But My Primitive Dog Doesn't Like Food...: How to deal with a lack of food motivation
It is true that the ideal training scenario is to have a biddable food driven dog who will do anything for a morsel of kibble. But not every dog is going to fit that mold and in fact, most probably won't at some point or another. Don’t let trainers or owners shame you into thinking something is wrong with you, your training, or your dog. There are many reasons why your dog may not be motivated by food. There are also many solutions.
First of all, let’s clarify one thing. Your dog is food motivated. If they weren’t they’d be dead. Your dog does eat. They have to or else they would wither and die. But I do understand that food delivered to them in any scenario outside of meals just doesn’t work, or worse, even mealtime is a struggle. For many primitive dogs, there are multiple reasons why they are not food motivated. Some are wired in their genes, and others are due to mistakes made by humans.
The primary reason primitive dogs are not food motivated is because of the environment. Even if your dog takes treats indoors, there is a decent chance you struggle outdoors. This is because the environment is too emotionally stimulating. When our emotions are stimulated, our appetite vanishes. This is due to the fact that flight or flight doesn’t work too well on a full stomach. So to help our dogs be more interested in food reward (and us in general) we have to start by reducing their emotional association with their environment. We’ll get into that in a little bit.
Another reason your primitive dog isn’t food motivated is food “poisoning”. By poisoning, we’re not being literal (though that could definitely ruin food for a dog), we mean creating a negative association with it. This happens because of a few mistakes. This first is putting pressure on a dog to eat. This can happen when a dog is a weak eater as a puppy and the breeder forces the dog to eat. This can also happen when owners switch food constantly because the dog isn’t eating eagerly or is leaving some food untouched. The social pressure to eat puts our sensitive dogs off. Watching them eat, shoving food into their mouths, changing food constantly, etc puts a huge stress association around eating, killing your dog's appetite.
Proximity to emotional triggers is another reason dogs lose interest in food. Triggers can be exciting, like prey, or stressful like people or other dogs. Finding your dog’s threshold can help you be more aware of where your dog’s appetite shuts off. This could be relatively close to a trigger, or 100+ feet away. Only your dog can tell you where that invisible line is, but it is there somewhere.
Finally, leaving food out all day can also contribute to a lack of food motivation. If food is always present, there is nothing special about offering it in training or in outside situations. And while some dogs are good self-regulators, most dogs on free-feeding routines, are overweight. Instead, using food are part of a healthy relationship is a better way to go.
The good news is that there are many solutions to diminished food motivation. The first step is finding the cause. This can be hard to isolate but evaluating your dog’s relationship with food can be a good start.
- Do you give your dog a lot of free access to food?
- How is your dog’s weight? (You should be able to see ribs or easily feel them in a dense coat)
- What foods have you offered your dog and in what situations?
- What distractions are around when your dog has been offered food?
- What have been past consequences for your dog when they have been eating food given to them?
Once we have established our dog’s relationship with food and fixed any way that we are inadvertently making things harder, we can start to build motivation for food again. The first step is to find something your dog likes in the most boring of circumstances. This might be something like dried liver, hot dogs, chicken, cheese, or steak. You may have to drop the food on the floor rather than give from the hand if that form of delivery creates too much pressure on the dog. You might even have to divert eye contact. Simply give them a piece and walk away. Then 2-3 minutes later, repeat. There should be zero pressure and do not ask for a behavior or mark a behavior. Instead just imitate a broken slot machine and randomly pay in food.
Once your dog is eating this way regularly for the next week or two, start giving food for behaviors your dog does naturally, like lying on a bed, sitting by your side, or simply looking at you. Don’t cue the behaviors, just give food to them if they happen and then move away or ignore them. After a few weeks of this, if they start looking for a little extra, try cueing a behavior and giving them a piece of food. If they eat it and eagerly look for more - awesome, you’ve created motivation. But don’t push it, keep sessions short with only a few repetitions. Keep them eager.
If your dog is now taking treats for very simple things at home, or even complex behaviors, it’s time to take things outside. Start with the quietest, boring part of your yard, sit down in a chair with your dog on-leash and ignore them. When they finally try to engage with you, don’t say a word, just give them food. Then ignore them again and repeat. Do this until they are very focused. Then stand up and go a little training. If they disengage, go back to sitting and ignoring. Slowly move to more interesting areas.
For food disinterested dogs, be super careful using food around triggers while you’re building motivation. There is no quicker way to ruin food again than trying to pair it with something scary if they don’t have a strong positive association to it. This means using other means for desensitization protocols for right now and also being aware of your dog’s relationship with everyone in their household. If they are afraid of someone and that person gives them food, They may be inadvertently contributing to your dog’s disinterest in food.
Finally, tweak your dog’s relationship with food. Use food toys exclusively instead of a bowl and monitor your dog’s weight and feeding times. You can even make food exclusive to these training games so that meals come from interacting with you. Just be sure to feed something extra good during this process.
Remember that a lack of food motivation is feedback about things in your dog’s life and regardless of its impact on your training, it is a good idea to address it. There is nothing harder than trying to help a dog behaviorally who is disinterested about food. Give these scenarios some thought and let us know how you do.