How motivated are you by food? Consider what you'd do to receive a favorite meal prepared for you? Maybe it doesn't even have to be your favorite meal, and you'd gladly accept any amount of snacks.
To a degree, we're all motivated by food on some level because we need it to survive. When we talk about building a food drive in puppies regarding training, we're not typically talking about the food they need to survive. To be clear, starving your dog to train them can be abusive, and that's not at all what we're referring to here. Using starvation as a training tool is also counterproductive to building food drive because it teaches the dog to be comfortable being hungry rather than to work for their food.
We're talking about using food as a tool and a motivator in training exercises.
You should always make sure your dog receives a healthy diet and enough food to be healthy, but it does make sense to use a meal as a training motivator. You can train a dog who hasn't eaten since breakfast (basically an empty stomach) and use that meal as a reward. You can take the meal and break it up into smaller amounts to feed them throughout the training.
Most dogs have some food drive when it comes to training treats, but some have higher food drives than others.
You can test out your dog's food drive by offering them a tasty snack, like cooked meat, steak, or chicken are always popular, but offer it to them after they've already eaten a full meal.
The odds are they'll still eat the snack even though they couldn't possibly be hungry.
If they eat, it reveals they have an ample food drive. If your dog ignores the food, you can assume that food is less of a motivator. It helps you answer the age-old question, to do you live to eat or eat to live.
Some dogs have an adequate food drive but become less motivated by food when they are excited. They see the food and would eat it, but they've become too focused on whatever's riling them up. They're distracted. For example, you are training in your local park, and they see a squirrel on a nearby tree. Suddenly, you and your treats have taken a backseat to the chasing down of Mr. Squirrel.
Some dogs just aren't motivated by food at all. It can become frustrating for owners during training sessions. These dogs may not follow your commands whatsoever and show little to no interest in the food you're offering.
If this describes your puppy, don't give up on them!
They require your patience and some extra care, but a low food drive is not a sign of low intelligence. You may find another motivator that you can use to replace food in training or work to build their food drive over time.
Some dogs are more motivated by toys and balls. Retrievers with low food drives can fall into this category. Herding dogs also can be less motivated by food and are more interested in doing a "job" than earning snacks.
You can try to appeal to their sense of curiosity and make it more challenging to earn the treat. Place a treat inside a container so your dog can hear it knocking around inside.
Give them time to examine this container and hopefully try to get inside it! Let them have a moment to attempt this, and then give them your training command. If they obey, open the container and reward them with the treat. They may be more motivated by it after engaging with the container and "working" to get it open.
Different breeds have different average food drives. Any individual dog's food drive may be higher or lower than what's typical for their breed.
High food drive dogs tend to eat all the food provided during meal times. If you own more than one dog and feed them together, your high food drive dog may scarf down their meal and then attempt to take food from your other pet's bowls.
Keep an eye on high food drive dogs during meals as they are more likely to overeat, which may lead to vomiting or weight gain. Be sure to secure any unauthorized food sources like the kitchen pantry from high food drive dogs. If they have an opportunity to eat something forbidden, they probably will!
High food drive dogs are usually easier to train because they are willing to do almost anything to earn a treat. Just be careful not to overfeed them while training. If your dog is highly food motivated, then you shouldn't feel the need to reward them with a treat for each successful action. You can use treat rewards more sparingly and reward after multiple successive completions.
Low food drive dogs are much pickier with their meals. They may not finish the food you provide and may not always accept a treat. When training lower food drive dogs, treats alone may not be enough to earn their obedience. Remember, these dogs are not unintelligent by any means, but they do require a bit of extra patience.
When you are working to build your dog's food drive, you want to stop free-feeding them. That means leaving food out for them to nibble on at any point in the day. You want to have dedicated mealtimes for your dog, and if they do not finish the entire meal, you should take the food away after they've finished.
Don't worry; you will feed them again later!
You will also be feeding them treats during training sessions. It's not a practice to starve our dogs, but rather to shift them away from the free feeding style that doesn't build food drive for training.
In many ways, we are training our dogs all the time. Dog's don't really understand when they are "in a training session" versus every other part of life. All interactions with them are training them on how to behave, your routines, and what's required of them. In general, dogs want to have more pleasant experiences and will try to avoid unpleasant ones.
When we spend time "training" our dogs, we see it as a separate activity where we're judging their responses to us differently than we do in the rest of life. When owners say their dog isn't food motivated in training sessions but will accept food throughout the day, there is a bit of an inconsistency in that statement.
There may be something else occurring in the way the owner is training that's creating the appearance of a low food drive.
They may be anxious, nervous, excited, or distracted by your training environment. There may be something about the way you are training them that is causing this response.
The point is that it's difficult to pinpoint what may be causing the perceived low food drive in your pet.
If you are struggling to build a food drive in your dog, it may be time to bring in a professional trainer to help you. It's best practice to always interview trainers about their methods and training philosophy before putting down a deposit. Ask how they would go about working with a dog with a low food drive.
Some trainers don't believe you need to rely on food at all, but food will usually play some role in dog training. Be wary of trainers who say the food is entirely unnecessary. All dogs are different and respond to different training approaches accordingly. Training methods that don't rely on food can be effective, but they require a shift in mindset from food-based positive reinforcement training, which has become popular and widespread.
With this frame in mind, food starts to look more like a bribe you offer your dog to solicit their good behavior. Your dog is not learning obedience or specific commands but rather how to get a snack out of you. It can make your dog too dependent on treats. What if you suddenly need your dog to be obedient to you, and you find yourself without any treats available? What if because you don't have a treat, they don't want to obey?
It could become a major issue. What if your dog slips their collar while outdoors and there's busy traffic nearby? This is a serious situation, and you need them to follow your commands even without the promise of a snack.
It's worth considering how treat-reliant training can affect the emotional connection you want to have with your dog. They should see you as more than a treat dispensary, right?
Finding ways to connect other than through food can lead to a more meaningful relationship.
By shifting from only rewarding with treats to using verbal praise, affection, and other non-food rewards, you can develop a deeper bond with your dog.
By pairing leash tugs and a training collar along with voice commands and hand gestures, you can effectively transition your dog to receiving rewards and validation from you directly.
At the beginning of this process, you will have to keep your dog on their leash at all times throughout the day, but as your training progresses, you can allow them off-leash.
It establishes you as the alpha figure in your dog's life and is the key to this training style working correctly. Some owners are uncomfortable with this process because it feels like they are purposely being less affectionate with their dogs and restricting their freedom.
Understanding the entire process should ease any trepidation you're feeling. You will have a loving relationship with your dog, but you have to be firm for now.
This process can take up to two weeks, and you need to maintain consistency. Any sliding back to your old way of doing things can derail the progress you've made.
By keeping your dog on-leash at all times, they learn to see you as the only way to get their needs met. They need to get your permission to eat, go potty, and everything else. When you are busy, your dog may get impatient or whine. You might get tempted to let them off-leash so they can entertain themselves, instead give them a job to do. It can be as simple as telling them to stay. If they struggle and stand back up, tell them to sit again. This process will require your patience and theirs too.
Keeping your dog on a leash helps them to understand boundaries and how to exist within them. In time they will look to you for guidance before taking action.
This is just one method you can experiment with if your dog has a low food drive and you're having a difficult time in your training. Don't give up on your dog no matter what, and if you need additional support, look to work with a professional trainer.
We'd be happy to play that role in you and your dog's life. If you're interested in booking a training evaluation or have any other concerns about your dog or puppy, please contact us by writing a message in the bubble below. We'll get back to you shortly.