What if my dog isn't food motivated?

Food Motivated Doggo

Written by Nicole Ellis, CPDT-KA (3 min read)

My dog doesn’t like treats. How else can I train my dog if treats won’t work? This might be hard for some of us to believe, but not all dogs are very food-motivated -- and that's okay. Food is not the only reward in this world. We don't all love the same things; it's the same for our pets. There are also some dogs who find food too exciting to be a training tool. Those dogs can't focus on learning when there is the slightest possibility of food. 

So here's a primer on treat-free training. While this is aimed at dogs who aren't food-motivated or are overly food-excitable, treat-free training can be a good change of routine even for the easiest food-motivated dogs. You might find your dog enjoys earning different types of rewards, and that will lead to new things you can work on together.

To start:

The first step is understanding if you have a pup that isn't food-motivated or if s/he is simply full and not interested in eating at the moment. I often train Maggie with the food I would normally use for her dinner. This is an excellent way of keeping Maggie lean and fit without getting an additional meal of treats that are high in calories or filled with additives. Before dinner, when your pet is anxious for their food, try training with a few pieces of dinner and see if their motivation level spikes a bit. If so, that's great: you can work on your training with their dinner-time meal.

To make sure that your dog really, really isn't food-motivated, make one last effort, this time with a higher value food. If I had the choice between bacon and a cracker, I’m going to hold out for bacon (you probably would too). If you are using a dry, hard treat, try one with more scent and flavor, perhaps a venison or beef-flavored treat with a soft texture and a stronger odor or some real meat or chicken.

Moving on to toys:

Still not interested in food? That's okay! Think of your pet's toys and arrange them in order of excitement for them. For example, a tennis ball is a good time, a frisbee is off-the-wall excitement, but their (so annoying) squeaky hedgehog toy tops them all.

We can make a mental list of the joy level each of these toys brings, from lowest to highest.

  1. Tennis ball
  2. Frisbee
  3. Hedgehog toy
  4. A new toy that only comes out except at training time!

We know the tennis ball is lowest on the ‘Joy List’. So get out the next item on the list the frisbee, hide it behind you, and start with the beginning steps to teach a Drop It (training video here) but instead of rewarding with food, reward your pup with the frisbee and let your pet play for a minute or two. If that toy isn’t deemed a sufficiently exciting reward, step it up to the next level with the squeaky hedgehog.

If your dog doesn't spark to his normal toys as a reward, consider finding him a special toy that becomes a training-only toy. This might be a squeaky toy or a moving toy like a frisbee, and you can help make it more exciting by making noise with the toy and moving it around just before you give your drop it command. He gets to play with the toy only as a reward for training and it is hidden away except at training times.

Bring on the tennis balls!

For the very tennis-ball-motivated dog, you know what is better than one ball tennis ball? Two, especially if they don’t have their paws on that other ball yet. Hide one ball in your pocket or behind your back and surprise your pup by rewarding with it. Repeat this for endless doggie joy.

We hope these tips help you and your pup begin their training adventure with you.

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  • Nicole Ellis