Lesson 4 of 10
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Reasons dogs won’t work for food

These are things that can disguise themselves as low-food motivation, or cause food-obsessed dogs to rage quit.

Anxiety and stress

This is a big one, and it can be easy to miss, because it’s not always obvious. It doesn’t always present as the dog whining or cowering in the corner.

My first dog Friday loved food more than pretty much anything. She was obsessed with food – at home. But outside the house? Forget about it. I’d bring treats on a walk to work on loose leash walking or whatever, and she’d completely ignore me.

Knowing what I know now, Friday was clearly an anxious dog. Hypervigilant out in the world, she wasn’t really able to just chill and exist. She didn’t have the skills to cope with the environment.

Bu I didn’t know it at the time. I thought she was just excitable, stubborn, independent, etc. Ya know, all those things that we call dogs who don’t fall over themselves to do what we say.

Stress/anxiety is common with newly-adopted dogs in particular. You brought your new dog home a week ago, and you’re excited to teach them lots of things, but they doesn’t seem to care. They’re right smack in the middle of the adjustment period, which is a tumultuous time. They don’t know where they are, everything is different. They may even be grieving their previous life. So snacking is low on their list of priorities.

You might just need to take this as a sign that Sparky still needs time to adjust and settle in before you begin training in earnest.

Confusion or lack of clarity

Sparky doesn’t understand how to make you give them the treat, or they don’t even realize they can make you give them the treat.

This happens a lot when two factors are in play:

  1. You’re trying to get a dog to do something they have not been taught and have no understanding of.
  2. The situation has not been set up as a proper training session with clear signaling that indicates “okay, we’re doing the training thing now. You now have the opportunity to earn rewards by making guesses.”

For example: When your puppy gets into a crazy mood and jumps all over the furniture. You want them to get off the furniture so you hold out a treat and say “hey, get off the couch!”

The puppy just stares at the treat. Thanks but no thanks, this is where I want to be!

The dog does not understand the training game

When we think of “dog training” we think of the specific skills we want to train. Like sit, play dead, walk on leash without pulling, etc. But they also need to learn the skill of training itself.

See, training is a bit of a guessing game. It requires the dog to know that they should focus on you for a while, and offer behaviors (which is dog trainer speak for “making guesses”) to get reinforcement.

If the dog doesn’t know the game, then when you hold out a treat in front of their nose and try to lure them into doing the behavior you want, all they know is that this human is making nonsense mouth sounds and confusing gestures, holding a treat, and not letting them have the treat.

And so the low FM dog says “Oh well, I’m just going to go find some other way to entertain myself.”

And the super FM dog says “oh my GOD just give me the treat before I literally dieEEE.”

We don’t usually realize that training itself is something that needs to be taught, because lots of dogs are food-driven enough or frustration-tolerant enough to push through those obstacles and figure out how to make it work. This would be your typical border collie. Herding dogs who were bred to pay close attention to the shepherds every whim.

Dogs who are less likely to put up with this lack of clarity are the ones we typically call “stubborn.” Like huskies, malamutes, Rhodesian ridgebacks, Shiba inus, sighthounds, or certain livestock guardian breeds. Dogs who were bred to work a little more independent of humans and make their own decisions.

The dog is afraid of getting it wrong

You often see this with dogs who are trained equally with rewards and punishments. If they know that there’s a chance they’ll be corrected for giving the wrong answer, even if they’re gonna get a delicious treat if they get it right, they may err on the side of caution and stop offering guesses all together.

If I were to tell you it’s pop quiz time and I’ll give you $5 for every dog training question that you answer correctly, you’d probably be happy to answer the questions even if you’re just guessing.

But what if I also say I’m going to charge you $5 for every question you get wrong? A lot fewer people would be willing to make guesses.

This was epitomized in Jonas, my “crossover” dog – meaning the dog with whom I switched from traditional correction-based training to reward-based methods. All of Jonas’ serious skills like sit, stay, lie down, and come, were taught with traditional methods where he’d be corrected if he did the wrong thing.

But then we took an agility class, where the instructors made it clear that things were positive only. If the dog made a mistake, nothing’s gonna happen. We’re gonna ignore it and move on.

Jonas came to life in that class.

When he realized there were no consequences for wrong answers, he became much more engaged in training.

This might be the culprit with a rescue dog whose history you don’t know. There’s a possibility that their previous owner trained this way.

You’re leveling up too fast

You may be pushing training to the next difficulty level before the dog is ready. This is very typical with loose leash training and recall training.

If you’ve struggled with your leash-pulling dog, I’m willing to bet you’ve run into the issue where you’ve tried to use treats to reward them for walking next to you, but they don’t care about treats on walks.

And actually, I wouldn’t expect them to. The ways that loose leash training is traditionally taught just sets dog and human up to fail. It’s usually recommended you start training on an actual walk, probably right out your front door. Which is way too high of a difficulty level!

The dog is not in the right mental or physical space for training

You see this a lot with puppies. We wait until they’re in Hyper Attack Mode and then try to get them to focus on training, but they can’t.

Or when Sparky’s coming down from a stressful experience. You take your reactive dog to a park, and they have an explosive reaction to another dog walking by. You take them out of that situation so they’re no longer barking, but their body is still full of stress hormones and they can’t think.

Imagine if you got into a scary situation, like a fender bender. Your heart’s pounding and your hands are shaking from the adrenaline… and then I hand you a sheet of math problems. WTF.

Are you going to be able to do the math problems or are you going to tell me to **** off?

There are also simple factors that we wouldn’t even really think about: Does the dog need to pee? Are they sleep deprived and need a nap? Are you asking them to do a down-stay on wet grass, or a heel on hot pavement?

Food is being used outside the parameters of good dog training

Situations where food wouldn’t help anyway, and in ways it isn’t intended to be used as part of reward-based training.

Like with a reactive dog who sees a trigger and they start going over threshold, barking and growling. Sticking a treat in front of their nose at that point will not help.

Another example: Being moved toward someone or something scary. Like the scale at the vet’s office. Or if your dog is afraid of people, and you have a friend come over to visit. Should you ask that friend to lean forward and offer a treat to the dog whose cowering in the corner? Probably not. See: How to introduce a shy puppy to people

This can sneakily happen with puppies:

They constantly get into trouble, so you have rush toward them and take things away or pick them up. To a tiny baby puppy, that body language from a human can be pretty intimidating, so they run away or hide.

We want to prevent the puppy from getting into those situations where you constantly have to go after them and use treats to either get them out of bad situations or exchange it for something they’ve stolen. Like when they grab a shoe, so you go over and give them a treat in exchange for the shoe.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing inherently wrong with doing that! But if it becomes something that happens all the time, you may end up conditioning the puppy to dislike treats because treats mean that their fun is about to end.

(Or conditioning them to to think “wow, all I have to do is pick up a shoe and then I get a treat!” which is also not good)

So prevention of unwanted behavior is important for building and maintaining food motivation.

Use those crates, baby gates, closed doors, dog-proofing, and everything else we talk about in the management lessons from Puppy Survival School.

Undetected health issues

I’m not going to talk about this one too much because I am not a vet, but there are a lot of health reasons a dog might not be interested in treats.

Allergies, intolerances, dental disease, pain, kidney disease, some sort of gut health issue….

If the lack of interest in treats is new, or if you’ve just adopted this dog and don’t know if the lack of interest is new, I’d think about going to a vet soon.

If Sparky’s lack of interest in treats is not new, and you’re not seeing any other indicators of illness, you probably don’t have to go to a vet right away. Keep working on these other troubleshooting ideas first.

Just keep in mind that dogs are very good at masking symptoms and hiding pain, and some food intolerances can go undetected for years. There are lots of cases where a notoriously picky eater eventually goes to a vet who does the right test and and bam, it turns out they had -insert undiagnosed health problem here- for years.