But my dog is not food motivated

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”:

Physical condition/weight

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.

Health!

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 😉

choose the right treats for your dog

Learned aversion

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.

Therefore:

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”.

3 steps to make your training more efficient and more fun

I think that once you get into training, it suddenly seems so simple! But sooner or later everyone gets stuck and discovers that given the right skills it is easy, but it is not simple… Follow these three steps to make training more fun and effective for you and for you learner.

Continue reading “3 steps to make your training more efficient and more fun”

Why train by positive reinforcement?

This is the short answer: because positive reinforcement is a humane, science-based method of training animals that focuses on rewarding desirable behaviours. It is safe for everyone to use and it strengthens the bond between you and your animal.

  • It is humane and safe because it does not involve punishment (be it verbal or physical). Animals have different levels of sensitivity and even though many dogs tolerate punishment, for others it may be a trigger to bark, bite or hide, ultimately escalating the situation instead of solving the problem. Therefore, using punishment is not safe. Secondly, punishment damages the bond between you and your animal, teaching the animal that they cannot trust you or even should fear you. (I also think that punishment is plain wrong and useless but it’s a matter for a different post).
  • It is science-based because it mostly uses the principles of classical conditioning and operant conditioning that have been well documented over the last hundred years. There has also been research into positive reinforcement itself that showed that animals trained by this method learned faster and retained the new skills much longer than classically trained animals.
  • It is a method because once you learn the principles you can yourself train your animal. Of course what you train them to do and how long it will take depends on many factors (the animal’s age, experiences and predispositions, your skills, the amount of time you’re willing to invest…)  but you definitely do not need to be a ‘dog whisperer’ to use it to your advantage.

Positive reinforcement…

  • is not a quick fix. Like all successful training methods positive reinforcement requires us to think about our goals, plan ahead and manage the animal’s environment so that we can set them up for success. Most problems consist of multiple “bad behaviours” and each of them has to be fixed individually. (For example problematic greeting behaviour may involve barking, lunging and uncontrolled running. All separate issues for training.).
  • does not mean that you have to use treats (or any other kind of reward) all the time. Yes, initially you treat each time. But once a behaviour is stable (reliable) you can gradually wean the animal off treats and only reward them from time to time. Unless it’s something that is really hard for them. Speaking of which, why are we so opposed to rewarding our dogs? No one ever asks when they can stop punishing their dogs… Without delving deep I’d like to make an argument for treating our dogs lavishly: most of the things we ask them to do are contrary to their instincts and obeying all our requests is hard work. In my opinion hard work deserves pay. Full stop.
  • does not equal permissiveness. The difference between positive reinforcement based training and “traditional” training is how we react to the unwanted behaviours. Where a ctraditional trainer might opt for correction1/punishment, the positive trainer opts for telling the dog what they want (instead of what they do not want)2because really, just expecting them to “know better” is plain unfair. Example: your dog wanders off the sidewalk. Instead of yelling/jerking the leash, one way would be to teach your dog the cue “sidewalk” and reward them for getting back onto the sidewalk.
  • Not everything can (or must) be trained.