"My dog isn't treat motivated."
"I've tried treats in the past and they just didn't work."
These are a couple of phrases that I occasionally hear when starting in-home training with a new family. Since food rewards are one of the most effective ways to begin training, getting to root of this treat problem is an important first step for success.
A lack of interest in treats is usually caused by one or two things:
1) Free Feeding. Free feeding is where the dog always has access to food. Reward-based trainers see every calorie and piece of kibble as an opportunity to teach, enrich, and/or improve behavior so pouring all those opportunities into a bowl makes our hair stand on end. Well, maybe not really, but...
If the bowl is always full and always available, dogs often eat to excess and it's hard to predict when they're going to be hungry. If the dog is full, he is much less motivated by food. We are NOT advocating starving your dog so he's frantic to get the offered treats. We are advocating leveraging normal levels of hunger to your advantage.
- Use a portion of your dog's daily kibble for training rewards.
- Plan on training time right before mealtime
*Exceptions: if you have an extremely underweight dog, please work closely with your vet to ensure that he is getting the calories he needs to return to a healthy weight.
2) Over-threshold. Dogs who are extremely stressed, anxious, or fearful will not eat. Humans experience the same thing when they get anxious. Have you ever received bad news at meal time? Your appetite just evaporates.
If your dog willingly takes treats in some scenarios but not others, he is mostly likely over-threshold: he is so overwhelmed by something that scares or stresses him that he cannot ignore it long enough to think about eating a yummy treat. This isn't just an inconvenience; it's an indication that his behavior will deteriorate without appropriate intervention.
These dogs need to be moved further away from the scary thing before trying any further training. Dogs who stay over-threshold develop increased stress, anxiety and fear about the object/person/animal.