake. You love to swim, and the temperature is perfect for it. Before getting in the water, you stand and take in your surroundings: the beauty of the place, the sounds of birds and the lapping of the lake, the smell of the mountain air. Your body is primed to step into that beautiful water. But your friend keeps pressing their tablet in your face, trying to get you to look at a TikTok. And when you even glance at them, they try to stuff a Frito into your mouth.
You’re a human, so you might eat the Frito out of politeness. But is the possibility of more Fritos going to lure you away from the lake? Hardly!
Video of a Dog More Interested in Sniffing than Food
Zani has the best leash manners of all my dogs, but only when we’re in our own neighborhood or somewhere else familiar to her. I don’t take her out often enough for her to walk nicely on leash in brand new places (see below about practice!). My goal on this outing was to give her a little adventure (as opposed to having a goal of training), so I let her pull me around somewhat. But I still rewarded richly for loosening the leash, offering attention, or walking at my side.
She does those things intermittently. But she won’t always take the food. So in the video, you’ll see her ignore my marker and just continue along. Sometimes she’ll turn for the treat, then decline it. She also accepts treats part of the time, but even then, you can tell that she is barely turning her attention away from her walk.
Sorry about Zani’s clunky, mismatched attire. This was an unplanned outing, and she was wearing a borrowed harness.
What to Do If Your Dog Gets Too Jazzed Up about the Environment to Take Food
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. A keyboard player doesn’t start her studies by playing Liszt or Rachmaninoff. She starts with simple pieces. She works on scales. She attempts harder things gradually, usually under the tutelage of a teacher. If she is going to be a performer, she also widens her playing experience gradually as well. She plays on different pianos. She plays in different settings and for larger and larger groups of people. She learns to handle herself in lots of different musical situations.
Likewise, taking a dog who has practiced behaviors only at home (and maybe in only one room of the house!) to a park and expecting perfect performance is like taking the first year piano student to Carnegie Hall, aiming her at the stage, and saying, “Knock ’em dead!”
She’s not ready. And neither is your dog.
Instead, work gradually. Here’s a sample process.
Teach your dog behaviors and practice:
- in your living room
- then in your kitchen
- then in a room with an outside view
- then in a room with a door open to your back yard
- then on the back porch if you have one
- then in a boring part of your back yard
- then in an interesting part of your back yard
- then on your front porch
- then in your front yard
- then a few steps either way toward your neighbors’ houses
- then down your street. And go on from there using more baby steps!
I have a friend who had a big van with some open space in it, and she taught her dog to perform all his behaviors in the van! How cool is that?
You can also practice asking for your dog’s attention as part of her “getting out of the car” routine and going out your front door. Both are common times for dogs to get excited and unreachable. (Hint: practice indoors, using doors into other indoor rooms, first.)
Be generous with the reinforcement. You are gradually introducing competing reinforcers, so yours need to be good.
When you do get to the park, set her up for success. Pick a time when most people are staying home. Go to an area where you can practice in a parking lot or on the pavement before you venture into more exciting areas. If you do mat training, bring the mat. Help your dog practice getting out of the car and straight onto the mat. Keep the first lessons short.
Get the picture? Work up to it. Set your antecedents.
High-value food is your friend when you are going to new places with your dog. But it’s important to note that food is not a cure-all. You can’t just skip to a distracting environment and count on liver brownies to save the day. You and your dog will still need to work up to it. And some days, for some dogs, in some situations, there just isn’t a high-enough value food. Dogs are animals. We don’t live in a perfect world.
But It’s Her Walk! Why Should She Pay Attention Anyway?
That’s right; it’s her walk. It may be important to you to offer your dog as much freedom as you can; it is to me. You may want to give her time to acclimate and explore whenever you go somewhere new. But those goals are not incompatible with what I am describing here. My teacher has encouraged me always to consider safety issues when training on the road. I don’t have to have my dog’s attention all the time. But for safety’s sake, I need to be able to ask for it and get it.
Whenever the topic of competing reinforcers comes up, someone will suggest using the Premack principle. That principle says that you can reinforce statistically less likely behaviors (walking nicely on leash) with more likely behaviors (sniffing). After all, if the thing your dog wants the most is to sniff those exciting odors, why not use sniffing for your reinforcement?
Here’s the problem. Using Premack can be more complicated than it sounds. If you are a beginning trainer and your dog is so entranced by odors that you can’t get his attention for love or money or a food treat, how will you get him back after you let him go off sniffing?
I do use sniffing as a reinforcer for my dogs when we are in familiar places. I have it on cue and it works well, but it required a careful training plan. I describe in another post how I taught Zani to go sniff and come back. But I rarely try it in a brand new place. We haven’t practiced enough for Carnegie Hall.
- My Dog Isn’t Food Motivated—Or Is She?
- Bootleg Reinforcement
- Herrnstein’s Matching Law and Dog Training
- Dogs Who Are Eating Can Still Be Stressed
Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson
Updated October 2022
8 thoughts on “My Dog Refuses Food Away from Home!”
May be you could have them both: sniffing and eating. The trick is to throw the food on the ground in stead of giving it from the hand. Most dogs love to search for food.
Yes they do love it! I save it for situations where there aren’t other exciting reinforcers to be had. So we do it for enrichment at home a bunch. But it’s not something I would do on the road a lot in our situation. That placement of a reinforcer doesn’t serve my particular goal, which is to be able to get her attention on me when needed. Thanks for the comment.
Ah. NO. Never. I had a dog who would politely take treats from me and then drop them on the ground when she thought I was not looking. At best it was a waste of food, at worst it totally ruined other people’s food-treat training. Dropping food should always be a big no-no in public. Quite apart form anybody who had ever lost a beloved dog to a strychnine bait (fish hook in a dead fish or any other the other nasties that can be found out and about) will train their dog to ONLY EVER take food from your hand when out.
Ideally people would be aware that dogs are motivated by many, many things other than food (except possibly for Labradors with the problem mutation).
What works best for training is what the dog finds rewarding. You are doing both yourself and your dog a great disservice by trying to develop an “I-want-food-anywhere-at-anytime drive” in your dog. Use a variety of reinforcers and use what works in the situation you are in.
I’m not sure whether the last paragraph is addressed to Anna-Maria or me, but here is my own response. I use treats, balls, tug toys, squirted water, sniffing, running together, shredding stuff, personal play, and visiting people, among other reinforcers. Food is a primary reinforcer, is easy to carry, and lends itself to effective reinforcement placement. This post is addressed to people with the very common problem I described. There is nothing here about forcing use of a particular reinforcer. That’s impossible, as far as I know.
I need my dogs’ attention for safety reasons. If a ball would work better for the dog in the movie, I would have used it. But for her, food is more powerful. And for her, as for many dogs, not taking food is not an indicator of lack of “food drive,” but that there is something else in the environment more attractive. The food is available to her when she wants it and offers a behavior accordingly. I think it’s very cool that she has more than one reinforcer available to her. The behaviors I reinforce including checking in, which, as a mini-recall, can be life saving.
On our daily off leash walks one of my dogs is less likely than the others to want food. When he does something I like, he stops and looks at me, I use a conditioned reinforcer, “good boy!”
But what if the dog simply has no appetite? Dogs are no different really to humans. Some kids won’t eat away from home either. I had one dog who neither ate not drank nor peed or pooped at trials, even camping overnight. She didn’t seem nervous — just simply never found the need.
I must admit I would neither expect nor want my dog to want to take treats when out on a walk.
I want and need to be able to get my dog’s attention on walks, for safety’s sake. That means I want to train them, with the most effective reinforcer for them, to be responsive. Not constantly. Just when I need them. Food works best for us for that. I build habits with them at home, and practice on walks.
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