“Treats don’t work for my dog,” the man said as he waved a crunchy milk bone under his lab’s nose while the other dogs milled around, working on their obedience skills.
“She just isn’t food motivated,” the woman stated as she tried to lure her sheltie out from under a chair with bits of bacon and cheese.
“My breed doesn’t have food drive,” I was told by the breeder/trainer/handler of fill-in-the-blank high-drive sport or working dogs.
“You know, he’s just never been very hungry,” the elderly couple explained as they gestured toward their obese dachshund.
There are countless scenarios like this from my career, and every dog trainer I know could list off a dozen or so more. To us, it is clear why the dog in each scenario is not interested in food, yet the people attached to them pass it off as “low food drive” and dig themselves very deep holes in training. Simply put, food is the most valuable currency we have when it comes to our dogs, and it is the easiest reinforcer for us to use. Dogs must be motivated to be trained and if we decide to leave force, pain, or fear off the table that leaves us with stuff the dog likes as motivators. All animals (you, me, the chickens clucking outside my window, the fly buzzing around the room, my dogs, and all the rest) are motivated to eat. If they we weren’t we’d starve to death. When dogs do not appear to be motivated to gain access to food there is usually a culprit that has nothing to do with his innate desire to eat (or not).
Often our dogs are hit with several competing motivators at once. Other dogs in class, people trying to pet them, squirrels running by, dogs barking in the agility ring, the list goes on and on. To understand this better, here is a human scenario: you are behind the wheel and your phone alerts you to a text message. Now you are faced with competing motivators: check your phone or keep driving. We all *know* what the right answer is in this scenario but there are factors at play. How severe are the penalties for texting and driving where you live? How close are you to the major problem texting and driving creates for our society; have you been personally affected? Are you sitting at a traffic light or hurtling down the highway? Have you been expecting this text? You can see how many different things there are to consider, and this is just two competing motivators. Now consider your dog in the park or the agility trial; he has competing motivators everywhere. The key here is to match your motivator (the food you wish to use) against these competitors. You might need to whip out the big guns (baked liver with garlic powder, chicken boiled in honey-water, steak seared rare, etc.) if you need to compete. Dry biscuits and kibble usually won’t cut it.
Incompatible Emotional States
A dog that turns its nose up at the delectable meat treats I mentioned above is either sick or terrified (of course, there are exceptions, and I explain those below). The sheltie above was too scared to eat; period. I am a hungry person by nature; there are few motivators that outweigh food for me. However, intense anxiety will shut off my desire to eat in a second. Even my favorite foods will not appeal to me if I am tied in a knot with fear and dread; your dog is no different. Most dogs will eat if they feel safe. Don’t forget how important it is to be sure their safety is clear to them.
History of Punishment
People make this error often without realizing it; they present their dog with something tasty just before doing something unpleasant to their dog. Baths, shots, toenails, the list of ugly things we have to do to dogs is a lengthy one. We can use food to lessen the blow, but we should use it after we do the yucky thing, not before. Humans also tend to freak out on their dogs if they eat “human food.” I have met more than a few pet dogs that were afraid of anything other than dog food; they’d learned it was not safe to eat it around humans. More subtle than this obvious case of backwards conditioning is the history of punishment people attach to food during training. If you mix treats with aversives, are a confusing shaper, or have lured your dog coercively you may have some conditioned punishment attached to your food just like the person who presents a hunk of cheese and then leads his dog to the bathtub. As always, check yourself and your skills.
History of Reinforcement
My dogs are always really into food. They are border collies, a breed that can be notoriously finicky, and they all go through a period in adolescence when they’d really rather not eat (yes, even Idgie). Regardless, they all turn into totally starving sharks. They also like toys. Even though Felix had an unfortunate incident in which somebody hit him with a hard rolled jute tug because she is a complete klutz, he is a tugging fiend. I chalk my dogs’ relatively even (Idgie would choose food if given the option, and Felix would choose a ball, but both would work for either food or toys) desire for toys and food to a history of reinforcement. Throughout their lives and I am sure to never muddy my valuable reinforcers with negative experiences, confusion, or fear (as best as possible). When I bust out the treats it doesn’t just mean eating; it means a fun game. When the toys come down it means high-adrenaline games. My dogs enjoy these things. People who have dogs with “high toy drive” and little-no “food drive” are probably subject to uneven reinforcement history here; their handlers like training with toys so that’s where they focus their energy. The same goes for dogs that only work for food. It is up to us all to build up a reinforcement history for all of the motivators we would like to employ.
Throughout my career I have witnessed a powerful truth: we all value free stuff less than earned stuff. The obese dachshund in the scenario above was free-fed at home. He had food available to him 24/7 and so no, he didn’t value it very much. Plenty of dogs that lacked interest in toys also had constant free access to numerous types of toys around the house. While this was not always the case, contrafreeloading, or the idea that animals prefer to work for their resources, rings true. I never suggest that an animal be deprived in the name of training; they should get their caloric allotment daily regardless of how training goes. I do, however, encourage everyone to use those calories wisely when working or living with animals. Every kibble counts.
The next time you say or hear of a dog lacking food motivation, rather than jumping to fasting or better treats consider whether or not there is a greater reason the dog doesn’t seem to be interested in this basic need.