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How to Use Food to Motivate Your Dog During Training

Dogster resident trainer Annie Phenix shares tips on how to boost your dog's food drive and get her motivated to train.

Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA  |  Sep 15th 2015


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Here’s a question I recently received from a reader:

I want to start training my older dog to do dog sports. I think she would enjoy it — and so would I — because she loves to run and jump and try new things. The problem is that she doesn’t seem to care about food rewards, and that’s how I want to train her. Any tips on how to get her food motivated? — Kathy, Atlanta

Dog trainers can sometimes have a snarky response about using food in training — even those of us who feel it’s the fastest and fairest way to train a dog. I admit to some previous snarkdom myself. In the past, when clients would tell me that their dog was just not food motivated, I would smirk a bit and retort: “Your dog cannot starve himself to death. You simply haven’t found the food that truly motivates him.”

Then I got my comeuppance — and it was handed to me by my own dog. I’ve been training my 10-year-old Border Collie, Radar, to compete in nose work. Radar has never been interested in toys. He has responded beautifully to every other skill I’ve asked of him, and he appeared happy to do it for a pat and praise. I would mix food into the rotation, but he seemed to get just as excited by my praise as he did a tasty morsel of meat. He’s also always been a picky eater — never eating breakfast and picking over his dinners.

Dog digging in the fridge by Shutterstock.

I train nose work with food first paired with the target odors, then I reinforce a find with food. My problem was that Radar had little motivation to search for food, and he often turned his nose up to my food offering. If I could have him hunt for a sheep in a nose work trial, I would have an instant champion, but no such luck.

I had two choices: Stop asking Radar to become a nose work competitor or find something edible that got him excited. I tried everything from Cheetos to fried liver. Do you know what finally turned him on? A leftover Chinese chicken and broccoli dinner — and it was the broccoli in particular that made him do a happy dance. Go figure.

It was hard to keep that particular food combo at the ready, so I improvised and tried rotisserie chicken that had a little spice to it. I finally found a food source that floated Radar’s doggie boat. He has obtained all three odor recognition tests required prior to competing, and we are now preparing for a Nose Work 1 trial. I have bought a considerable amount of rotisserie chicken and, so far, it still holds sway.

Now, not only do I never snark at clients who tell me their dog isn’t food motivated, but thanks to my own dog I can help owners turn a lackluster food drive into a peppy one. Here are some tips:

1. Test your dog’s taste preference

When your dog is hungry, ask him to sit, then toss a trial treat on the floor so he has to go get it. Try this with a wide variety of healthy and, yes, even some unhealthier choices (like Cheetos or hot dogs) for five nights in a row. If your dog’s eyes dilate, his tail gets to wagging hard, and he makes an effort to move quickly after a certain treat, set it aside and use it only in training sessions. If he shows boredom or stops eating the treats, remove them as reinforcers.

2. Limit the favorite food

Don’t give super primo yum-o food items in the dinner bowl. Dinner doesn’t have to be only kibble, but don’t give the extra special treat you want to use as a training reinforcer. Your dog should see it, smell it, and taste it only during training.

3. Make training quick and easy

Keep training sessions short. Really short. Maybe even just three repetitions of what you are asking your dog to do, and then quit.

Here I am working with a German Shepherd who is a client. (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

Here I am working with a German Shepherd who is a client. (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

Dogs who love food too much

Then there’s the other end of the spectrum: a dog who gets so over the top at the sight or smell of food that he has a hard time focusing. I recently worked with a sweet English Labrador named Hazel who is frantic when food appears. She eats the treats with so much gusto that we wonder if she can even taste them.

When working with this kind of food-motivated dog, I do a taste test to see if there are certain reinforcers that the dog is less interested in. In Hazel’s case, she seemed to love apples, carrots, blueberries, chicken, and hot dogs. The only sample she began to refuse was spinach, but that was after ingesting a fair amount of it in the beginning. After about 20 minutes, she bypassed the spinach every time.

I would find food, such as spinach, and start my training sessions with her using spinach and getting her mind and body relaxed with various training protocols before I brought out the food that made her eyes dilate and her heart pound. If a food I used provoked those reactions in her and she was unable to concentrate, I’d go back to the lower value treats.

What motivates a dog is crucial in training, so choose accordingly and don’t give up! There is something out there that will awaken your dog’s taste buds.

Read more by Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, on Dogster:

About the author: Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force-free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She takes her highly trained dogs with them everywhere dogs are welcome because of their exceptionally good manners. Join Annie on her dog-training Facebook page.