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Diamonds in the Ruff

Building enthusiasm for rewards in the non-food-motivated dog

Since motivation to earn rewards is a huge part of success in training, finding rewards that your dog will LOVE is key.


Owners of bossy, attention seeking dogs who are walking stomachs just don't get it.  How can your dog not eat?  They'd give anything for a dog that didn't constantly counter surf, who wasn't starving all the time, and didn't bite their fingers off in the presence of anything even mildly interesting.  Until they have a dog who doesn't.  Having a dog who wanders off because the reward isn't worth working through frustration to earn are much harder to teach.  Some inspect everything you give them as though you were trying to poison them before they'll gingerly eat it.  It's not very rewarding for either of you.

Maybe your last dog was an easy keeper.  He was happy to do back-flips for boring, generic dog food kibble.  But this is not that dog. 

Train the dog in front of you.  Dogs are as varied as snowflakes.  Some dogs are intense and animated while others take on life's challenges at a bit slower place.  You will have to meet your less motivated or sensitive dog halfway.  The paycheck has to equal the effort and rival the distractions.  You will need to learn to be a great cheer leader!


Dogs who have upset stomachs are often upset dogs.  Sensitive dogs may shut down if the pressure to perform is too high.  You may notice that your dog engages when you are relaxed and having fun and checks out when you get focused on the task at hand.  Are you getting frustrated?  Take a break.  Go back to an easier step or do something the dog is good at to lighten the load.  Go play a game.  Are you training around too many distractions or in a place that your dog isn't comfortable? 


It isn't that he won't eat - he can't right now.

Worried dogs may not be able to eat because they are focused on safety, not learning.  Stress and anxiety have a direct effect on hunger.  Adrenaline suppresses appetite.  This isn't a 'doesn't like food' issue, it's a stress issue.  Calming supplements can sometimes help.  Change locations - move away from what worries him.

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People food.  At the end of the day, if you open a cellophane pouch that says "dog treat" on it and ask for a sit and reward that sit with the stuff in the pouch, it's very likely that most of the ingredients in that "dog treat" you just handed them are "people food" ...  The word "dog" on the label doesn't magically change the fact that chicken is chicken.  You will need to make sure there aren't any problem ingredients in that bag, like xylitol, chocolate, or raisins ...  or that the fat content isn't too rich or that it isn't full of a large amount of sugar.  You should still read the ingredients list of the "dog treats" because cheap treats can be full of awful stuff!

WHY is my dog not excited about eating? 

Since dogs must eat in order to survive, it is a rare dog who simply doesn't value food.

Sometimes it's health-related.  Has your dog had a check-up lately?  Dogs who don't feel well often don't feel like eating.  Thyroid, kidney, liver, dental issues ... see your vet.

How is your dog's weight?  If your dog isn't lean and fit, his appetite may be purely due to excess food.  Do you know how to tell if your dog is fit or fat?  Over-fed dogs lack of motivation for food rewards.  Dogs who are packing around extra weight also lack stamina and enthusiasm.  They don't have the endurance to repeat physical behavior very many times before they run out of steam.  You have to REALLY motivate them to get them moving.

How often do you feed?  Does your dog eat his meals at specific meal times?  Does he wander off and leave food in the bowl?  Are you leaving food out so the dog can snack all day from an always available bowl?  STOP.  Set AM/PM meal times and a measured amount.  If his weight is fine and he's eating but isn't finishing his food, you're probably giving him more than he needs.  Pick up the bowl and deduct what is left from his next meal.


In severe cases of true food aversion, you may have to Teach Your Dog to Eat.  In a nutshell: offer your dog his meal.  If he walks away, put it away til the next meal.  You are not starving him.  You are feeding him.  He'll eat when he gets hungry.  Avoid urging the reluctant dog to eat.  Adding extras and coaxing and pleading don't work and can make things worse.  Why eat today's offering when refusing makes the refrigerator open?  Give him dessert if he finishes, not to try to get him to eat.

~  The paycheck has to equal the effort and rival the distractions. ~

Increasing enthusiasm for food in a healthy, active, fit dog starts here:


Throw away the dog bowl.

There is no reason that a dog should eat from a bowl.   None.  The only reason for the bowl is convenience.  Measure how much your dog should eat at optimal weight.  Be sure to count all non-kibble high value rewards and deduct that amount from the kibble portion.  Feed your dog for engaging with you during frequent short training sessions and for randomly coming when called all throughout the day.  If at the end of the day you have not used up the entire quantity of daily rations, you may put the rest in a dog bowl.  But you must also promise yourself to train more tomorrow!  

Don't "cram for the test" on class day!

If it was a busy week and you realize that you didn't do your homework, don't try to make up for it on the day of class.  You'll fill his stomach and his brain!  He should come to class empty, rested, fresh, and eager to play with you.

Go easy on the extra chews on class day!

A belly full of bully stick may not leave room for training rewards!  


What DOES your dog like?  Be creative!  Having a wide variety of rewards that get your dog's excitement about learning buzzing can range from food, toys, games, petting, praise, even getting to jump on you, etc., etc.  Having a variety of ways to surprise your dog with bonuses for great work is essential to having a dog who finds working with you fun.  When working in a group class and when first introducing new skills and for building strong and reliable behaviors, a high rate of reinforcement - fast installments, one after another - are the most effective reinforcement.  High value food rewards fill this bill best.  So, how do we get them amped up about eating?



Not dry dog biscuits.  Not packaged treats from the grocery store.  REAL FOOD.  Juicy, yummy, real meat.  Scent drives appetite. 

Visit this page for some creative ideas to help find rewards that float your dog's boat And then think harder. 

If your dog turns up their nose at hot dogs, you'll need to be even more creative.  How about fake crab?  Stinky cheese?  Buffalo jerky? Peanut butter sandwich?  McDonald's French fries?  Organ meats.  Bacon!  Once you get your hard-to-motivate dog jazzed up about working to earn, you won't need to be so creative.  Pretty soon chicken breast will do.  Maybe even packaged dog treats.  Because now it's about the fun of learning new things and working with you.  If you are fun to play with, solving puzzles and winning at the training game become reinforcing and motivating over and above the food.

Practice makes perfect - but keep it short and sweet. 

Practice often, but not for very long.  Always leave the dog wanting more.  Never let them get satiated.  Keep your dog eager for the next chance to play.  He should say, "OH GOODIE!" not "Ugh, not again!"  Play during times of the day when your dog is naturally more active.  Play in non-distracting areas where you are the most interesting thing around and the dog feels completely safe.

Activate the seeking system.  Chase and capture. 

Roll treats along the floor for your dog to chase.  Capturing something that is getting away is fun.  Start with very short throws and build distance as the dog begins to enjoy the game.  Use treats that are a contrasting color to the color of the floor, so they are easy to see.  Join in and be part of the search!  Help them find it, tap the floor near the food.  There it is! 


Play hide and go seek.  Have someone hold your dog while he watches you hide treats around the room.  You might pretend to put out 20 treats, but actually leave only 5.  Release him to go find them.  Sniffing, searching, discovering.  These are great games for the dog who inspects treats as though they were poison or the dog who lacks confidence.  Competition also increases desire.   If it is safe to do so, it sometimes helps if the cat or another dog are looking for the hidden treats, too.  (Do not do this if you have any worry that they might argue over their finds, or if the presence of another animal might inhibit the dog you are trying to inspire.)

Play the "catch me" game.

Call her name, from right behind her.  When she turns her head toward you, cheer and deliver a few pieces of amazing food.  If she is tentative about taking it from your hand, scatter it at her feet.  Then run a few feet away.  When she's done eating, call her name in a happy voice and back away a few steps to encourage her to move toward you to collect the next scattering of yummy goodness.  Keep it fun!  Over time you may find that when you call her name she gallops toward you in anticipation of the next treat shower.  (Especially if this is the way you are feeding her all of her meals).  No pressure. This is about creating a joyful response.  It's not about obedience.  If she doesn't seem interested, put the food up and wait until later.  Don't destroy the possibility of future enthusiasm by nagging or insisting.  The cues you give are not orders for compliance, they are happy requests for a joyful response.


If your hard-to-motivate dog initiates a game or asks for your attention, it's a big deal! 

If your dog is not only un-motivated by food, if they also simply don't seek attention or need your approval, hand feeding meals will increase your relevance.  You also want to become a positive event that they look forward to.  Don't beg to be noticed - but do show sincere appreciation when you are!  If your dog shows up at any time during the day, let them know how great it is to see them.  How's it going?  Need a good butt scratch?  Hey, look!  I just dropped some bacon at your feet.  Get it!  Wanna play that fun game again?  Let's go!


Be the game.  Make the rewards part of the fun.  Inspire your dog to look forward to getting to play with you.

Check out this great webinar by Kathy Sdao

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