When dog owners find out that clicker training requires using a lot of dog treats, some express concern. They start to tell me that their dogs are not food motivated. I have good news: all dogs are food motivated!
Dogs have to eat. If your dog wasn’t motivated by food in some capacity, she would be dead. This seems obvious, but many people don’t see the connection between “food” and “treats”!
It is certainly true that some dogs are more food motivated than others. But your dog doesn’t need to be a perpetually hungry chow-hound for you to use treats in training. Here are my considerations when it seems that a dog doesn’t enjoy treats.
Does the dog need to lose weight?
Approximately 40% of dogs in the United States are overweight or obese. (Source.) It is common for dogs that are overweight to refuse treats because their caloric needs have already been met. I tell owners to talk with their veterinarians about reducing their dog’s weight. You can start by reducing your dog’s meals by 15-20% and removing fatty snacks like pig ears from her diet.
Does the dog like the treats that you offer her?
Often the owner is offering something that is mediocre from the dog’s perspective, like hard biscuits or kibble. In a previous blog post, I covered the subject of what makes a great dog treat. The best treats for training are small, soft, and very tasty. This is in stark contrast to a big, hard, stale biscuit!
Is the dog stressed out or distracted?
Generally, dogs that are afraid or over-tired will not take treats in that state. If you are offering a treat that your dog usually enjoys and your dog is refusing to take it, consider what is different now. Many dogs will happily eat kibble at home, but ignore it in a social situation, like a training class. These dogs are too distracted by what is going on around them.
In those situations, you need a treat that is more desirable to your dog. If your dog seems nervous or worried, and is showing other calming signals, get your dog to a place where she is more comfortable and relaxed before trying to give her treats.
Is the dog in pain?
This is often the case with teething puppies, or with older dogs with periodontal disease. These conditions make chewing painful. Offering a softer treat, like peanut butter or other “lickable” treat, is a good temporary solution. We use a lot of meat baby food or canned dog food with young puppies. You can use a spoon or dip your finger in it to deliver it to your dog. If you suspect your dog is experiencing oral pain, discuss it with your veterinarian.
How is the dog fed at home?
If your dog is being “free fed”, meaning kibble is available to her at all times, she is less likely to take treats. Leaving a bowl of kibble down 24/7 is a bad idea for a myriad of reasons. As it relates to training, the primary issue is that you never know when the dog is hungry. Hungry dogs are more motivated by food treats.
I’m not advocating that you starve your dog for better training results, but switch to feeding your dog two or three times a day. It will also make the dog’s potty schedule more predictable and keep you abreast of any changes in your dog’s appetite. As a personal anecdote, I have yet to meet a free fed dog that couldn’t stand to lose a few pounds. They nearly always eat to excess.
I hope these points give you some “food for thought” about how to encourage your dog to be more motivated by treats. As a bonus, here’s a link to the high-value sardine dog treat recipe we recommend for finicky dogs!