Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Not Food Motivated

Susie from New Hampshire asks..."How do you reward a dog that is not particularly food motivated?" You can see from the photo, her dog Gus is super enthused about my answer.

First let me say, you may be the only owner of a hound dog to ask that question. Generally beagles, bassets and mixes thereof spend about 50% of their waking hours thinking about food and the other 50% following their noses around in the pursuit of food. I personally, have never won a race to the pantry with a beagle and I'm pretty fast. Gus apparently begs to differ, as long as it's not for food.

All dogs unless they have been diagnosed as anorexic are food motivated - so if your dogs are alive (and they are) food is motivating to them. There are many ways to reward a dog besides food but because food is so convenient, and carrying a rabbit around in your pocket is not - let me first address how to increase a dog's food motivation.

1. Use really remarkable treats. Your dog is probably no more excited about an organic carrot bit than you are - so use bacon, salami, hot dogs, cheese, chicken, turkey to motivate your dog. Dogs tend to enjoy things that are smelly and gooey. Find something your dog loves and use that only for training treats. You can buy dog treats but buy good ones, not those wretched green and red dog biscuits. I personally like the Natural Balance food rolls (no I don't eat them...not this week anyway).

2. If food is not always available, food is more motivating. If you leave a bowl of kibble out all day long, stop. If food is always available, food is not all that motivating - if something is a bit scarce it's value suddenly goes up. So feed a dog twice a day - leave the bowl down for 10-15 minutes and pick it up and remove any uneaten food until the next meal.

3. If your dog is still not responding to really good treats or is not hungry when food is scarce...then we can get really extreme and NO MORE dog dish. Temporarily put the food dish away and your dog will earn all of his food throughout the day from your hand. I often use this as a way to increase motivation with a dog or to bond with it. When I work to rehabilitate a shy/fearful/aloof dog - that dog literally receives every bit of food he gets from my hand. I quickly become very important to that dog.

But let's talk for a moment about why your dog may not be hungry -- I know from our past conversations that your dog (or at least one of your dogs is fearful) -- if your dog is ordinarily somewhat enthusiastic about food but suddenly is not (new place, new person around, new sound) etc. your dog may be "above his threshold" meaning he is too excited, nervous, anxious to eat. The situation is creating an emotional response in your dog that is so strong, the need for food is gone. If that's going on you need to back up and re-evaluate. That's also probably a topic for another day.

O.K. so what if after everything I've said, and everything you've tried -- the dog is just not food motivated. I personally would leave that dog on the coach and get another one to train (I AM KIDDING).

Animals, all animals want to control what happens to them. All animals are moving towards things that are rewarding, moving to avoid things that are not rewarding. Throughout the day your dog does let you know what he likes and what he dislikes. If you are working with a dog, the first thing you need to do is learn what makes that dog tic - what does this dog enjoy? What does he choose to avoid?

When I know what motivates a dog then I can train the dog. It's faster and easier if they love food (or toys) but you can work with the dog anyway. (can anyone tell I've trained chows)

Use life rewards - what is a life reward? Opening or closing the door, getting in the car, tossing a ball, petting, a chance to play with another dog, a chance to say hello to the neighbor, a chance to chase the squirrel, a chance to pee -- in the case of a hound a chance to sniff! In other words you control what happens to and for your dog (you have the bigger brain and the opposable thumbs). You'll get a bit of behavior you want and then viola' you'll reward the dog with one of those life rewards.

Use functional behavior rewards - what is a functional reward? moving towards something you want, moving away from something you wish to avoid. Let's say I have a dog that is fearful...I want the dog to move closer to something he is afraid of. If the dog moves in that direction...I can reward the dog by moving him away from the scary thing. Take one wee step towards the tacky lawn ornament. GOOD DOG! now we'll move away from it. The next day I might ask for two steps ...GOOD DOG! now we'll move away from it. Before you know it the dog may be moving all the way up to that tacky garden gnome.

Susie I hope that helps -- if it doesn't please write to someone else (I am kidding - give me some examples of when you are having trouble with your dog and we'll see if I can come up with a way to reward your dog in that situation).


p.s. If you are still here throw me a bone (ask me a question) and I'll do my best to answer it, if you are in the greater Lansing area join us in a class at Good Dog! Training.


  1. OMG! My question is, "How do you end up with a Beagle that is not food motivated." Seems like a total contradiction in terms. A problem I will never have. In fact, I have trouble coming up with rewards other than food to help my Beagle behave at her best. Maybe that could be tomorrow's question. Thank you!

    1. Lisa - send me a photo of your dog, I am happy to address your question about life rewards. Look for it next week.

  2. What a great post!

  3. You are so fun to read - and this is all remarkably helpful. I am going to start keeping better snacks around (I haven't been resorting to the green and red biscuits but I can certainly amp up the goodies) and see what transpires. After reading this, I'm thinking Gus likely bored by what I'm offering. And I LOVE the concept of the life rewards, so I know that will help as well. Thanks bunches, Janet! xoS

  4. OH BOY, did this help - Gus is now begging for bacon! Not exactly begging, but sitting, coming, staying, pirouetting... you name it, he's doing it. Thanks so much for the advice - will also be trying out the life rewards concept as well. Happy owner, happy dog. YAY, Janet!!!

  5. Yeah...go Susie. It sounds like Gus is ready for a Circus Dogs! class in your area.

  6. Lisa - ask your questions! Or did you just do that...

  7. Hey Janet, great to find your blog! Ketrak is doing great (my picture is of him herding sheep). I love the idea of your clown dog classes! Hope to sign him up for another class soon.
    Maryellen & Ketrak