If you didn’t know this already…

Every year we host this crazy, epic, VIP Training Retreat here in my neck of the woods. The event runs for four days, and I’ll be honest…

The Collared Scholar VIP Training Retreat attendees watching training lecture

Those four days are some of my favorite of the year. 

But they can also be a little stressful…

I mean, undoubtedly, I’ll run around like a chicken with my head cut off…

Making sure we are prepared…

Managing the event…

Prepping for my lectures…

And then, actually teaching.

And most days I depart for the event at 7:30am, and don’t return until well after 10pm.

Here’s the thing…

We JUST wrapped up the retreat. 

And throughout the entire event (which was fully catered with amazing food)…

I didn’t eat. 

I mean, the first day, I grabbed a slice of cheesecake because it’s my favorite…

And I ate it with my hands while I watched dogs work and coached their handlers…

But that was all I had. 

And the next day…same story. I grabbed some lasagna at the end of the day because I knew I HAD to eat…

But I couldn’t finish it.

My stomach was butterflies and the thought of eating wasn’t in my wheelhouse. 

Why am I telling you all of this? 

Because our dogs…

They do the same thing. 

When they are stressed…

When they feel too much pressure…

Either from you…

Or from the environment…

(And just like my time at the retreat, pressure doesn’t always have to equal afraid) 

Eating not only becomes something they don’t think about…

Getting food down is the last thing they want to do. 

Now, here’s the other thing I want to mention…

I use food in my training to reward my dog. 

I use food for every…single…dog that comes to me. 

And I’m not shy about my use of treats. The dogs get plenty while we are working together. 

But inevitably, I get trainer after trainer, and handler after handler telling me their dog isn’t “food motivated”…

That they can’t use food in their training because their dog doesn’t “like it”. 

Sure, there are other reasons your dog might not be into food.

Perhaps they are full because they’ve had a big meal…

In which case taking those treats you have is pretty low on the priority list. 

But the truth is, if your dog “should” be hungry but isn’t…

It’s likely that they are feeling stressed or pressured.

In fact, one of the reasons that I LOVE using food in my training is it acts as a beautiful temperature gauge as to how my dog is feeling in any given environment. 

It allows me to LISTEN to my dog and ask them “What do you need from me?” rather than making them do what I want them to do when they are feeling uncomfortable.

So if your dog is not food motivated, I’d encourage you to ask yourself WHY, rather than jumping to the conclusion that using treats in training won’t work for you. 

And then, make adjustments to alleviate some of the pressure, to better set your dog up for success

Ask yourself these questions, to determine why your dog isn’t food motivated. 

Does food have value? 

If your dog has access to food 24/7, or gets treats often for no reason, food will start to lose it’s value. Here are some adjustments you can make to ensure food remains a valuable tool inside of your training. 

  • Structure your meals – Structure twice daily mealtimes and pick the bowl up if your dog doesn’t eat within 10 minutes. You can give it back to them at the next scheduled mealtime. 
  • Train when they are hungry – By training at mealtimes or before, your dog will be more motivated to eat than if you train after they just ate a big meal.
  • Quit bowl feeding – If you are feeling really adventurous, portion out your dog’s daily feeding and use it in your training sessions. At the end of the day, after your last training session, you can give them whatever is left over in the bowl as reward for a job well done. 

Are YOU pressuring your dog? 

Look at HOW you deliver food rewards. Because the truth is, we love to SHOVE food at our dog. We thrust our hand towards them when we offer a treat, pushing it in their face for them to eat. But this can be uncomfortable for our dogs. I don’t know about you, but if someone (even someone I love) tried to push food in my face, I’d be a little defensive (and knowing me, I’d most likely smack their hand!). 

When presenting food rewards to your dog, do this:

  • Take away the pressure – Keep your hand at your side, lean back a little and present the food in a flat hand. Let your dog come take their reward, rather than reaching out to hand it to them. 
  • Drop it on the ground – For dogs that are really reluctant to come into your space, you can give them a simple “Get it!” Cue and drop your treat on the ground for them to access instead.

Is the Environment Pressuring your dog? 

The environment can be tricky to compete with. If your dog stops taking food, it’s typically a sign that your training isn’t ready for that much stimulation just yet. In order to get your dog’s motivation back on track, remove some of the environmental pressure.

Here are some ideas that might help. 

  • Open spaces are easier – Wide open spaces with good visibility offer less pressure than closed in spaces. Narrow trails shrouded in trees can put insecure dogs on hyper alert. Get your training solid in wide open spaces before really challenging your dog. 
  • Movement is tricky – More often than not, dogs will struggle with lots of movement in the environment, more than they will struggle with things that are sitting still. If your dog doesn’t take food around other dogs for example, try to practice your training around dogs that are sitting still or walking slowly, rather than practicing outside of the dog park where dogs are running and playing. 
  • Distance is your friend – When things in the environment steal your dog’s attention, and they stop taking food, try taking distance away from whatever caught your dog’s eye, and get your dog refocused and back on track before slowly moving closer. The further away you are (in most cases) the less pressure the distraction will put on your dog. 
  • Grass is HARD – Grass harbors all kinds of smells whereas concrete…not so much. So practice on harder surfaces at the start, and slowly work your way up to the tough stuff. 

And one more thing I want to mention. Sometimes, when our dogs build stress, moving can help them blow off some steam. If my dog gets too distracted to take food, I tend to remove a little pressure, and then walk a few brisk circles to help them unwind. A little bit of quick movement can go a long way to getting your dog to relax. 

Listen, I’m not saying avoid challenging environments forever and coddle your dog inside of their comfort zone. 

I’m saying, give your dog positive experiences in easy environments before you go throwing them to the wolves. Teach them what you want and give them lots of successes before adding a ton of pressure to the mix.

And if your dog doesn’t take food, put on the detective hat and ask yourself why, rather than ditching food altogether. 

Because EVERY dog is food motivated. And if your dog isn’t taking food, they are telling you an important piece of information you can use to make your training even better. By paying attention to the messages your dog is sending you, and by making adjustments as needed, you can set your dog up for success, rather than forcing them into failure. 

Isn’t it time we start listening to our dogs? 

Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    7 replies to "Are You Listening? The REAL reason your dog isn’t food motivated"

    • Jenny Haskins

      I have reservations about this. I have owned several dogs who were simply NOT particularly interested in food treats.
      Basically these are “working dogs” (aka herding dogs) but I have had clients with dogs who simply were not interested in food treat during training.
      One of my dogs took the treats and politely dropped them when she thought I wasn’t looking. Another spat them back at me(about 2 feet away!)
      These dog all ate their dinners at night and their bones in the afternoon.
      It is all to do with ‘needs’ — a dog that is stir crazy from getting cooped up inside a house all day, will be far more rewarded by getting out and about.
      A good working dog simply NEEDS both mental and physical activity.
      I also find that behaviours trained with a variety of different rewards is more reliable and more resistant to extinction.
      AND the dog enjoys training far more.

      • Meagan Karnes

        It’s awesome that you’ve found a system that works for you. For clarification, I’m not saying food is the ONLY reinforcer I use. But I do lean on it heavily, and it’s been my experience that every dog is food motivated – I just have to work to find and build that drive in some dogs – and part of that process is, like you say, making sure their needs are met, and making sure I’ve removed stress and pressure. For me, the journey of building food motivation is a profound one that tells me a tremendous amount about the dog I have in front of me, and how they are impacted by the world around them. What I love about dog training is that everyone has different preference and experiences and none of them are wrong. 🙂

      • Leah

        I think food is mentioned because it’s the most common, readily available, and easy potential reinforcer for *most* dogs. I think food eating and food as a reinforcer can be taught, but it takes time and work. If toys or other environmental reinforcers work best for your dogs, that’s wonderful! It seems most dogs come with one or the other already ‘built in’ and we have to work pretty hard to get both. We all want both 😂. And sometimes there’s one that works best for x behavior, but the other works for y behavior

    • suzanne

      I was thinking the same about the herding dogs i work with – they much prefer a ball or frisbee to a treat any day. i use that as the reward and they work for the toss, the catch the chase. this article has made me stop and think though, is it that the frisbee/ball is a higher valued reward for that particular dog, or is it the chase or trick that distracts them from the stressor preventing them from going for the treat? ~game changer! thanks Meagan!

      • Peggy

        Hi Suzanne~
        I’m curious about using frisbee or chase as a reward. Might you describe how you do that? Thanks.

    • Kimberley McMahon

      Like Suzanne my shepherd would not take treats for any outside training ( inside yes) and it seemed more a distraction -would get a ball or stick to chase as a reward or treat or work break, really. I was taught they need equal chunks of 5 min minutes on, 5 off to process what they’re learning during the play part, and training sessions most effective in 15-20 minute work/ play pieces but 3x day. He knew when he got it right with verbal praise alone. Your blog is interesting and it’s obvious you’re highly successful with your work. I also trained with someone who works with military dogs and treats were never a tool, all verbal and pats and hugs along with breaks from focus with woohoo play moments. Bottom line is time work love build a better dog, they Ned commands and their name isn’t one! Haha. Keep teaching us all❤️

    • Martha Downs

      Just recently found you on FB, and this posts resonates with me. I have now my 3rd setter, none of them have been food motivated. But I noticed already with the first (but didn’t have words for it til the 2nd) that they are social eaters, they wouldn’t even eat their own meals if I wasn’t also eating. For training, this has taken me even longer to understand, they are praise motivated. Hearing that they are doing their part, hearing that they are good dogs, and hearing that I love them, me recognizing that, …all of them have worked well with me as I got it.
      Everyone has a motivator, like you say Meaghan, we just have to listen

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