Is your dog alive?
My wonderful clients often tell me that their dog just isn't food motivated. I see this in action all the time, and it really can look like that! A dog turns her nose to a biscuit in the middle of learning the Down cue. Or, a freeze-dried liver nugget doesn't get a single nibble out on a walk. Even more baffling, a dog passes on rare roast beef in favor of barking and hiding under the table when a visitor comes through the door. These dogs really aren't food motivated, right? I promise, they are.
How can I make such a bold assertion about fictitious dogs that I've never even met? It's because they are alive. All dogs who are alive are food motivated. Period. Full stop.
A living, breathing, healthy dog stays alive by consuming food, an undeniable necessity for survival. This is part of the reason for starting positive reinforcement training with food rewards. Food is an innately clear motivator for a dog, which makes it pretty darn easy for humans to use when training. Bonus for the humans!
"All dogs who are alive are food motivated."
This doesn't mean that some dogs aren't picky! Or that other things aren't more motivating in the moment. One of the main tasks for a skilled professional dog trainer is to help our human clients figure out the right food or other motivator for each training goal. Let's dig in.
Minimum wage doesn't cut it
A green bean, a dog biscuit, a piece of cheese, and a meatball walk into a dog bar. Wait…oops. Shoot, the meatball is devoured already, but the other two are…OK, now the cheese is gone and it's just the bisc-. Scratch that, the green bean stands alone. Lucky for the green bean, there are no Labradors in the bar.
Dog math tells us that not all food is created equal. We ask our dogs to do some pretty weird stuff. The weirder and more difficult the stuff, the better the paycheck needs to be. For example, let's consider walking in a fairly straight line, attached to a leash, at a human's slowpoke pace, while out in the world full of new sights, sounds, and smells. That's really weird and really difficult! We expect our dogs to be brain surgeons while asking them to perform for minimum wage. Doggie brain surgery requires the right paycheck.
"We expect our dogs to be brain surgeons."
What constitutes the right paycheck depends on each individual dog and the task at hand. For the really hard stuff, bring out the big guns. Meaty, smelly, cheesy, best-of-the-best goodies that your dog never gets otherwise. Some of my go-tos are roast beef, shredded chicken, meatballs, and cheese. For medium-hard stuff, store-bought treats might do just fine. I like Vital Essentials freeze dried training treats, Happy Howie's soft meat roll, and Ziwi Peak dog food for these tasks. Part of my job is to help clients figure out what behaviors are especially hard for their dogs, and in turn, find the best motivators to use for positive reinforcement training.
They can't all be Labradors
I get it. Your dog isn't a Labrador. She's not obsessing about food 24/7. She might actually get full sometimes, or just be a little picky. But, this doesn't mean your dog isn't food motivated. She's just not hungry right now.
Timing is your other best friend when using food for training. Your living dog has to eat. So, let's turn eating time into training time. There's no rule that says breakfast must be at 7am every day and take 6 seconds to finish. Food bowls exist for humans, not dogs. One approach for the easily full or picky dog is to use the regular meal portion and time for training. Who knows, your dog might even enjoy it more! (Spoiler alert: she probably will.)
"Food bowls exist for humans, not dogs."
Although food is usually an easy choice for most humans, don’t forget about other positive reinforcement motivators. Fetch and tug addicts love training with toys. I'm looking at you, Border Collies! I probably wouldn't teach skills like Sit or Stay this way, but for skills that involve movement or excitement, play can be a good choice for those dogs and humans that are up for it.
Rock, paper, scissors
Back to the barking and hiding dog that turned down rare roast beef. He must be one of those extraordinary dogs that truly doesn't care about any food, right? I promise, he is not. He's just scared.
"Fear beats food."
In the classic hand game, we know rock beats scissors, paper beats rock, and scissors beats paper. When it comes to dogs, fear beats food. A frightened dog's top priority is to avoid danger. In the survival checklist, he can worry about food later. Safety first, then eat. The goal for these dogs isn't to find the right food for a training task. It is first and foremost to treat the fear.
If you need any one-on-one help troubleshooting your dog's motivation or other training issues, I'm here to help. Don't worry, train happy!