All living beings are “food motivated” – otherwise they’d be dead. And dogs specifically are opportunistic scavengers, geared to eat whatever they find whenever they find it.
When we say that a dog is “not food motivated” it usually means that they won’t eat in certain contexts. That’s because *the behavior of eating* is influenced by learning, so it is more or less likely to occur in certain contexts. Just like it might be easier to ask your dog to “sit” at home than in the dog park.
Let’s have a look at some reasons why a dog might be labelled as “not food motivated”:
Maybe your dog is just getting enough calories in his normal meals? Not every dog is a lab, willing to eat non stop.
Please note, that the amount of food recommended by manufacturers is just a suggestions. Calory needs are very individual, you should always monitor your dog’s weight.
How much exercise is your dog getting? How big are they? A Chihuahua will be able to “fit” less food than a German Shepherd.
Often the reason behind “picky eating” is that the food makes the dog feel unwell. Gastrointestinal issues are very common especially in dogs with behavior problems (which is a topic for a separate post).
We like to focus on observable symptoms like vomiting and diarrhoea, but it’s easy to miss other, harder to observe symptoms such as nausea or reflux. If your dog is reluctant to eat or anything seems off (for example they are very “nervous” or very “lethargic”), check if they’re healthy!
Dogs have preferences!
Most dogs prefer moist, smelly treats they can easily swallow.
Large, dry treats (for example some dog biscuits) that take forever to chew are usually not appealing to them. Don’t be fooled by commercial treats, they are often the worst 😉
The dog can be avoidant of food in a specific context (for example when the food is fed from the hand) because they learned that it predicts something icky. This is a “beautiful” example of classical conditioning – the dog has a negative emotional response in this context.
Let’s look at some examples for how this happens:
- giving food toys before departure to dogs with separation anxiety → food toys predict departure/being alone
- repeatedly using the food to lure dog into uncomfortable situations → food predicts a box/car/public transport/unpleasant veterinary procedure
- making strangers feed a fearful dog from hand, which often leads to them petting the dog → food predicts physical touch/interaction with strangers
Arousal (positive or negative)
In terms of eating, we generally see 3 types of responses to arousal:
- a dog who simply refuses to eat
- a dog who accepts the treat but spits out
- a dog who turns into a sharkie
As arousal increases, the ability to eat decreases. After all, you don’t need to be able to digest anything if you’re running for your life. The willingness/ability to eat can give us important information about how our dog is doing in certain situations.
Depending on the context, the solution here might be increasing distance, changing the food delivery method and/or teaching your dog to function in higher arousal.
→ Just because your dog refuses treats during training, it does not mean they are “not food motivated”.
→ Just because your dog is “picky” during mealtimes, it does not mean they are “not food motivated”.
Food motivation is a spectrum – depending on the breed and personality of the dog, they might need a different approach to help them eat in certain situations. Stay tuned for the next post where I’ll run through some strategies for building “food motivation”.