Plot twist: It’s probably not about “food motivation” at all
If your dog refuses to work for treats, it’s pretty reasonable to assume they’re just not food motivated. But when we talk to clients or students and start doing detective work, it becomes clear that the reason their dog isn’t working for food has nothing to do with how much they like food.
There are other things going on.
There are a lot of issues that disguise themselves as low food motivation. Most of which have much more to do with how tolerant of frustration that dog is.
When we think about dogs who are happy to work for food and who will stop whatever they’re doing to come learn a new trick with you, it can seem like those dogs are really food motivated.
And a lot of the time sure, that’s true. But in many cases, I think those dogs are just really tolerant of frustration. They’re the kind of dogs who are patient enough to put up with our training mistakes and sloppy communication.
This might be because they really like food. It might also be that they like to interact with people, or they really like to work. You see this in dogs who were bred to work closely with people, like border collies, Belgian malinois, German shepherds, or golden retrievers. Super handler-focused dogs.
My border collie Merlin is a good example of this. He was never crazy about food; he was underweight when I adopted him, and it took a long time to put any meat on his bones because he just didn’t like to eat – except during training. He would happily spend an entire day working for treats, because he loves the training game so much.
Even when I make a mistake that might confuse another dog, he’s like, “whatever it’s fine, it’s just another challenge, I love challenges!”
A total nerd.
For him, some frustration seems to be a good thing. He likes using his brain and playing the guessing game of “What The Hell Is Jake On About Now?”
Some of this eagerness to work is innate, and some of it can also be created by teaching your dog the training game. We’ll talk about that later.
And here’s an example of the exact opposite problem: our mix breed, Flower. She’s the epitome of a food-motivated dog. Food is her passion. Kibble, boring dog treats, bread. Doesn’t matter. She loves it.
However, Flower has low frustration tolerance. Not as much anymore, but definitely when she was a puppy and adolescent.
During a training session, if she got one thing wrong, she would be done. And it wasn’t like she was punished for wrong guesses. The only thing that happened was that she didn’t get a treat and she had to try again. But it would make her shut down. Forget it, I’m out of here. She’d disengage and stop trying to get the treats.
On the surface, she looked a lot like a dog who doesn’t care about treats. When in fact she loves treats more than life itself.
When we go through a list of reasons dogs won’t work for food in the next lesson, keep this frustration tolerance concept in mind.
And of course there are dogs who are genuinely have very low food motivation, it has nothing to do with frustration, and we’ll talk about ways to address that later. But those dogs are pretty few and far between.