Food is something every dog has every day. Unless they are ill, there should be no reason for our dogs to turn down any snacks we offer them. But many dog owners claim their dogs won’t work for them for food treats as a reward. How can this be? Dogs are scavengers by nature. Could it be something we humans are doing that puts them off sometimes?
As a dog trainer, I’m always amazed when I hear dog owners tell me that their dog is not interested in food. I am a Mark and Reward trainer and that would take away one of the most obvious and easiest rewards I can use to help me teach my dog. But there seems to be a paradox here. If the dog is not interested in food, what happens at meal time? In fact, most of the dogs I’ve met whose the owners claim they won’t work for food rewards are not exactly malnourished. In fact, it’s often the opposite.
All dogs eat. So there can only be a few reasons that a dog won’t make some effort to get the food a trainer is offering. Either they are simply not hungry when the food offered (e.g., just after a meal) or they just don’t like what’s being offered. Assuming this is a normal dog who is hungry and that I have a yummy bit of food like cheese or roast beef, it shouldn’t be hard to get them to take a treat.
Could there be other reasons a dog might refuse food other than a distaste for what’s being offered or not being hungry? To answer that question, we need to look to the work of Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov’s work in the early 20th century laid the groundwork for what is now called Classical Conditioning in psychology. In short, Classical Conditioning deals with the association of previously unconnected objects and/or event in the mind of the subject.
The simplest and perhaps the most useful examples of Classical Conditioning is our dog’s name. Prior to living with us, my dog had no meaning for the word “Tira.” But we’ve said it thousands of times to her and we always interact with her in some way. Maybe it’s to let her out or to ask for a behaviour but there is a reason for her to give us her attention. So now when she hears “Tira” she will come to us or look in our direction. That’s intentional conditioning; I want that association to be there so I can use it in future.
But there is also unintentional conditioning that goes on. Our dogs are aware of their environment at all times and, just like other animals, are constantly working out what is going on in their world. The noise of the dog cookie jar brings our dogs running in our house. The jingle of a leash being taken out can signal a walk. Even putting on the right pair of shoes could signal to a dog that a car ride is coming.
The Dark Side of Classical Conditioning
This unintentional conditioning can have some unfortunate consequences if we don’t manage it well. If a dog is threatened or frightened, it may make an association with something in the environment they believe is related. If my dog sees a red towel and is startled by a loud noise at the same time, she could suddenly become wary of red towels. Some classical associations take longer to form but are no less powerful.
If a dog is scolded every time he enters a particular area or goes near a particular object, the dog may form a negative association with that place or object. In fact, many professional dog trainers are called in to work with dogs who have developed just such phobias. Fortunately there are many safe and humane techniques that can be used to successfully treat these problems. Desensitization tries to provide a positive experience with a feared place or object while gradually increasing it’s intensity. Counter Conditioning is a method that attempts to replace an unwanted response to an object or situation (e.g., barking, running away, cowering) with a more desirable behaviour by rewarding any occurrence of a new behaviour such as looking at the owner or sitting quietly.
Poisioning the Rewards
One of the most important topics being discussed in behavioural training for dogs has been “Poisoned Cues.” A Poisoned Cue is a command that has taken on both a positive and a negative meaning for the dog. For example, if I teach my dog to sit by rewarding them, this creates a positive association – everytime the dog hears “sit”, she knows there is an opportunity for a reward. If the trainer then begins to punish the dog for being bad by demanding “Sit!” and then scolding the dog, the cue “sit” now takes on a second, unpleasant meaning. The trainer could find that soon the dog is no longer responding to the “sit” cue or only doing so reluctantly. The cue has been “poisoned”, the dog can no longer be certain if they will be rewarded or scolded if they sit.
So what does all of this Classical Conditioning and Poisoned Cue business have to do with why dogs might not work for food? Well, the natural association dogs have with food is a positive one. It tastes good and sets off positive bio-chemical processes in their bodies. Many trainers also use food to teach behaviours by luring the dog to follow their hand which holds food. When the perform the desired behaviour, the trainer rewards the dog with the treat they were following. So an offered hand can be a cue to the dog that treats are available. We also use words like “cookies”, “treats”, “nummies”, etc. to let the dog know there are treats available to them to get their cooperation. Can we “poison” those cues for food? You bet!
Fake-outs and Other Unpleasantness
I cannot tell you the number of times I have seen a desperate dog owner jam their hand in their empty pocket and yell “Cookies!” to get their dog to come to them at the park. When the dog comes running back, they are grabbed by the collar and clipped to the leash. Fooled ya! So instead of the promised cookie, play time is over and they have to leave the park. Is it any wonder I may see that same dog owner at the park in the future yelling “Cookies!” to a dog who is standing warily just out of reach trying to decide if there really is a cookie or not?
These kinds of fake-outs are useful in the moment but they could be doing long term damage to your communication with your dog. You may be unintentionally poisoning that “cookies” cue. And once you demonstrate that you can fake your dog out with one cue, why wouldn’t your dog start suspecting all of the other cues you have taught them? They might or they might not. That depends on how often you fake them out, I suppose.
Also consider that our dogs are aware of more than just the immediate moment. It is one thing to teach your dog to go into their crate and reward them. It is quite another to lure your dog to you and then grab them and put them in the crate and toss the treat in afterward. Those kinds of “payoffs” rarely erase the memory of the unpleasant event.
Most dogs don’t like being grabbed. So your dog may make an association between that offered treat and the unpleasant experience of being grabbed. The same can be said of being lured into the car for a trip to the vet where they may be afraid. In fact, luring a dog into any situation that they would prefer to avoid could lead to poisoning that food lure.
Will NOT Work For Food
Jean Donaldson, director of The SF/SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers and author of several books on dog training, commented here at a seminar in Victoria BC that, “If you can’t train a dog with food, you’re an incompetant trainer.” And I agree. Biology makes food a very powerful reward for teaching our dogs. All dogs eat and all dogs enjoy eating. But used improperly, you can see how food could turn into a warning signal for the dog. Not all food is good food, even if it tastes good. There may be a price to pay for that treat you are offering.
Often when I work with dog owners who say their dog won’t work for food, I am careful to watch for the dynamics in their relationship. Is the owner a dependable and clear communicator? Does the dog look like she trusts the owner? Do the dog and owner look comfortable together? While it may be that the dog is not hungry or food treat isn’t one that the dog particularly likes, often there is some other dynamic at play.
Fool your dog enough and they won’t trust you. Force your dog enough and they might not react so well to bribes of food. As animal trainer Bob Bailey says, “Pavlov is always on our shoulder.” Our dogs are always paying attention and making their decisions about our behaviour. Classical Conditioning is always acting on our dogs. We can use that to our benefit or ignore it at our peril. Once we create a negative association for our dogs with getting food treats, the road back can be a long one.
So maybe think twice the next time you consider luring your dog into something they don’t want to do. You may get what you want from them this time but what are the long term consequences of that approach? Are you turning that food lure into a warning signal for your dog? Or, more importantly, are you teaching your dog that you don’t always mean what you say. It’s something to think about.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs.
Photo credits –
Protest – 2008 McPig (modified – sign added)
Nope – 2009 ben_onthemove
What’s it gonna be? – 2009 adria.richards
Trust – 2011 FreeWine
I’ve been looking for an article like this for a long time. I adopted a guy almost two years ago, a Belgian shepherd, who came from a non-abuse household but had been a stray early in life. It took him forever to respond to treats in a way which could be effective for training. I used cheese for a long time, but even after a few pieces he would want to be done. I didn’t pressure him, as he was already housebroken and knew sit-stay-shake. When fall rolled around this year his attitude toward actual dog treats changed and he’ll take them as a reward but he will still want to be done with training after only a few minutes. He is smart and with repetition over the course of a week he can learn most tricks and commands but I would like to spend more time training each day. I always train before dinner.
He has never been fond of any of his toys for more than a day or two and training him with a toy reward was mostly fruitless. He loves to eat in the fall and winter, but will only eat half to three-quarters of his meals during the summer. He doesn’t even like to play that much, tug for maybe 10 minutes twice a week and hates fetching.
He is great behaviorally. Has had only one accident in the house, doesn’t chew furniture, and will leave nose-level food alone even if he is by himself. A very easy going dog, who likes watching and killing squirrels, walks, and that’s about it. He gets plenty of attention and petting and lots and lots of praise when he performs.
One last thing, I know he’s had enough training when he wants to go back inside and just lay down and maybe chew on a bone. When I train with a bone he will just try and take it yet if I call him back to drop it and restart training he’ll lose interest in the bone and just do the commands very haphazardly/nonchalantly (if such a thing could be used to describe a dog). Any thoughts or further reading suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.
Ellen Finch says
To continue with what a couple of people have started: I have had four dogs with whom I compete in Dog Agility. They all have taken almost any kind of food reward in low-activity situations–say, working on trick training, no matter how active the trick is.
But add running and toys into the equation, and my mixed-breed sheltie would push food out of the way to get to the toy, and my current border collie will not take food at all in these cases (say, for downing on the table or stopping in the contact zone).
Even a high-value treat like meat, she takes only if I insist and often just holds it in her mouth, doesn’t swallow it. “Me not stop eat food, me want go!” Apparently the only negative connotation for the food is that they have to stop long enough to take it and swallow it, and they don’t want to stop. I guess.
Even as a puppy, my border collie wasn’t excited about dinnertime for months; was more interested in watching my other dog eat or in wondering where her toy was.
My agility instructors have all given instructions on how you can teach a dog to take a treat as a reward, because there are cases (such as those mentioned above) where you want a calm reward, not an energetic reward, and it’s basically the process of making taking a treat a trick that is then rewarded with the toy, so eventually the value of the toy reward transfers to the food reward. I haven’t pursued this much, but I’ve seen it work for others.
So, these are not typical dogs or typical owner, but they don’t seem to fall into the categories in this post.
[Moderator’s note: This is a consolidation of 3 posts submitted by the poster. She was having technical difficulties posting. No editing of content was done except to consolidate the messages into a single post]
Amanda Brothers says
I conduct at least 15 hours of professional training per week (combo of private lessons and group lessons) and can count on one hand the dogs who I would consider truly picky about food and at risk of malnutrition if their food intake was limited to increase motivation for training. I agree that in these cases it would be unethical. I also believed, and suggested, that the dogs get a full medical work up ASAP!
I don’t think Jean Donaldson or Dr. Yin would advocate for risking a dog’s health; I’m guessing Dr. Yin was referring to a dog who’d gotten a free lunch for too long and was weaning off the concept. I could be wrong, of course.
If the dog is not eating, he’s sick. And if he is eating, but not during training, there is some sort of problem whether it’s one of the things Eric mentions above or something else such as fear, stress, crappy treats, more interested in social opportunities or other distractions, etc.
I think a competent trainer uses all of the reward-based tools in the box and evaluates each dog and handler on a case by case basis.
Amanda Brothers says
Should have mentioned I’ve been doing the 15 hours/week thing since 2006. Makes the “count on one hand” comment more meaningful.
Jerry Ingram says
Mostly I agree with this article. However I disagree that anyone is incompetent just because they run into a dog that doesn’t train with food.
Lets be serious about this, is it okay to deprive an animal of a life necessity in the name of training? I worked with an Afghan the owner was having trouble getting to eat at all. You think its okay to withhold the little she did eat in the name of training. She seemed fine mostly, but she rarely seemed to eat. We were able to increase her diet by increasing her exercise, but seriously she was not excited about food. So, you suggest we starve this dog in order to get it to train? Why not deprive an animal of oxygen or water? Its a disgusting idea.
Jean Donaldson “If you can’t train a dog with food, you’re an incompetant trainer.” Is this true? This disgusts me. So, because she has never run into the situation it must not exist? I’ve half a mind to burn my Jean Donaldson books just over her holier than thou attitude. Please tell me she didn’t say this. Just when I was gaining some respect for her.
I saw Sophia Yin this past June and she said, It was perfectly okay to hold food from a dog in order to train it, even if it took 6 days of not feeding the dog. The audience was horrified and she didn’t get it. Personally, I find the idea disgusting. Did it ever occur to any of these people that a particular dog might find something else more rewarding than food?
Should we seriously ignore that a dog may love a tug rope? My border collie would much rather play frisbee than eat, not that that really matters I guess.
Again, I agree with the article in most, like a normal bell curve 2 standard deviations accounts for about 97.5 % of all incidents, but there are always outliers. Any scientist that ignores this fact is no real scientist at all. Jean, Sophia and Eric can ignore the remaining 2.5% and even call anyone who experiences or acknowledges them incompetent if they desire.
Amanda Brothers says
Yes, Jean Donaldson did say that . She’s got a lot of great things to say, but she can be caustic for sure. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!!
Toys & play, physical affection (that the dog actually enjoys!), verbal praise, & privileges (going off leash, getting up on the couch, etc.) are also great ways to motivate dogs and of course should be used in addition to food rewards. They tend to require the handler/trainer to be more creative and expend more energy, though. I think balance is important here, as long as fear and pain are not used to motivate.
I would argue since Food is one of the Four Fs dogs need to survive (http://www.dogsincanada.com/oh-behave-love-and-mounting) that unless the dog is physically ill or as another comment mentioned over threshold/in fight-or-flight mode, food should be an effective motivator if used properly.
I think Eric has touched on some ideas that don’t occur to most people in terms of why food is not motivating their dog.
Leonard Cecil says
I might quickly add, that NOW, after working for about 7 months with my reactive dog, I CAN start a Look at Me game with her through a click/treat if the other dog is far enough away and she will stay with me and not try to greet the other dog. But if too close, still the best bet to keep her attention is her kong.
The advice, that the treats are not high value enough is right on the button. Problem is, the dogs determine what is high enough value depending upon the situation. And when the social goal is of higher value, even a food treat will not be enough.
I have met a couple of dogs who were not over-fed and did not really get off on food. The owners reported that they were also picky eaters at home. not the kind of owners who simply leave the dish down until it’s finished either. It can happen and these dogs do present us with special challenges, because we do have to think in every situation when it comes to working out for what rewards they will “work”. I had one fearful dog who was not interested in food, even when no trigger was present. The dog also did not play with the dog since the dog didn’t want to. As the dog started to lose her fear of me and then people in general, she did open up to accepting food and then we discovered, that this people-fearful dog had become to love people, so the dog’s jackpot became being able to run over and throw herself at a new person. Fortunately she was a Bichon mix and not a Mastiff.
Having said ALL that in a posting I’d hoped would be sort, let me say, that I too OF COURSE start with using food as rewards and often have to chip away at client barriers to get them to offereing tubed tuna, diced cheese, bits of chicken etc. INSTEAD of just kibble or dog treats, at least in the beginning stages.
Amanda Brothers says
I was at JD’s Victoria seminar, too! I remember her commenting that she’d only met one dog in her entire career that was being force fed. In her signature JD way she also said, “If your dog isn’t food-motivated, he’s dead.” One of her suggestions was to “close the economy” on food (basically all food through training, and also a reduction of food delivered as a meal); I use that a lot with clients/students.
Totally agree with this, too – “In fact, most of the dogs I’ve met whose the owners claim they won’t work for food rewards are not exactly malnourished. In fact, it’s often the opposite.” It’s quite the irony when the overweight dogs reportedly “aren’t food-motivated” or the owner doesn’t want to use food rewards.
OMG, just saw the whole “wanna treat?!” thing at the dog park yesterday. The woman may as well have been chanting ancient Native American hymns for all the attention the dog was paying…
Leonard Cecil says
Brad, I love your blogs, always a pleasure to read and I pass them around when I get to them. In my opinion, and this was pointed out to me also by a colleague, there is a whole class of reasons why a dog might not be interested in food rewards.
Stress, fear, general environmental over arousal. These can be interrelated and or in connection with some serious problems a dog may be having, either all by herself or in the relationship with her guardian.
Most of my clients have so-called problem dogs. And most of these dogs are fearful ones. As we all know, one of the most reliable indicators of stress due to fear is the refusal to take food. I have several small fearful dogs and believe me, the normal indicators of body language are often not easy to determine in a small wuzzly dog. their gait is normally stiff. When they make themselve larger, we’re talking about maybe 1/16th of an inch. The eyes are covered. Their tail lies normally on their back. But even a simple desensitization can put the dog over threshold, especially during an FA when you don’t know where that threshold is, and the best indicator is, will the dog take a treat. And I come fully armed to all FAs.
Or let’s take the dog that goes absolutely bonkers when outside. Mom couldn’t interest him in the least, but that blade of grass there and the scent of the cat from earlier this morning, running into the deer from last last night and this is a Hovawart, not a hunting dog. the dog works well inside for toys or food, but take the dog out of the house and people are air to this dog. There’s a lot missing in the guardian-dog relationship we’re working on, but outside, food is about the very last thing the dog is interested in.
When my own dog was going through her dog-dog reactive period, and she was not fearful, but rather ga-ga friendly to the point of ignoring everything else in the world except that dog up there 150 yards away, I could rub her nose with tuna puree and she’d ignore it. And while we now have our Look-at-me game with the Premack jackpot of the meet-and-great AFTER we’ve walked nicely past the other dog, it’s a toss-up if that other dog is a wiggly-waggly puppy as to whether she’ll take the treat offered after the CER. And if we’re in a great fetch-hold-out-throw game, if I offer her a treat when she’d rather have the kong, she’ll literally spit it out on the ground, even if it’s her normal gold standard of pretzel croissant.
When dealing when over arousal, stress, fear and such, you really have to get food as the end all and be all of rewards out of your head. You have to think in terms of thresholds and functional rewards, not just food rewards.
Just my $.02
I so agree with this response! I am just an ordinary person, not a trainer, but I have 2 dogs.. one is normal, one skips 1 out of 3 meals, and would rather socialize in dog class than listen to any treats.. it’s the “wipe tuna puree on his nose and he ignores it” situation. By working at home, with no distractions, we’ve got him trained to a clicker.. but as you probably know, he’s just not interested in that ‘game’ when there are more interesting things going on.. like, any other dogs he might be able to meet. I’m glad someone pointed out that it might not be simple lack of trainer skill or mishandling; some dogs really *aren’t* motivated by food. ( I also understand, from all the people I’ve asked, that my dog is very much the exception to this).
Amanda Brothers says
“When dealing when over arousal, stress, fear and such, you really have to get food as the end all and be all of rewards out of your head. You have to think in terms of thresholds and functional rewards, not just food rewards.”
I assumed Eric was trying to address things that owners do that make food less rewarding to the dog, not necessarily the idea of threshold…a whole ‘nother article, I’d say!
Thank you. Great article.