Why I don’t use the “S” word
Sit. Stay. Settle. Nope, he just STANDS there. “My dog doesn’t listen. He’s just too STUBBORN.”
Stop right there.
There are a ton of “s” words in you & your dog’s vocabulary, but “stubborn” shouldn’t be one of them. Your dog isn’t stubborn, he’s unmotivated.
All dogs have a drive, and it's our role as handlers to find it, harness it, and use it to foster the winning canine companion relationship. Some dogs love praise, some love toys, but most often, our dogs work for food. Food motivation is the universal drive that all animals must have to thrive and survive, and trust me your dog has it.
Here are my top tips for motivating even the most unmotivated dog with food rewards.
1. Set meal times
Mistake number one with an unmotivated dog is when owners free feed. You want your dog to see their food as a valuable commodity, but he won’t if he knows he has access to it regardless of whether he obeys your commands. When you control 100% his resources, you have the leverage. If your dog is currently free fed, switch to two set meals a day, at the same time every day. I like to make breakfast a little smaller than dinner, if I know I’m going to be doing a big day of training. A hungry dog is a motivated dog. Scheduled meals also create a routine that your dog will come to trust and expect, and thus provide structure to his day. This in itself is part of a successful training regimen.
For some unmotivated cases, it may be that your dog isn’t thrilled with the type of reward on offer. My dog will work for pieces of kibble just fine, but when we need that extra push, I’ll break out the heavy artillery. This goes back to my first point about creating value. Using the same food as a training reward as you use for regular meals might not light a fire the way a more rarely used food would. For example, if your dog’s meals are chicken, try using beef as your training rewards. Do you raw feed? Try some dehydrated raw treats in an unusual protein. You can even make your own- I invested in a food dehydrator and can make raw jerky out of anything! Sometimes all you need to do is bust out of boredom.
If he won’t do it for one treat, what about a handful? This is a new technique I've been trying out with my boy I like to call “chaos theory.” I've heard other trainers use a similar approach called “jackpotting”, where you shower your dog with a whole bunch of treats at once for getting a new behavior down perfectly for the first time to reinforce it all the more.
4. Get him singin for his supper!
Those set meal times make excellent built-in training sessions! My dog never ate from a bowl until he was about 5 months old. From day one as an 8-week old puppy, I used his meals as the motivation to teach him his foundation behaviors. I was feeding a wet food at the time, and he earned each of his meals spoonful by spoonful. This is also a great tool in your arsenal to teach a new puppy that his resources come from you! More plusses: Hand feeding can help discourage guarding behavior and teach a puppy to have a soft mouth.
5. Switch it up
Is your normally motivated dog suddenly unmotivated with a new trick he’s having trouble cracking? Switch gears for a minute to some behaviors he already knows well. Tossing in a simple “sit” or “focus” cue when your dog seems stumped on something new reminds him that he’s still in the game. Ever felt like giving up when something felt too hard? Dogs get frustrated too! Let him earn some treats to get him back in a happier mood before trying the new skill again. He’ll be reset and ready to try after a little ego boost.
Finally, if you’re stumped and want to find out which treat will motivate your dog most, line up all your different types of ammo in a row in front of him, and let him at ‘em. The one he rushes to first is your winner. You’ll never use the “s” word again.
Remember that training should always be fun! My top 5 tips are sure to get your pup excited to work, and when your dog loves learning, you’ll be motivated to keep training too, and achieve even higher levels together. Always end your sessions on a high note and set your dog up for success. He’ll be hungry to learn when he knows that training is a fun game he can always win.