Updated: Feb 18, 2021

Motivating the unmotivated dog

When you talk to people about reward-based training, the mention of food rewards often sparks the question about what to do if you have a dog who doesn’t like food?

Firstly, all dogs like food, otherwise they wouldn’t survive. It’s not a question of ‘liking’ food, it’s about what motivates them and whether food is important to them in the context you’re offering it. If you have a dog who will gratefully receive food at any opportunity then you probably don’t think about how you developed this motivation, it was just there. For other people, teaching a dog to enjoy food rewards is a huge challenge, but it can be done!

I have yet to meet a dog who never develops any interest in food rewards, it may not be their biggest motivator, but it’s always possible to create food motivation. If you have a dog who isn’t naturally ‘foodie’ then there are some simple ways to develop this motivation. Think of it as the first step of training!

No More Food Bowls

The first, and probably most important part, is to remove the food bowl. Eating from a bowl is boring and unproductive. It’s a waste of a great bonding and training opportunity. When food becomes more interesting then motivation for it increases. It’s no wonder dogs start being picky about eating when the whole experience is so dull and repetitive.

Everyone has an excuse for why they can’t stop using a bowl … they have limited time, they feed raw or wet food, the dog is too young or too old, he needs medication, he only eats if it’s in a bowl … but these are just excuses and if you plan a little more and get creative then it’s never impossible.

When time is an issue then pre-prepare some meals in enrichment or activity toys. If you’re unprepared, scatter the food in the garden or hide it in a blanket for your dog to sniff for. Enrichment toys, like snuffle mats and Kongs, are interesting for your dog and easy to prepare. Sniffing, chewing or licking activities can also promote calmness while using lots of mental energy.

When possible, find the time to be involved with your dog’s eating, this could be as simple as hand feeding, throwing the food for your dog to chase or catch, or playing a game of hide-and-seek with the food. If your dog understands some basic commands then practice these in exchange for food rewards.

You don’t have to throw the food bowl away immediately, start by weighing out your dog’s daily food allowance and use as much as you can during the day, then anything left at the end can be given in the bowl, or ideally in an enrichment toy.

Committing to this new way of feeding your dog will gradually increase their motivation for food. It won’t happen overnight, so persevere and really make the effort to be creative about how you feed your dog. Remember primarily to make the food EXCITING and VALUABLE.

Experiment with Food

If your dog doesn’t ‘like’ food rewards then you may be using the wrong ones. Dogs will have preferences about food, so try something more exciting like cooked meat or homemade liver cake.

Start with high-value foods and don’t hold back with these initially because when your dog’s motivation for food increases then you can start to include lower value items, like dry food.

JR Pate is a good example of a high value, easy to prepare treat

Mix up the Rewards

For dogs, reinforcement is everywhere… toys, squirrels, other dogs, people… every dog will find different things reinforcing. Food may not be top priority because there is something far more reinforcing to the dog in that moment. Food motivation can be increased by actually rewarding them for eating a treat. For example, give the dog a food treat and then play with a toy, or give the food treat and then let the dog off the lead.</