In previous dog training posts, I’ve discussed why trainers use treats or food when clicker training, and discussed a number of non-food reinforcers as well. But maybe you live with a dog that seems not to be food motivated. Many trainers will laugh at that claim. “If the dog was not food-motivated, he’d be dead!”
While this may be true, it’s also true that there are many dogs who seem uninterested in treats, or significantly less interested in them than the average dog is. Why? Here are a few reasons, starting with the most likely. Of course, often several reasons are at play.
Obesity in dogs, as in humans, is an epidemic in much of the Western world. In fact, obesity in dogs is so common, I’d argue that many well-intentioned dog owners don’t even recognize an overweight dog when they see it. Sadly, as a dog trainer, I often see these dogs. When I discuss the importance of a healthy weight with my clients, they often tell me, that their vet didn’t say his weight was an issue.
My friend Tena Parker at Success Just Clicks, who is way better at making crafty images than me, wrote a great post on how to identify whether your dog is overweight, using the same technique I show my clients.
Getting your overweight dog back to a healthy weight is critical for his physical and behavioral health. Ask your vet before embarking on a new exercise regimen, and have your vet rule out any contributing medical factors like thyroid issues or diabetes. Also, my personal preference: Avoid diet foods. As with humans, the solution is not what you (or the dog) generally wants to hear — eat less, exercise more. There are no magic pills, foods, or creams.
Often, dogs are called “stubborn” or deemed to be lacking food motivation when, in fact, they’ve actively been trained to shun all but the highest-value reinforcers. This usually develops when a handler enters a training situation with a dog and first pulls out the lowest-value treat possible, like a Cheerio. The dog blows off the treat like a teenager offered 50 cents to mow the lawn. The trainer then pulls out a slightly higher-value reinforcer, like a biscuit or kibble. That’s still not interesting enough, so we then launch into a food roll (like Red Barn), then sandwich meat, then liverwurst, and then steak — until eventually the dog is even shunning that, convinced that if he just holds out long enough, his owner will pull out something even better!
This is reverse training — the dog is actually training the handler to continually offer better stuff. Far better would be to do some reinforcement sampling before you start training, to find out what your dog will enthusiastically work for in a given training environment. A talented trainer should be able to help you rebuild value and create a reinforcement structure for food that gets your dog back on the right training track.
A healthy dog’s ability and willingness to eat is an indicator of his emotional state. With fearful and reactive dogs, refusal of food may be a sign that we’ve crossed a threshold. The ability to eat is a barometer that indicates how safe a dog feels. A dog who can’t eat is often a dog in distress. While distress is one type of stress, there is also “eustress,” or stress encountered in situations or activities that are actually very exciting (think taking the kids to Disneyland).
Taken to the extreme, eustress in dogs manifests as arousal issues. For example, the dog that starts lunging and barking (while refusing food) when approaching the dog park or seeing a squirrel run across the field. In situations in which the dog is too aroused or stressed to accept any handler-offered reinforcement, chances are good that the only thing the dog is learning is how to tune his handler out in favor of the environment.
Occasionally, I’ll see a dog that immediately launches into avoidance and appeasement behaviors when food is presented — turning away, repeating yawning or lip licking, or plastering ears against his skull. This sad state of affairs often occurs when dogs have learned that good stuff is a trap. This happens when well-intentioned owners try to use food (usually very high-value food) to “trick” the dog into doing something he is terrified of, like getting in the bathtub, having his ears cleaned or nails trimmed, or being picked up.
While classical conditioning is a tried-and-true behavior modification technique, doing it successfully means introducing a diluted version of the “scary thing,” usually by manipulating distance, and pairing the presentation of food with exposure a la “Open Bar, Closed Bar” training. In any case, the dog has come to learn that “food predicts scary things,” instead of “scary things predict good things (food).”
These dogs can be retaught to accept food as a good thing, through another application of classical conditioning: teaching dogs that the presentation of food is followed by things they already love, like play or scratches. If you have a dog like this, find a good trainer to teach you how to remind your dog that “food is fun!”
You’ll find all personality types within a given breed, but some traits are more common in some breeds, including food motivation, prey drive, and play drive. Labradors and Beagles are especially well-known for their interest in food, while many terriers, herders, and guardian breeds tend to be less food-motivated. You can increase the value of food as a reinforcer by carefully pairing food with things that are already valuable to the dog (play, prey, sniffing, etc.).
Dogs that are “free fed,” or given constant access to food, may be more difficult to motivate. The value of reinforcement relies upon how much the animal wants it when you offer it. I may love cheesecake, but may not be interested in it, or may actively avoid it, if my belly is full of Thanksgiving dinner. Feeding at designated times allows you to calculate when your dog is most likely to be hungry and, therefore, most willing to work for food.
Lastly, if your dog normally loves treats and begins refusing them, it’s time to schedule a visit to your vet.
Do you have a dog who isn’t food-motivated? If so, how have you been successful at training him or her? Let us know in the comments!
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