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, they would be dead. While this seems obvious, but many people don’t see the connection between “food” and “treats!”
It’s certainly true that some dogs are more food motivated than others. However, your dog doesn’t need to be a perpetually hungry chow-hound for you to use treats in training. Here’s what I consider when it seems that a dog doesn’t enjoy treats.
Does your dog need to lose weight?
According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 55% of dogs in the United States are overweight or obese. Overweight dogs often refuse treats because their caloric needs have already been met.
Ask yourself honestly: can you easily feel your dog’s ribs without pushing through a layer of fat? If your dog is smooth-coated, can you see the last couple of ribs as they flex and stretch their bodies? Can you view your dog’s waist from above and from the side, or is your dog’s body all one width like a sausage?
Talk with your veterinarian about strategies for reducing your dog’s weight. Often, you can start by reducing your dog’s meals by 15-20%. Also consider removing high-calorie treats like pig ears, peanut butter, and sugary products from their diet. Over time, you’ll see your dog’s interest in treats improve.
Does your dog like the treats that you offer her?
Often, pet owners are 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 golden rule of dog training is this: your dog decides what is reinforcing. One dog’s favorite, most desired treat might be mediocre to one dog, and revolting to another. Experiment with different flavors and textures of treats: sweet, salty, meaty, crunchy, chewy, mushy. Make a list of treats that your dog enjoys and try to build on it.
In a nutshell, the best treats for training are small, soft, and very tasty. This is in stark contrast to a big, hard, stale biscuit!
Is your dog stressed out or distracted?
Often, dogs that are afraid or over-tired will not eat treats in that state. If you are offering a treat that your dog usually enjoys and they are 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 before trying to give her treats.
Is your dog in pain?
If your dog’s mouth hurts, they may be reluctant to take treats. For example, this is often the case with teething puppies, or with older dogs with periodontal disease. These conditions can make chewing painful. If you suspect your dog is in pain, then you should discuss it with your veterinarian.
Offering a softer treat, like peanut butter or other “lickable” treat, is a good temporary solution. We do this often with young puppies. You can use a spoon, a squeeze tube, or dip your finger in it to deliver it to your dog.
We fill GoToob squeeze tubes with lickable treats like…
- peanut butter
- whipped cream cheese
- meat baby food
- liverwurst thinned with water
- Wellness Just For Puppy canned food
- Tiki Dog Aloha Petites puppy mousse
- The Honest Kitchen 99% Meat Meal Boosters
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 many reasons. Specifically as it relates to training, the primary issue is that you never know when your 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 rather than leaving a down of food on the floor all day. It will also make your dog’s potty schedule more predictable as well as keep you aware 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. As it turns out, they nearly always eat to excess.
Need some ideas?
I hope these points give you some “food for thought” about how to encourage your dog to be more motivated by treats. Want to do some shopping? Here are some of our best selling treats…
- Happy Howie’s treat rolls (see our blog post on how to cut these up easily)
- Nuggets Bone Broth Jerky
- Cloud Star Tricky Trainers
- The Honest Kitchen Meaty Littles
- Bocce’s Training Treats
Editor’s note: I originally published this post in 2017. I completely updated it in August 2022 as an effort to provide you, dear reader, with even more useful dog training information. Enjoy!