Not Food Motivated?

Food rewards are a very powerful tool for changing behavior. They are generally very easy to use, as well. Pairing something a dog doesn’t like with a tasty treat can change their feelings. Rewarding a behavior with a bit of food will encourage them to repeat that behavior. Food is easy to use for training because it can be given in small amounts, at specific moments. You can learn more about why I train with food HERE.

“But, my dog isn’t food motivated!” 

It’s a common frustration: the dog that refuses the treat, especially in the face of a behavior challenge. And it’s true that some dogs take more consideration, when using food rewards, than others. BUT, food is necessary for life! Dogs don’t need to learn that it is rewarding to eat; that knowledge comes pre-installed at birth. Your dog can be motivated by treats, as long as we use them the right way.

Tan dog walking next to person, not wearing a leash and getting a treat from their hand.

“They Really Don’t Want Food” – Medical Concerns

If your dog really doesn’t want food, has a variable or low appetite for many things, or seems “moody” about food, that is a big sign that there is something physically wrong with them. Not being food motivated by anything, under normal, at-home circumstances, is not species typical. 

This is especially true if your dog has other symptoms like vomiting, soft stool/diarrhea, or hard stool/constipation. Even if these things are “normal” for your dog, happen frequently, or come and go, these are signs of a medical issue. And if your dog has a sudden change in appetite/food motivation, they need a vet visit ASAP. 

Medical concerns that lead to low food motivation are rarely quick and easy to diagnose and address, but it is important to your dog’s welfare, and behavior, to do so.

“They Won’t Eat When [Fill in the Blank]” – Stress and Distractions

After medical issues, the most common reason that treats “don’t work” is that the conditions are too stressful or too distracting. Dogs that are fearful, anxious, or stressed about a situation are going to be less likely to take food. They are in “fight or flight” mode, rather than “rest and digest” mode. Their bodies tell them “this isn’t the time for a snack!”

Or maybe your dog is in a great mood but they have competing motivations. Food could be great, but there are also great smells to sniff, friends to make, or freedom to be had. 

Food can be useful for both stressful and distracting situations, but you can’t start there. New skills and behavior patterns need to be developed in easier contexts first, if they are going to “break through” in the challenging moments. This is absolutely achievable!

If your dog is distracted, but not stressed (check their body language), look for ways to practice their skills in gradually increasing distractions. If they stop wanting the treats, make it easier by moving further from the distraction or finding a less-distracting environment. It isn’t always obvious how to do this so consider getting support from a certified professional.

If your dog is stressed/fearful/anxious or displaying aggressive behaviors, seek out a certified professional to guide you from the start. 

“Treats Stopped Working” – Good Intentions Gone Wrong

Another way treats can end up “not working” is if you are relying on lures and distractions. Lures encourage a dog to do something they wouldn’t choose on their own. Distractions are meant to keep a dog from noticing something they don’t like. Both lures and distractions have their uses, including when teaching new behaviors or dealing with very mildly unpleasant or annoying things. But, if your dog really dislikes something, is frightened by the thing, or the experience is painful, a distraction can create more problems than it solves. 

Guardians frequently try to use treats to lure and distract a nervous dog into a situation they don’t want to be in. The dog takes the food, but then is exposed to whatever they find unpleasant. Over time, the dog becomes wary of the treats and may even retreat at the sight of them. The treats were meant to be a good thing to teach the dog to feel safe and happy, but they did the opposite. 

If you’re not sure whether or not you’ve made this common mistake, consider these situations. Have you ever:

  • Offered a dog a treat to get them to come closer and then petted them and had them back up, run away, or snap?
  • Used a treat to lure your dog into a bathtub and had them stop eating and leap out as soon as the water turned on?
  • Tried to hold your dog still for a nail trim by giving them a treat before trimming their nail only to have them struggle and refuse to eat another treat?

You may have found that this worked once, or even a few times, but then seemed to stop. The problem isn’t with the treats, but with the order of experiences. You can learn more about using treats with a fearful dog here but often this is a situation where reaching out to an experienced professional is best.

“I’ve Tried Those Training Treats” – Treats that Are Worth the Effort

Finally, consider what you’re offering. Food is inherently motivating, but not all food is created equal. Try different textures and flavors for treats. Most dogs like soft, smelly, and/or meaty food. Don’t stop at the dog-treat aisle of the store – consider cheese, hot dogs, boiled chicken, even fruits and veggies! Experiment with different choices to determine your dog’s preferences.

If your dog is on a limited diet from your veterinarian, talk to them about what is safe to use as treats. Your dog may need low-fat or low-sodium options or to avoid certain ingredients. Once you know the specifics of their needs, you can experiment safely. Add small amounts of new foods at a time.

Try giving the food in different ways. Some dogs are cautious to approach and take things from hands so toss treats on the floor. Food tossed on a floor or sidewalk may stand out and be easier to enjoy than food that has to be hunted for in the grass; on the other hand, some dog’s motivation increases when there’s a hunt involved. 

All animals are food motivated; your dog is no exception. Make sure they are healthy and not too stressed, identify their favorite food rewards, and then use those foods to reward them, rather than trying to distract or trick them. Food is a valuable tool in behavior modification; don’t write it off too quickly.

If your dog has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.