"But My Dog Isn't Food Motivated!

One of our favourite things about attending ClickerExpo is the breadth of knowledge we have to opportunity to absorb.    One of these great sessions was “But My Dog Isn't Food Motivated” with behaviourist Kathy Sdao. Besides reminding us all that every living creature is food motivated (otherwise they would not be alive for long), she explained that we can actually create finicky eaters even with the best intentions.


So, what mistakes are we making, and what can we do now?


Mistake #1: Free Feeding

“Free feeding” (leaving a bowl of food out) is strongly correlated with finicky eating.  When dogs are able to graze all day, food becomes very low value.  This means that it will no longer be reinforcing and the dog will not be motivated to eat it or work for it.   Additionally, free feeding does not allow you to track when and how much your dog is eating.  This can lead to your dog being overweight by eating too much OR keep you from noticing that your dog is not eating enough. It also adds difficulty to housetraining.


Solution:  Divide your dog’s recommended daily allotment of food into two meals to be fed at roughly the same times everyday.  Place the food down and give the dog access for 15 minutes.  If they choose not to eat during that time, pick up the food and re-offer it later.  It might take several days before your dog gets on board with the new feeding schedule but consistency is the key.  We advise consulting your vet if you have any health concerns regarding switching to a meal-based feeding system for your dog.


Mistake #2: Feeding all food in a bowl

Some dogs have learned that food is a consequence for behaviour and would therefore prefer to work for their food.  They will shun a bowl of food put down for them because they would rather expend energy to earn food than get it for free.


Solution:  Ditch the dish!  There are numerous ways you can feed your dog that will allow them to use their brain to get their food.  There are puzzle toys galore to choose from but some of the simplest and least expensive options include hiding their kibble around the room or scattering it in the yard for them to find.


Mistake #3: “Poisoning” Food (not literally!)

Sometimes we accidentally “punish” our dogs for eating.  This can happen when we attempt to hide medication in their food (or formerly favourite treat!), when we lure them with food towards something scary (ie. A bath).  It can also be as simple as you yelping when they take treats roughly.  Any of these things can cause your dog to be wary of taking food or treats from you in the future.   They learn that food = scary things


Solution:  Use food as a reward AFTER you give them the medication or AFTER they interact with the scary thing (even if it is just looking at it).   Go at your dog’s pace to ensure they maintain their confidence.


Mistake #4: Upgrading their Meals

If our dog refuses to eat and we add something to make it more enticing or offer higher value food, we teach our dogs to snub their food in the future.  They have learned that if they refuse to eat it, someone will give them something better so we inadvertently train them not to eat the first meal we offer!  Adding gravy or canned food not only creates an endless loop, it adds extra calories and fat to our dog’s diet.

Similarly, if we coax our dogs to eat by trying to create just the right conditions, we start ourselves down a slippery slope. We are not only reinforcing the dog for balking but we can also create a situation where they reinterpret these actions as cues to eat.   The most interesting outcome is that when the dog (finally!) eats it is so reinforcing to us that it can create superstitious learning for the human.  We come to believe that our dog will only eat if the green bowl is exactly 10 inches from the table while we lie on the floor and sing show tunes to them.   Ain’t nobody got time for that!


Solution:  As with free feeding, prepare a healthy meal and offer it to your dog.  If they do not eat, remove it and present it again later.  Of course, it is possible that sometimes your dog genuinely does not like the food you have chosen to feed them.  This doesn’t mean that you cannot switch your dog’s food, but you shouldn’t change their food every time they refuse a meal.

If the protocols mentioned above in regards to offering and removing meals at set times is not successful there is another option.  Just like any other behaviour, you can actually train your dog to eat.  This involves rewarding them with a high value treat if they eat even a small portion of the meal you offer them.  You can click the mouthful and toss the high value treat into the bowl.  The dog will learn that eating their meal is a behaviour that gets rewarded!


Author: Tammy Williams

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