Maximize Your Dog's Food Motivation: Part 1
Food is one of the most versatile and powerful ways we can train our dogs. But what if your dog isn't very food motivated? I have some easy tips that will help improve your dog's desire to work for food that does NOT involve fasting your dog. Part 2 will discuss training activities that will make your dog LOVE working for food again!
Have a serious look at your dog's weight. It is absolutely critical that your dog is at a healthy weight for their overall health and well being. The Body Conditioning System (bottom of this page) will help you determine if you need to reduce your dog's overall food intake. I recommend keeping a measuring cup with your dog's food so you can measure the exact amount that you are feeding per meal. It is also a good idea to check with your vet to see if there are any underlying medical issues that could be contributing to their lack of appetite or weight problems. Dental and thyroid issues are just two examples of things that can contribute to your dog's weight and desire to eat.
Do you feed your dog twice per day? Scheduled feeding is infinitely better than leaving a dish of food out for your dog all day. If your dog is used to being free-fed, offer them food for about 10 minutes twice per day to help them get on a feeding schedule. A healthy dog will not starve themselves, so it is okay if they skip a meal as they get used to their new routine. You should also give them a less food at meal times to accommodate for the amount of food that you are using in training.
Do you add things to their food to make it more flavorful? If you add things to your pet's food to make it more appealing, I would recommend that you stop that immediately if your dog has motivational issues around food. I usually find that people give their dog additives for two reasons: they think their dog needs to eat more, or they are trying to show love to their dog through food. If you think your dog needs to eat more than they already are, they probably are overweight or they have an underlying medical problem. If you are trying to show your dog love through food, I recommend trying the Bowl Free Challenge instead!
What kind of food rewards are you currently using? I always try to train with the "lowest value" food first in a low distraction environment, and I will only increase the value of food if I absolutely have to. If you start your dog on high value treats, such as hot dogs and cheese, why would your dog want to start working for anything less appealing? If your dog will only work for high-value food rewards, that is okay! Your dog defines what is motivating to them, so we do need to make sure we keep that in mind. For a high-value food with simple ingredients, I would recommend trying Happy Howie Rolls. You can cut the food into whatever size you would like, and then freeze the rest for later use. Stella & Chewy freeze dried raw food can also act as a high-value food reward for many dogs.
The size of your food rewards also matter! Large sized dogs generally need treats that are the size of dice, while smaller dogs can have pea-sized treats. However, small dogs still might need a larger sized treat for specific training activities. I don't recommend using food pieces that are so large that your dog will take time chewing each piece before swallowing. Most dogs enjoy soft treats, which also happen to be ideal for training.