Recently I have met quite a few dog owners who are trying to train their dogs, but are unable to use treats. Or they lament that their dog is really picky about his food at home and doesn’t eat much. The dog just isn’t into treats. Even high value ones like steak and liver. There just doesn’t seem to be ANY food that motivates the dog. This puzzles me because every animal lives to find food, and finds food to live. It is also rather unfortunate because a treat happy dog is relatively easier to train.
First, I’m assuming the dog isn’t over threshold during training. Dog trainers like to refer to this as the point at which a dog shows apparent signs of fear or stress towards some stimulus. A dog over threshold usually will not take food. Second, I assume the dog isn't being distracted by something else he values higher than food. I also assume the dog isn’t sick or in pain.
I present to you a radical solution to this problem and one that has been used since ancient times: it is called starve the dog. Yes, I actually did say starve the dog. Dogs can survive a long time without food. During Hurricane Katrina in the US, trapped dogs went for 4 weeks without food! They were in bad shape of course, but they were alive. Before you start calling the animal abuse hotline, I am not suggesting to recreate that scenario and deprive the dog of food until the poor thing collapses. Just skip meals for 2-3 days.
In addition to overfeeding their dogs, many people feed by putting out the bowls and giving the dog free access to eat whenever it wants. By doing this, the dog is deprived of its natural desire to hunt or work for food. In the wild, the dog’s ancestors did not have food Fedexed direct to their mouths, which is what happens to domestic dogs. They were motivated to go out and use their bodies and brains to find food because their lives depended on it. A domestic dog wakes up, opens his mouth and a bowl of food magically appears. The typical domestic dog doesn’t treasure food because it is always available. To an overfed dog with a stuffed stomach, even a high value treat loses its appeal. Put a Michelin starred meal in front of me after I’ve stuffed myself with pizzas and I’m not going to find it too tasty.
So skip a few meals, get your dog genuinely hungry and then divide his normal meal portions into treat sized bites to use during training sessions. From now on until he has learnt whatever you are training, the only time he is going to eat is during these sessions! Show me a genuinely hungry dog that doesn’t take treats, and I will personally wash your laundry for a month.
And if your issue isn’t about training, just that your dog seems picky and won’t eat much normally, do the same thing by skipping meals initially. Then feed your dog at set times during the day, but don’t leave the food filled bowl out there permanently. If he doesn’t eat his food within 15 mins, put it away until the next meal time. In addition to this, you can also adjust the portion size and change the food type every now and then (e.g. every month) to have some variety.
And be consistent about this, don’t feel sorry for the dog and sneak in a few bites outside of training or normal meal times. It bears repeating that you must initially skip meals to get him genuinely hungry. I can’t stress enough how important this is! A few dog owners who I suggest this method to reply by saying their dog doesn’t eat too much to begin with anyway, so “starving” him probably won’t do much. Well, yes, every dog has a different level of appetite, but no matter how much or little he usually eats, he is STILL getting fed. Any living animal, including us humans, if we don’t eat ANYTHING at all for a while, will get hungry. This is a fact. I don’t care if you are a light eater who only has an almond for breakfast, lunch and dinner…if you don’t eat that almond for a few days, you are going to be hungry. Remember, what you get out of your relationship with your dog is what you put in. In this case, if you are not consistent, your dog won’t be consistent either.
Food treats are not the only way to reward a dog of course, but it is probably the easiest and quickest way. So before you complain that your dog isn’t into food, make sure he is genuinely hungry! As they say, hunger is the best sauce.
How does Drewbles own dog work for food? She hunts rats in his house! Just kidding, she runs on the treadmill before getting fed breakfast, and walks outside in the evening before getting dinner.Ask Drewbles a question via firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author:
Drewbles is a part-time dog behaviorist in Hong Kong and KPA-DTF (Karen Pryor Academy-Dog Trainer Foundations) course certified. The course is officially approved by the two foremost dog training and animal behavior consulting accreditation bodies in the world, CCPDT (Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers) and IAABC (International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants).
The Karen Pryor Academy is a leading educational institution for animal training and behavior, based in the USA. Karen Pryor is a leader in the development of positive training methods and one of the founders of clicker-training. Her work with dolphins in the 1960s revolutionized animal training by pioneering and popularizing force-free training methods based on operant conditioning and the conditioned reinforcer.
Drewbles uses a mix of traditional and positive-reinforcement techniques, and natural dog psychology to help troubled dogs in his free time. His own dog is so well behaved that she accompanies him to the cinema and even Michelin starred restaurants!