How to train with positive reinforcement when your dog won’t accept treats (or can’t get them due to a restricted diet).

I use treats in training. So do my clients. Now that positive reinforcement training has been proven in the canine world for over 25 years (backed by studies confirming its effectiveness), the use of treats in training is widely accepted and welcomed.

However, there are times when treats cannot be used. Perhaps your dog is not particularly food motivated. There may be a medical reason why your dog can’t eat at the moment. Or maybe (horrors!) he’s out of treats. The good news is that food is not the only form of reinforcement we can use in training: there are other ways to reinforce your dog’s behavior.

NOT MOTIVATED BY FOOD?

The fact is that all dogs need to be motivated by food, at least to some degree, or they will actually starve to death. We all need to eat to live.

But it’s true: some dogs are more interested in food than others: Labradors are known as “food hunters.” In fact, a recent study showed that this breed is more likely to have a strong interest in food because it has a specific genetic mutation associated with food obsession. (Flat-haired retrievers have it too, but it hasn’t been found in any other breed.) However, all dogs need to eat, so the first questions to ask are.

  • Why is my dog no longer interested in training treats?
  • Are there things I can do to increase my dog’s interest in training treats?
  • If I can’t get him more interested in the treats, or if he can’t get them right now for some reason, or if I inexplicably run out of treats, are there other reinforcers I can use in my training program?

There are several reasons why your dog may not seem motivated by food when training:

  • Medical causes. We always want to consider and rule out or treat all possible medical causes or factors contributing to a behavior problem, including anorexia. If your dog really has little or no interest in food, discuss this with your veterinarian as soon as possible if you have not already done so. There is a long list of possible medical reasons why your dog may not be interested in food, and some of them are very serious.
  • Treats are not of much value to your dog. You may have heard the suggestion to use your dog’s regular food for training. This may work well for a Labrador and other dogs that are very food-oriented, but for dogs that are not as interested in food, kibble may be too boring.
  • He will easily get bored with his precious treat. Some dogs get bored with many of the same treats (or are just too full to care). Make a list of the treats your dog finds most valuable, and when his interest in one treat wanes, switch to another.

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