When was the last time you watched a nature program and heard the announcer say, "This hippopotamus is not very food-motivated"? What about a raccoon? A bear? A wolf?
All animals need food to survive. And our domestic dogs are no different. So, when someone tells me their dog "isn't food-motivated," it immediately has me wondering why.
HEALTH: If a dog regularly turns down food at home, a vet check is in order. Does the dog have gastrointestinal issues? Does the dog have dental issues? Is there some other undetected condition causing discomfort?
STRESS: If the dog is a healthy eater at home, but stops eating food when on walks or other locations outside the home, we need to look for signs of stress. Low tail, low ears held back, panting when not hot, hyper vigilance, failure to respond to cues, and other indications that you don't normally see when your dog is relaxed and happy.
If the dog is fine eating all sorts of food at home and on walks, but stops when dogs, people, cyclists, motorcycles, cars, etc., pass by, that is likely an indication of anxiety.
Few people realize that over-stimulation and excitement are also forms of stress and can impact a dog's appetite, as well.
PREFERENCE/COMPETING MOTIVATION: Sometimes it's the choice of food that the owner offers that is the problem. I know a lot of dogs that love to crunch on baby carrots at home. But when their owners bring a bag of baby carrots to the first night of class, the dog isn't interested.
That could be stress/anxiety about the new environment and/or other dogs, or it could be that the motivation to interact with the other dogs is stronger than the dog's love of carrots.
I (human) like to eat raisins. But if I have the opportunity to play with puppies or eat raisins, puppies win. Every. Single. Time.
Swap out raisins and replace them fresh abalone, and now I might be experiencing a little conflict. Puppies or abalone? I can head over to my local shelter and play with puppies pretty much whenever I want. But abalone is hard to come by. I only get it maybe once every few years. Abalone is much higher value than puppies.
So, it's not surprising that those dogs who turn down the carrots are suddenly food-motivated again as soon as I pull out cheese, hot dogs, or Red Barn beef roll. One dog turned down everything I offered until I pulled out the baby food. Another dog lit up when I pulled out some leftover smoked pheasant that I'd tossed in my bag.
Sometimes these dogs just need us to whet their appetite a bit with something super fantastic (like the pheasant), and then they are ready to take food that they'd previously turned down. This is why I like to have a bit of a trail mix of meats, cheeses, and crunchies (my dog loves Cheerios).
DELIVERY ISSUES: I've also seen a dog's physiology be the reason they get labeled as not food-motivated. For example, two Shar Peis I worked with had such large muzzles, that they had trouble taking the treats from my hand. As soon as I made adjustments in my method of delivery, we were back on track.
Same with a colleague of mine who adopted a Greyhound that appeared to not be motivated by food...until she realized that his very large overbite made it difficult for her to take food from her hand.
Some dogs aren't all that excited about being hand fed, but toss those treats and suddenly they will work for ALL the food!
FREE FEEDING: Some dogs that are "free fed," meaning they graze from a full bowl of food all day, can seem a little picky. In these cases, the dog can get food anytime they want, so the motivation to work for the food isn't always that high (although I find it rare that a dog with a full bowl of dry kibble isn't still willing to work for hot dogs).
For these dogs, trainers recommend limiting feeding times to 20 minutes in the morning and evening. Having a dog on a regular schedule has many benefits, including a more predictable housetraining schedule!
We have a saying in the training world. If a dog is truly not food-motivated, he's not breathing.
If a dog is refusing food, rule out medical issues, watch for signs of stress, and make sure what you're offering is more interesting to him than everything else in the environment.
Finally, if your dog has always had a healthy appetite and suddenly walks away from his meal, a vet check is in order ASAP.
"But MY dog..." Yeah, I get it. You believe your dog isn't food-motivated. Again, there are plenty of reasons they might not take the treats you offer. All I'm saying is that before you slap a label on your dog like "Not Food-Motivated," you make sure you've ruled out some of the other explanations, above.
"But my dog prefers to work for play." That's great! That doesn't mean he/she isn't food-motivated. And there are times that tug or fetch isn't appropriate to use as a reinforcer, like at an outdoor restaurant. Use as many different reinforcers as you can, whenever they will work. I certainly do.
"But I don't agree with you..." That's fine. You don't have to. Just make sure you aren't imposing your personal beliefs on your dog and ruling out the possibility that there could be a reason your dog refuses the treats you offer. Because if there is and you dismiss it, it could come back to be a problem later on.
Bottom line: Dogs need food to survive, just like other animals. Dogs evolved as scavengers, which makes them opportunistic feeders. So, when a dog refuses food, there's usually a reason.
Don't simply label your dog as not food-motivated. Look deeper. Make sure there isn't something else going on. Then continue to use fetch or tug or lottery tickets as a reinforcer, if that's truly what your dog prefers.