Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."
Why Won't My Dog Respond to Treats?
Training a dog that is not motivated by food can be challenging at times. Fortunately, there are many other ways to train dogs if they aren't incentivized by food. Before exploring these venues though, it's important to understand why a dog is not interested in food in the first place.
At times, there may be a health issue at play, or perhaps the treats you are using have very little value to the dog. Sometimes, behind a dog that is "not food motivated," is a dog owner who simply doesn't want to use food for training for one reason or another. Uncovering the underlying issue is the most important first step.
Occasionally, you may stumble upon the slightly odd case of a dog that prefers high-energy games, toys, or social praise to food, but these dogs are generally a minority.
Topics Covered in This Article
- The Importance of Ruling Out Health Problems
- The Impact of Free-Feeding Dogs
- The Problem With Misusing Treats
- Dogs That Are "Over the Threshold"
- Owners Not Wanting to Use Food
- 9 Tips for Training a Dog That Is Not Motivated by Food
The Importance of Ruling Out Health Problems
I wasn't aware of what conditioned taste aversion was until the day my dog, out of the blue, started refusing food. My dog just didn't want to have anything to do with the food offered despite previously gulping it down like there was no tomorrow. Of course, this episode raised a huge red flag and promptly triggered a vet visit.
Since my dog was older, the vet chalked it up to aging. She said that as dogs age, they may lose a bit of their sense of smell and start to get picky. While I had heard about that before, I didn't feel that was the case, so I expressed my doubts to her.
She then mentioned something about dogs with IBD, which is likened to irritable bowel syndrome. This latter theory made sense to me, so I inquired about investigating it further. We were referred to a wonderful board-certified internal medicine veterinary specialist. Meanwhile, I tried to tempt my dog with different foods. This seemed to work but only momentarily. What my dog would eagerly eat one week was refused the following week. I knew something must be wrong.
The Underlying Cause Revealed
We found out that our dog was suffering from a mild case of pancreatitis. It was mild enough to not cause a total loss of appetite but significant enough to cause nausea and a moderate loss of appetite. This explained a lot of things, such as why my dog was lip-smacking at night.
Conditioned Taste Aversion
My dog also developed taste aversion. My dog would be enticed by new food, but as nausea set in, that food would become associated with nausea, so my dog would no longer like it. A new food would be offered, and this situation would repeat over and over again until we exhausted several food options. With the right medication and a diet change, my dog went back to eating as before. (Later on, we discovered that my dog had cancer, which also contributed to the appetite loss.)
Why You Need to See Your Vet
The point here is that picky eating may be indicative of health issues. Perhaps your dog has tooth pain or nausea, or perhaps it hurts to swallow or lower the neck to eat or take treats because of pinched nerves. There are lots of conditions that cause dogs to lose their appetite, so dog owners and trainers should always rule out medical conditions—especially when a dog starts to act picky out of the blue.
If you suspect your dog is not motivated by food due to an underlying health issue, please report to your vet for a proper diagnosis and treatment. Dog owners can't always recognize health issues in their dogs because dogs can be very stoic and hide their symptoms well.
The Impact of Free-Feeding Dogs
Sometimes, dogs that are free-fed their meals may become picky stop being food motivated. Free-feeding simply means providing dogs access to their food 24/7, 365 days a year. It's like having access to an all-you-can-eat dinner buffet at all times, but the food offered is always the same and only of one type. If we put ourselves into our pet's shoes, it's quite easy to understand why dogs who are free-fed are not interested in being trained with food.
Stop free-feeding your dog or try to experiment with high-value treats to get your dog motivated. Many dogs who are free-fed are very interested in high-value treats, as they are tastier than their regular food.
The Problem With Misusing Treats
Sometimes dog owners involuntary make their dogs less food motivated. For example, a dog owner may use a treat to get a dog into a crate, which the dog dreads being in, or a dog owner may lure a dog with a treat and then grab the dog for a bath. In both circumstances, dogs learn that treats are used as "traps." Therefore, treats begin to trigger suspicion and avoidance behaviors. Food becomes a predictor that something scary or unpleasant is about to happen.
Sometimes, treats may also involuntary become "poisoned" in other ways. Dog owners may hide bitter pills inside treats. If the dog happens to discover this trick, they may start to get suspicious, which can lower the value of the treat.
Dog owners should take steps to make the activities the dog dreads (like being closed in a crate or given a bath) more pleasurable through desensitization and counterconditioning. To help disguise pills, it helps to do the following:
- Feed some treats without any pills.
- Feed a treat with the pill.
- Immediately feed more treats without any pills.
Dogs That Are "Over the Threshold"
If your dog is not food motivated on walks or during training class when there are other dogs and people are around, chances are he or she is too excited or anxious to eat. Dog trainers often depict such dogs as being "over the threshold." In other words, their emotions get in the way of their digestive system and the ability to cognitively function (learn) shuts down.
This is a normal reaction. When a dog's body is in fight or flight mode, the blood flows away from the digestive system to the dog's limbs and sensory organs (eyes, ears, etc.) so that the dog is in a state of hyper-vigilance and ready to spring into action.
Dogs that are over the threshold should be kept at a distance from their triggers. Implementation of behavior modification methods using desensitization and counterconditioning may be necessary to change the dog's emotional response in the case of anxiety. These dogs are overly concerned about their environment and need to learn to feel safe. Dogs who are over-excited may also benefit from added distance and can be trained coping strategies where calm behaviors are reinforced.
Owners Not Wanting to Use Food
Sometimes, dog trainers stumble upon dog owners who may state that their dogs are not food motivated, when in reality, it's the owner that does not want to use food. This reluctance may stem from the outdated belief that dogs are born to please their owners and, therefore, must obey every command just because the owner "said so." Some owners are even worried about the extra calories, spoiling the dog, or do not want to spend money on treats.
Dog trainers should explain to clients that dogs aren't born to please their owners but that they are willing to work if there's an incentive. Just like how people expect a paycheck and can care less about a pat on the shoulder, dogs should be provided with food as reinforcement. Often such dog owners claim their dogs are not food motivated because they have only tried a few treats and are not willing to try more. Many dog trainers can attest that, as soon as the owners try to entice these dogs with some high-value treats, their dogs are ready and willing to be trained.
Fortunately, there are several strategies and tricks of the trade to prevent a dog from ingesting too many calories. Dog owners, for instance, can use low-calorie treats or even use their dog's kibble if they mix in some organic, low-sodium hot dog slices for added aroma and flavor.
9 Tips for Training a Dog That Is Not Motivated by Food
- Experiment with a variety of treats and foods: All dogs have a hierarchy of treats. For some dogs, freeze-dried liver tops the list, while for others, it may be roasted chicken, pieces of steak, or string cheese. Find your dog's "caviar."
- Check your dog's emotions: A large percentage of dogs that are not food motivated are simply nervous. These dogs might eat just to survive and do not seem to enjoy food/treats. Once a nervous dog's anxiety is better managed, you may notice that they start to reach a healthy weight.
- Consider appetite: Sometimes dogs that may not seem to be food motivated are simply dogs that have a stomach full of food. In this case, it may be best to train them prior to meals.
- Consider thirst: Sometimes dogs that take food but suddenly stop taking it are simply thirsty. Have a water bowl handy when you train. Your dog may decide to lap up some water and then go straight back to training.
- Evaluate competing reinforcers: Sometimes what you are offering will be considered lower in value compared to other competing reinforcers. For example, if your dog ignores food but is pulling to go greet a person, then the person is considered higher in value than the food. Why not ask your dog to sit at a distance and then reward the behavior by letting them go greet the person?
- Consider whether your dog may be tired or confused: Sometimes dogs that don't understand what is being asked of them or are tired may refuse food and start exhibiting displacement behaviors such as scratching an itch, yawning, or sneezing. These dogs need smaller steps in training or may need a break if the training session is too long.
- Fear of punishment/submissive behavior: Some submissive dogs or those that have been punished around food in the past may turn their head the other way when they are offered food as a lure to sit or lie down. These dogs need to learn that it is safe for them to take food. Some dogs are uncomfortable when you are in their space and looming over them and do better with training using capturing rather than luring with food. See the video below for an example.
- Offer praise: Couple happy verbal praise and treats to help create positive associations with eating.
- Find the underlying cause: If your dog is not food motivated, consider finding the underlying cause. In the meantime, use things your dog loves to reinforce desired behaviors. You may need to test whether the things you are offering are truly valuable. Generally, if the desired behavior is repeating and getting stronger, chances are high that you are doing something right; if it is weakening and reducing, whatever you are using may not be valuable enough or there may be too many valuable competing reinforcers around.
Training a Dog Through Capturing
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Adrienne Farricelli
Share your thoughts or advice:
Luis G Asuncion from City of San Jose Del Monte, Bulacan, Philippines on November 21, 2019:
Cool. I love this article. I have a dog too. Thanks for sharing.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on October 14, 2019:
You've shared some very helpful information, as always. I always learn some things that I haven't considered before or didn't know when I read your articles. Thank you, Adrienne.
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on October 14, 2019:
Luckily, this has never been a problem with our food hounds! :) But I seem to remember having some issues during training classes with one of our dogs. As you mention in the article, this may have been due to the overwhelm of being in the training class situation with too much distraction. Great tips, as always!