How to train a dog that is not food motivated. Expert tips.
Your dog is not motivated by food during training?
Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.
In short, this is how to train a dog that is not food motivated:
- Use praise as a reward
- Use toys in training
- Use play as a reward
But there is more you need to know!
This is why this article will tell you everything you need to know about:
- Why your dog isn’t motivated by food
- Tips for increasing food motivation
- When to see a vet
Let’s do this – your dog’s training progress and health may be at stake.
By the way, this article in not only based on scientific research and expert opinions, but also on my extensive personal experience in dealing with a dog who suddenly lost interest in food (more on this later).
How to train a dog that is not food motivated: 3 methods
Here are 3 alternative tools for a dog who is not motivated by food during training.
Use praise as a reward
Getting praised by dog owners and trainers is essential to most dogs.
This is why praise is such a powerful non-food tool during dog training.
In fact, praise should be a key part of positive reinforcement during every dog training session. This is because praise helps your dog make positive associations with the desired behavior.
Ideally, you should be using both praise and food during training.
But if your dog is currently not motivated by reward food, praise alone can be sufficient.
You should praise your dog both verbally and physically during training class.
I praise my German Shepherd with the words “good boy”, coupled with belly rubs or scratches behind the dog’s ears. Such positive feedback lets my doggy know that I’m happy with the training progress.
It’s important to be generous and enthusiastic with your praises. Soon, your dog will learn what actions or inactions bring praise.
But make sure to moderate the intensity of praise, based on the type of command you’re currently teaching your dog. For example, if you’re training your dog to “stay”, avoid too enthusiastic praises as they may overexcite your doggy and break the “stay” behavior. This is why for certain commands, I only give my dog a simple stroke of my hand from the snout to the head with an occasional ear rub.
I also taught my dog the “I’m done praising you” cue. I rub my palms against each other and my dog understands that I’m done dishing out affection. It’s time to move on.
Use toys in training
A tug toy is one of the best toys for most dogs.
This is why tug toys can be so effective during dog training, especially if a dog is not responding to food rewards.
Just ensure your dog doesn’t have constant access to the toy.
In fact, from now on, the tug toy is only for training! From now on, you’ll only use the tug toy as a reward for training progress. This will ensure your dog associates the tug toy with a reward for the correct behavior.
The first thing you need to teach your dog is to release the toy on your “out” command.
This will allow you to quickly get the toy back, ready for the next training step.
As you can imagine, at first your dog won’t be too keen to return its favorite toy.
I sometimes reward my dog with a quick tug of the tug toy. And I sometimes throw the tug toy and allow my doggy to run around with it for a short while.
Also, tuck the tug toy behind your back, into your shirt, or under your arm, and only bring it out when your dog performs a desired action.
Use play as a reward
Dogs can also learn that if they work hard during training, they’ll soon get to play with their beloved owner.
And not only play but play their favorite game or with their favorite toy.
The additional benefit of playing with your dog is strengthening the bond with your doggy.
VIDEO: How to train your dog using food
Why is your dog not motivated by food?
The best reward for a dog is food.
In fact, most dogs will do just about everything for a tasty treat.
This is why you should find out why your dog is not motivated by reward food and then fix the issue.
Here are the main potential reasons your dog is not motivated by reward food during training.
Try better treats
Your dog may simply not like the food you’re offering for progress in training.
So experiment with different foods until you find what works best for your dog.
Also, use extra tasty treats only for dog training. In other words, reward your doggy with special treats that your dog doesn’t get outside training.
I personally noticed that my German Shepherd gets less food motivated during training when I reward it with the same treats my dog gets outside training.
This is why for training I use special high-value treats such as cut-up pieces of turkey, steak, chicken, peanut butter, or cheese. My dog responds best to turkey and cheese.
And make sure treats don’t contain any toxic ingredients.
Here are some of the foods that are toxic to dogs:
- Tropical fruits and nuts (Macadamia nuts, cashews, papayas, and mangoes)
- Xylitol (artificial sweetener used in sugar-free candy and gum)
Best treats for your dog
Your dog needs treats.
Treats can serve important functions, including:
- Training tool for learning new commands
- Dental hygiene
- Stress reliever
In fact, we recently reviewed the best treats for dogs when reviewing the best dog food for Dobermans. And yes, these treats are suitable for most dog breeds!
Make sure your dog isn’t already full
If you start a training session right after your dog has a full meal, your doggy might not be interested in more food as a reward for progress in training.
On the other hand, ensure your dog isn’t too hungry during training. Your doggy may struggle to properly focus on an empty belly.
So ensure your doggy is not too hungry during training and still has an appetite for more treats.
Also, avoid free-feeding your dog. If your dog has constant access to food, you’ll never know how full your pup is at any given point.
Furthermore, free-fed dogs are usually less food-motivated during training. This is because a dog needs to be slightly hungry to get motivated by treats during training.
If your dog is obese due to access to food at all times, it’s probably a good idea to avoid treats during training. You can resume treating your four-legged friend with treats during training after your dog loses weight.
As much as 25% to 30% of all dogs in North America are obese. These figures increase to 40% to 45% for dogs between 5 and 11 years old. So start feeding your dog at scheduled times to avoid overfeeding.
Make sure your dog isn’t thirsty
If your dog shows no interest in food during training, your dog may simply be thirsty. That’s right, thirst can override hunger.
So ensure your dog has access to fresh water throughout the day, especially in summer.
Just give some water to your doggy during training and see if this improves your dog’s appetite for treats.
Make sure your dog isn’t distracted
Your dog may be simply too distracted with other things to pay attention during training or when you use food rewards.
So make sure your pup isn’t distracted by other people, animals, smells, objects, or noises.
I noticed that my German Shepherd sometimes decides that intensely watching or chasing a cat is worth more than a tasty treat.
Also, avoid training your dog in a new environment. This is because your four-legged friend may actually be too distracted by all the new smells and objects. Just take your dog somewhere familiar and quiet and see if your pup suddenly finds its appetite.
Your dog may also be distracted around mealtimes. As mentioned earlier, your pup may struggle to focus on an empty stomach.
Many dogs who start associating treats with fun and training will find even low-value treats (and even kibble) interesting.
Make sure your dog isn’t overexcited
If your dog is not motivated by reward food during training, your pup may be simply overexcited. Or, as the dog trainers say, your dog may be “over the threshold”.
When your dog is “over the threshold”, the pet is too excited or anxious to train or respond to food rewards.
Always check your dog’s state of mind before you start a training session. Ensure your dog isn’t overexcited, scared, or hyperactive. Postpone training if your four-legged companion is too excited for training.
An overexcited dog will often switch into the fight or flight mode. This is when much of the dog’s blood is directed from the digestive system to the limbs and sensory organs. A dog in the fight or flight mode enters survival mode, where the only goal is to stay alive.
If your doggy is overexcited, move the training to a more suitable location and see if your dog’s focus and food motivation improve.
Note that some dogs get overexcited simply because they love training. Your dog may eventually get used to training and calm down a bit.
Once your dog learns to properly focus during training, you can try training your pup in busy locations to teach your doggy to focus in places with distractions.
Make sure your dog isn’t tired or confused
Sometimes a dog may be too tired or confused to understand training commands.
Tired or confused dogs may start showing displacement behavior that manifests as excessive scratching, yawning, or sneezing.
If your dog displays signs of displacement behavior, slow down the training or give your four-legged friend a break.
Fear of punishment
Some dogs that have been punished for eating food in the past may refuse to accept food during training.
Such dogs need to be taught that it’s safe to accept food for progress in training.
Look for signs of fear in your dog, such as intense stare, tense body, or tucked tail.
You’ve “tricked” your dog before with treats
If you used treats in the past to get your dog to do something scary or unpleasant, such as getting its nails trimmed or taking a bath, your doggy may perceive treats as a trap.
In other words, you may have accidentally trained your dog to associate treats with scary or unpleasant things.
Luckily, this association can be undone. And yes, it’ll take some time.
Meantime, you’ll need to use other tools to train your doggy. You can use praise, play, and toys (as discussed earlier in this article).
It may be time to stop
That’s right, if your dog stops responding to food rewards or training, it may be time to stop the training session.
Just pay attention to your dog’s body language. Especially, look for excessive yawning, scratching, or sneezing.
If you continue a training session despite your dog’s lack of interest in food rewards or training, your doggy may start associating negative emotional states with training sessions.
Some dogs are less food motivated
Your dog is not food motivated during training classes?
Well, some canine breeds respond better to foods during training than others.
For example, Beagles and Labradors respond very well to food motivation.
Herders, Terriers, and guardian breeds, on the other hand, are less food motivated. You need to use higher-value treats to motivate these breeds.
Some dog owners hesitate to use reward food
Yes, some dog owners hesitate to use food as a reward for training progress.
This is because some dog owners believe that a dog should obey its master without extra incentives. Others worry about the extra calories or about spoiling a dog with treats.
But it’s worth mentioning that a dog is not born to please its owner. Instead, it’s us who can please our pups with treats if we want them to do something extra like “seat” or “stay” on command.
Also, treats won’t lead to obesity or spoil our dogs if we don’t overdo treats, especially outside training sessions. For my German Shepherd, I use low-calorie treats to ensure my pup doesn’t put on weight.
Rule out medical issues
A dog may lose interest in food due to underlying health issues.
This may be especially true if you notice other signs such as lethargy, diarrhea, or vomiting.
For example, a dog may develop conditioned taste aversion (CFA).
CFA results in avoidance of certain foods following illness after consuming those foods. CFA can result in behavioral changes, even after just one incidence of illness.
CFA may also be caused by pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas). Pancreatitis may cause nausea and a loss of appetite.
Your dog may also lose interest in food for the following health-related reasons:
- Dental problems
- Mouth injury
- Foreign body stuck in the dog’s mouth or throat
- Infections like tonsillitis or gum disease
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Medication side effects
Unfortunately, I have extensive personal experience in dealing with a dog that suddenly lost interest in food, including reward treats during training.
I had no idea why my German Shepherd (Max) stopped eating.
So I took Max to a veterinarian who specializes in dog nutrition.
It turned out that my dog had an allergic reaction to a specific protein in a dog’s food (beef).
The veterinarian determined the allergy through the elimination diet that identified the allergen.
The vet then created a customized dietary plan for my poor doggy.
Long story short, Max is again a healthy eater! And it again responds to treats during training beautifully.
Tips for increasing food motivation
Here are some of the best actionable steps you can take to increase your dog’s interest in food during training.
Try different types of foods
The type of food can make a huge impact on your dog’s interest in the reward.
If your dog is not interested in kibble, doggie biscuits, or dry training treats, try something less bland.
As I mentioned earlier, my German Shepherd responds best to high-value reward foods, such as cut-up pieces of chicken, turkey, steak, peanut butter, and cheese.
Remove access to free food
As also mentioned earlier, free-feeding greatly reduces your dog’s interest in food.
So stick to a mealtime routine.
Feed your dog at the same time each day. This will help establish healthy eating habits.
Just leave your dog’s bowl for breakfast for about 10-15 minutes. Then take it away until the next meal. This will ensure your doggy will be hungry by the time the next meal is served.
To clarify, the goal is not to deprive your doggy of food but to build a proper mealtime routine.
Once you’ve established a mealtime routine, any bonus food rewards during training will really excite your dog. In fact, a proper mealtime routine can alone be enough to drive your dog’s interest in reward treats during training.
How to correctly give out treats
Rewarding your dog with treats should be an informed process.
Follow these steps for best results.
Rather than giving treats directly from your hand, toss them towards your dog.
Every dog loves catching food, chasing after food, and sniffing to find food. Furthermore, all this will activate your dog’s play and prey mode. Your dog will love it even more!
Get excited when giving your dog treats! Your dog will try to match your excitement.
Also, avoid giving treats to your dog in total silence. Instead, praise your dog excitedly for job well done.
When to see a vet
If you think your dog is not motivated by reward food during training due to underlying health issues, consider contacting your vet.
You should definitely call your vet if your dog isn’t eating for more than 3 days.
But also contact your veterinarian if your dog:
- Seems unusually lethargic
- Is not drinking in addition to not eating
- Is losing weight
- Is constipated
- Is straining to poo
- Has red or bleeding gums
- Has excessive drooling
- Has pain in the mouth
- Is placing its paws on its mouth
You wanted to know how to train a dog that is not food motivated.
In short, this is how to train a dog that is not motivated by food during training:
- Use praise as a reward
- Use toys in training
- Use play as a reward
This article also told you everything you need to know about:
- Why your dog isn’t food motivated
- Tips for increasing food motivation
- When to see a vet
Our team wishes your dog a good appetite and much fun during training!
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This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of illness, pain, or distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.