Positive reinforcement works. The science doesn’t lie. One of the best ways to train a dog is by rewarding them with food for good behavior. But here is where people get stuck...
"What if my dog isn't food motivated?"
That definitely is a problem. How do you train your dog with food if your dog doesn't even want the food? It's a valid question, and this is where many people miss their opportunity to have a well-trained dog.
We hate to say it, but picky eaters are created. Let's start with a self-assessment. If your dog is a picky eater, isn't food motivated, or will only train for treats, ask yourselves these questions:
Do you leave the food bowl out more than 5 minutes at meal time?
Do you feed your dog based on the food bag's feeding guide, or do you feed your dog based on how his body composition looks and his food motivation level?
Do you top dress your dog's food if he doesn't eat (ex: adding cottage cheese, water, treats, etc. to entice him to eat)?
Do you switch your dog's food brand if he becomes picky about his food?
Does your dog eat table scraps and/or treats frequently?
Does your dog have constant access to high calorie chews?
So what do these things have to do with dogs that are picky eaters or lack food motivation? Here are our top reasons that dog's lack food motivation:
Feeding Too Much
A lot of people do not realize the feeding guide on a bag of dog food is not always 100% accurate. Start with the amount on the feeding guide, but remember it is not always correct! Remember to look at your dog's ideal weight, not necessarily their current weight. If your dog is overweight, you should not continue to feed them the recommended amount based on their current weight as it is probably too much food.
Always feed your dogs according to how they look and feel. When your dog is standing up, if you run your hands along his sides you should be able to feel his ribs without applying pressure. If you cannot feel his ribs, cut the food down a little bit. If the ribs are protruding, add a bit of food.
The Food is Constantly Accessible
We are not saying you should starve your dogs or deny them access to a meal. They should still be fed the amount of food needed to be healthy and thrive. It's the way in which it's fed that is critical.
Look at it like this, if I started leaving food out on the table all day long for my kids to eat whenever they wanted, I'm guessing they wouldn't want to eat at meal times. They would already be full. And then, over time, they actually would start eating less food because they'd never have an appetite. They'd graze here and there as they feel like it, so it appears like they are eating less than if they were sitting down to a healthy meal at a designated time.
Feed your dog his meal at a designated time (or just use his kibble for training and ditch the bowl altogether). Set a timer for no more than five minutes, and then pick up the bowl and don't offer it again until the next meal time. At the next meal time, don't add more food to the bowl unless your dog finishes the first initial meal he skipped!
Feeding Treats, Table Scraps, and High Calorie Chews Frequently
I'm not here to tell people not to treat their dogs once in a while. I'll be honest, I love to give my dogs a good, high value chew or get them a pup cup from Caribou Coffee. But my dogs are food motivated. They have zero issue training for their kibble and have developed a working and training mindset.
If your dog is not willing to train for his dog food, he should not be getting any table scraps, treats, or chews with high calories at home. Dog's aren't going to care about their salad and sandwich if they are constantly being handed cookies and donuts. Cut them out until you have food (regular, dry kibble) motivation.
Think of the long term goal. You want a dog that listens to your commands when you don't have treats on you, right? Weaning off of kibble is much easier than weaning off of treats. Soft, high-value training treats can be used in new environments, but the treat value level should match the distraction level when first starting to train. Here are some examples:
Training at home: kibble (low value food)
Training outside or with mild distractions: Zuke’s, Charlie Bears, etc. (mid-value treat)
Training in a new, distracting environment: chicken, cheese, True Chews (high-value treat)
Changing Foods or Top-Dressing Food
So your dog doesn't eat, and naturally then we worry. So what do we do? We top dress the food by adding something yummy to the kibble as incentive. We do this for a few days, the dog starts to eat, so then we stop. And then what does the dog do? He stops eating of course! Where did those yummy treats on top go? He wants his donuts, not the salad.
Dogs are smart. They will wait to eat in hopes of something better coming. They will sometimes go days in hopes of you switching their kibble to something new. They are amazing creatures, so don't let them outsmart you!
So unless there is a medical need, please follow these rules: don't free feed, keep the same type of food, find the right amount of food, don't top dress it, and use that kibble for training. And then watch the magic of a motivated dog. The sky is the limit!
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About The Author: Megan is the owner and lead trainer of Havana Dog Training. She has been training canines for over 8 years and specializes in behavior modification, training foundations, and working with families and young children.