Improve “food motivation”

In the previous post we talked about some reasons why a dog might be labelled as “not food motivated”. It is certainly true that some dogs will work for any type of food with lots of enthusiasm, and some will carefully pick out only their favourite treats in a food scatter. You are unlikely to change your food-cautious dog into a swallowing machine but you can make them a “better eater”!

Let’s start with some general tips

If your dog is overweight talk to your vet about the best way of helping them lose excess weight.

Calculate how much food they should be getting next to treats.
Unnsure whether your dog is overweight? Check out the canine conditioning score.

Use better treats!

I know this sounds very obvious, but it still happens that my clients proclaim their dog “not food motivated” just because they refused a wide range of dry biscuits.

choose the right treats for your dog

Pay attention to your body language when you train your dog.

Often dogs appear reluctant to respond to our cues or accept food because we are to overbearing for them (i.e. leaning forward, bending over them, reaching out towards them).

If your dog appears interested in training but reluctant to take food from your hand, see if they’ll eat it if you drop it on the floor. I think it’s always pays to be careful with feeding from hand, especially if you’re working with a new dog who you don’t know very well.

Make sure that training sessions are fun!

Plan and prepare for the session. Lack of clarity can easily result in hesitant, frustrated learners who appear to be “not food motivated” while in reality they just don’t know what’s going on and opt out of training.
3 steps to make your training more efficient and more fun

Teach your dog to eat

If you made sure that your dog is healthy and your training sessions are fun, and you still struggle with using food, this post is for you. Bottom line: eating is a behavior and we can shape it. First ask yourself: in what contexts is my dog a “good eater”? In what contexts do they struggle? What would be the intermediate steps between those contexts?

Here are some ideas:
Experiment with different forms of food delivery.
For example: feeding from hand, throwing for the dog to catch, rolling the treat on the ground etc. Make eating fun!

I really like working with various food delivery methods because each of them has a different level of arousal conditioned with it. For example, I can get my dog off staring at birds if I ask her to chase a treat, but she would not eat from hand in this situation (yet!).

If you want to teach your dog to reliably accept food in a certain way in different contexts, practice it!

Let’s say you’re working on scatter feeding:

  1. Start indoors, with large pieces of high value food scattered on a small surface.
  2. Once your dog reliably starts sniffing after they hear the cue (i.e. “scatter!”), start generalizing the behavior: for example try it in the courtyard, on the pavement, in low grass etc.
  3. Experiment with different values of food in the different contexts.
  4. Once the motivation to search is high (the dog has repeatedly had success with this exercie), you can start mixing high and low value food and gradually weaning the dog off high value treats.
    Remember, the dog dictates the pace 🙂

Reinforce your dog for eating!
Let me show you 3 examples:

Sniffing is hard work for my dog, so after she completes the task I reinforce her for her hard work, I throw a treat for her to chase.


Heide from Donau Dogs – Hundetraining und Dogwalking is practicing recalling her dog from hunting in the bushes: note that she is using very high value food (wet food) and after her dog comes back and eats it, he is allowed to go back to hunting –> food does not signal end of fun

For dogs who are very toy motivated, you can reinforce them for eating with play! I love this video because it shows a very thoughtful application of learning theory combined with the knowledge of the specific learner: this particular dog has low appetite because he’s sick but he’s still well enough to play a little tug. so his owner is using a game of tug to reinforce him for eating his food and you can see how he progressively eats more and more