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Home > Dogs > How to Train a Dog That Is Not Food Motivated: 9 Vet-Reviewed Tips

How to Train a Dog That Is Not Food Motivated: 9 Vet-Reviewed Tips

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Dr. Maja Platisa

Veterinarian, DVM MRCVS

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Training is an essential process in ensuring your pup is calm, focused on you, attentive, well-behaved, and able to consistently follow a command even with distractions present. It is also essential in order to keep them and everyone around them, dogs and humans alike, safe. Some breeds may be easier to train than others, but all tend to respond best to positive reinforcement and reward-based techniques.

For most dogs, the best reward is food, and they’ll happily learn commands in return for training treats. But what do you do if your pup doesn’t seem to respond to the offer of treats? In this article, you’ll find nine tips and tricks to train a dog that is not food motivated.

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Before You Begin

Make sure you are in the right frame of mind for a training session. Teaching even the smartest and most willing dog is still an exercise in patience. When you’re dealing with a dog that needs different motivations, it’s easy for frustration to boil over. Don’t try to train your pup if you’re tired, hungry, stressed, or already angry. Training your dog needs your full dedication without distractions and with a calm mindset.

Speak to your vet or an experienced and licensed dog trainer who uses positive reinforcement, as it will certainly help both you and your dog to understand each other better. This can be done by enrolling your dog in certain classes or by getting professional training sessions. They could simply offer some tips and advice as well. Licensed trainers are doing this their whole careers and will be able to quickly identify what the issue may be and what is the best way to approach training your dog.

Also, don’t be fooled—training your dog is an ongoing process and will continue throughout your dog’s life. The sooner the training begins in young puppies, who are easier to teach, the more successful it will be.

For several of these tips, you may need extra supplies beyond just your dog and a leash. These may include:

  • High-value treats (cheese, cooked meat, etc.)
  • Your dog’s favorite toy
  • Water bowl
  • A long training lead
belgian malinois lying down with a dog toy
Image Credit: Julia Malsagova, Shutterstock

divider-dog pawHow to Train a Dog That Is Not Food Motivated

1. Make Sure They Aren’t Already Full

Before concluding that your dog isn’t food motivated, make sure the problem isn’t that they’ve just had too much food already. If you feed your dog a full meal and then try to move into a training session, they may not be motivated by additional snacks.

At the same time, you don’t want your dog to be so hungry during training that they are not focused on anything except following you around begging for food. This can seem helpful for teaching them basic commands but can also reduce their focus on more complex training and commands, making them inpatient or anxious.

The night before training, offer them their usual dinner or cut it down by a quarter, and skip breakfast in the morning of the training or offer a very small one. Use the food you would give them for a set meal for your training instead. Try offering a small treat so your dog won’t be uncomfortably hungry but still has an appetite for treat rewards. Also, avoid free-feeding your dog because you’ll have no way of knowing how full they are at any given point.

Make time for training them several times a day if your obligations allow it, so they can reinforce the behavior they learned.

Cute purebred Chihuahua puppy resting on green meadow
Image Credit: Rafael Guajardo, Pexels

2. Get Better Treats

Sometimes, your dog may seem unmotivated by food because they aren’t impressed with the food you’re offering. Dogs that regularly receive treats for no particular reason other than being adorable may be uninterested in working for the same. Tempt them with something extra tasty like real cooked meat, cheese, or even peanut butter (free of xylitol) as long as they don’t have dietary restrictions.

Some dogs may even respond well to their usual food if they skipped breakfast the morning of the training, while others may need higher-value treats.


3. Make Sure They Aren’t Thirsty

If your dog snubs your treats during training, it could be because they’re more interested in drinking than eating. Keep a water bowl handy and offer your pup a drink to see if it improves their concentration and interest in food rewards.

golden retriever puppy drinking
Image Credit: kathleen collins, Shutterstock

4. Remove Distractions

If you can’t seem to get your dog’s attention with food during training, it could be because there are too many distractions. Once your dog has a grasp of basic obedience and is repeating it consistently without a fault every time, it is a good idea to try holding training sessions in slightly busier locations. This may mean having a friend around or going to a local park so your dog learns to focus even with distractions.

However, early on, it might be too hard for your dog to pay attention to you or drum up interest in you and your treats if there are a lot of other people or animals around. Move your training to a quiet, boring location and see if your dog’s food motivation improves.

Do not rush any of the steps, as they may set you back. Be patient, and ensure your dog has learned the commands fully and understands what you are expecting of them. Only when they are ready and consistent can you try introducing one distraction, so as not to overwhelm them.


5. Check Their State of Mind

Just like you, your dog shouldn’t go into a training session in a hyper-emotional state of mind. Dogs can have off-days just like people. If your pup is tired, anxious, scared, or overly energized, they may have no interest in either food or training.

Skip training until your dog is calm and well-rested, as they may be more likely to accept treat rewards. Take them for a long walk, a good sniffing session, a hike, or even a run to use up some of that energy, and by the end of the walk or exercise session, you may be able to get some training done, as your dog is more calm and focused and more likely to accept treats.

Use every opportunity on a daily basis to train your dog, be it a simple command or more complex training, as it can be done at any place or time when you and your dog are in the right mindset for it.

man hugging golden retriever dog outside
Image credit: Eric Ward, Unsplash

6. Rule Out Medical Problems

Sometimes, your dog may not be food-motivated because something is impacting their appetite overall. If your dog’s lack of interest in food is sudden or out of character, you could be dealing with a medical problem rather than a motivation issue. This is especially true if you notice other signs like lethargy, vomiting, or diarrhea. See your veterinarian if that’s the case.


7. Make Sure You Aren’t the Drama

Training techniques for dogs have come a long way over the years, but outdated concepts still exist. For example, some owners may be reluctant to use food rewards because they’ve read that dogs should obey out of obligation to their master or pack leader, rather than what they view as a bribe. Make sure the reason your dog is not food motivated isn’t due to your hesitancy to use rewards.

Positive reinforcement training is based on teaching your dog that good things happen when they make certain decisions that are desirable from our perspective. Dogs Trust is just one of the world known organizations from the UK that supports this method of training, alongside veterinary professionals and many licensed canine behaviorists. It is believed that reward-based training is the best way for dogs to learn, all while having fun through building a positive relationship with their owner and by improving their confidence.

Studies have shown that dogs trained with aversive-based methods experienced poorer welfare during training sessions, as well as outside of the training context, than dogs trained with reward-based methods.

In many ways, training with positive reinforcement was found to be more effective at addressing certain behaviors, as well as general obedience training, while not endangering the dog’s welfare and improving the quality of the human-dog relationship.

an adorable puppy sitting on its owner's lap
Image Credit: Amina Filkins, Pexels

8. Use Play as a Reward

Food is the preferred reward for many, but if your dog doesn’t seem to care about treats, another option is to use play time as a reward. If your pup has a favorite toy or game, like fetch or tug-of-war, end every training session by playing with them. Intelligent canines will learn that if they work hard, they’ll soon get to play hard!


9. Use Praise and Petting as a Reward

For some dogs, earning their owner’s approval is all the reward they’ll ever need. If your dog cares more about your opinion than a chunk of chicken, shower the animal with your praise. Make a huge fuss over your pup every time they do what you ask or learn a new command. Even if they enjoy and eagerly take the high-value treats, make sure there is always plenty of praise and happiness in your voice when they do something you wanted from them.

kid and german shepherd dog puppy
Image Credit: Stone36, Shutterstock

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Summary

Training a dog that doesn’t seem food motivated can be more challenging but can still be accomplished. If none of these nine tips and tricks are working for you, it might be time to seek professional help. Training classes are available in most areas, often through your local veterinarian’s office. You can also hire a trainer to work with you and your dog. It’s better to ask for help rather than becoming frustrated, as that will go nowhere. Never resort to punishment or negative training techniques.


Featured Image Credit: Rolf Klebsattel, Shutterstock

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