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I know that 90% of you take food training for granted.  Food shows up and your dog gets happy.  For most people that is a good thing, since food is the easiest way to rapidly acquire a range of behaviors needed for a performance dog.

I have one of the 10% that doesn’t care all that much about food.  She eats to live rather than living to eat.  It is possible to acquire behaviors without pronounced food interest, but it brings challenges.  The environment needs to be tightly controlled, sessions need to be very short, and patience must be in abundance.

On the plus side, lack of food interest pretty much forces a person to develop the dog’s alternative interests and to learn the absolute best ways to manage the dog’s behavior.  Lots of trial and error is required here since each dog is an individual.  Indeed, even with the same dog, strategies should change frequently, depending on the dog’s skill level, maturity and focus at any given time.

I’d pretty much given up on training Lyra with food.  I had found ways to work around it and she had a high percentage of the skills that I normally use food to acquire.

And then I found myself teaching an on-line class, where I made statements like: “the more motivators you have, the more options you have” and ” a dog with balanced drives in all areas gives the most flexibility in training” and “building up all of a dog’s drives to their maximum levels allows the most flexibility in training” and “the drives you use are the ones you build.”

The first homework assignment included a few questions such as:

“What are the motivators you use the most?” and “which of your dog’s motivators are strongest?”

Not surprisingly, there was a very strong correlation between a dog’s strongest interests and the motivators the trainers chose most frequently.

Since I’m using Lyra as my demo dog for class, I did the homework assignments as well.

So here’s what this esteemed professional trainer discovered – the one who assigned the homework:

I’m guilty of exactly what I tell people to avoid – I abandoned training and playing with food altogether.  I spent so much energy on toys and personal play that I built them up very nicely, and I probably hadn’t used a cookie in a month.

Wake up call.

After completing the homework assignment a few weeks ago, ,I got the food back out.  I worked on her play skills in a dull environment with nothing else to do.  I used the food as  a toy – I used it to reward simple behaviors in the house where we rarely work.  I reinstated some clicker training work – high reinforcement schedule and a couple of new behaviors, shaped entirely with food.

And guess what?  When I said “cookie” the other day, she snapped around and looked at me with her ears up.  She CARED.  When I locked her out of my bedroom to train another dog with food, she sat by the door and complained -she wanted her turn.

And for those of you who love to train with food – I sure see why.  It’s easy.  Effective.  Takes no time and space.  Hell, I didn’t  even stand up.  And my dog has much better shaping skills than I realized – watching her tail gently wave as she tries to understand what I want – very nice.

Pretty sad when you have to teach a class to take your own advice: Aim for balance.   Better late than never.

About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.

16 responses »

  1. I have been using no food (well, only for coming back from chasing game) since you said all those words at the LA seminar. Similar reaction from my girl: she is much more intent to interact with me and with toys when food isn’t an alternative. For now, still in low distraction places, but occassionally even in higher distraction environments. Maybe you should sell T shirts?

  2. YES balance
    YES joy
    YES Professor Fenzi

    seem to be saying it daily lately – thank you!

  3. One of the most easy ways to reward good behaviour rapidly. One thing, there is no such thing as a dog that does not work for food. I know people who say that, but it is just not true.
    (I know, if your dog has had a meal of kibble and you try to train with kibble, of course they are not hungry) Have you heard if they are alive they like food! Is your dog hungry and is the food good? When we train, we use at least 3 or 4 different kinds of food. One low value, med and high. Depending on the behaviour, if the dog likes the behaviour, you won’t have to get out the good food. But, if the dog does not like the behaviour such as walking politely on leash, (after all what dog does not want to sniff?) then bring out the high value treat. Depending on the level of training, sometimes a toy, is much better motivation. (if your dog likes to play) Using a clicker to mark the behaviour, and then either a treat and toy comes out as the reward. It works the same way. However if you want five reps of a behaviour quickly, food will do it. Make sure it is small soft food. Not hard kibble or a whole steak that will take time to eat.
    Yes, it is about what works for your dog. Good points overall!

    • Agree. No such thing as a dog not liking food. You Must have very good treats and a hungry dog. Makes sure the dog is not over weight also. I have had students say that their dog does not like food and I have proven them wrong since they like my food.

      • got to disagree at some level, I had an old search and rescue dog that was generally unmotivated by food, he often refused a daily meal if he didn’t want it and food could not keep his attention in training. I could and did use food in low intensity situations and as he got much older food would motivate him but never at the same level as a stick or tug

      • Agreed. Not all dogs are that motivated by food. Some just aren’t big eaters and are always on the low end of normal weight range. Others have health problems or anxiety issues. So unless you starve some dogs, they’re not going to work for food. And even then, they still might not work for food. Dogs over threshold shut down and food is the last thing from their minds. To insist that a dog enjoys what you want them to find motivating makes no sense. What is the problem with using what the dogs finds most motivating?

    • I agree 100% and never give a treat bigger than your little fingernail. Just a small taste makes them work for more.

  4. LOL! The journey–always something new. 🙂

  5. I think YOU taught me to make the food come “alive” for Loki. I rarely place it in his mouth or let him take it from my hand. I toss it so he jumps for it. YOU taught me that. It’s funny how we abandon things when we’re having fun developing in other areas. I wonder if being locked out of the fun had more to do with it than the food. Sometimes I think it’s the ONLY reason why my husky better in obedience than most huskies. Because she’s envious of time spent with ME. She has a HUGE food drive NOW, but when I first got her, she had NONE. But 1:1 time with me was her biggest motivator. She wanted what Loki had: Mom time. And while food is now pretty strong for her, she’s still motivated by sibbling jealousy (in a balanced healthy way of course).

    I swear i’m signing up for class soon. I need more time to settle in.

  6. Barb VanEseltine

    Enjoyable reading, as always!

  7. pauline hosenfeld

    great post and great discussion. I have a pup who cares more deeply about his toys than the food he needs to grow and thrive. I do use food in our training – what I remember most from earlier seminars with Denise is the advice not to over-use food – unit of effort = unit of reward, and if you use food, to use it in an exciting and motivating manner. No just handing off food to baby Chase! and he loves the more exciting way we use it in our training games. thanks, Denise!

  8. All dogs care about food. I’ve seen a few people use food in a very effective way for competitive dog sports. It’s amazing what they’ve been able to do with treats as rewards. Of course, they are very good at what they are doing. From what I’ve observed, they know how and when to increase the requirements for the dog. I think that’s the key to using food as a motivator and as a reward – knowing how and when to increase requirements.

    I see many people going back to easier steps in training with their dogs much, much, too quickly. So the dogs get lots of treats while their behavior is diminishing or staying the same and not getting more precise for the competition ring. I can see this in others, because I used to do it all the time myself…until it was pointed out to me. Using food takes skill to be effective for competition purposes. I think food gets a bad rap, because so many people aren’t able to use it effectively to increase precision and endurance for the ring.

  9. Thanks for this post! I had grown very wary of food, having used it badly and with poor results, even though my boy has lovely food drive. I was the problem, not him. I’m an observer in the class you mentioned and am looking forward to learning more about creating “food play,” not simply dropping it in the dog’s mouth.

  10. I am an observer too and filled out the homework assignment. Turned out I lied. I thought I used toy play a lot, food play some and little personal play. So I filled out what I felt was right and then all week found out I do personal play a ton. When I mentioned this to one of my students taking the course too, she told me she knew I was a personal play person , so how come I didn’t know that ?-:) Video never lies !

    Mona with cubby the oxen of a Pom

  11. I’m an observer in the course, too. Learning loads and enjoying it greatly!!

  12. I found that as Dazzle matured, his caring about food has gradually increased. As a pup he would work for very high value food in a quiet environment, but still very much preferred toys/play and I tried EVERYTHING! I was one that thought that if the dog is not motivated by food, the trainer is doing something wrong or hasn’t found the right food. 🙂

    Then after about 6 months of age, I had to work just to get him to eat his meals and to keep him from throwing up bile because he was not eating. Even got him vet checked. Around 3 yrs old, his interest in his meals started to come back slowly and now he will usually eat his meals (though not always). And these days he will do more work for high value treats in public (lamb lung, tripe, bits of cooked meat, some canned food, etc.). This may be partly because I didn’t want to give up my food crutch so I just kept trying to use food rewards 🙂 Even when he only took it politely and spit it on the floor. But I think it is also tied to maturity. I still wouldn’t call him “food motivated” though. It’s just not high on his priorities list, no matter what it is. And I think that is one of the lessons he was meant to teach me (not all dogs are food motivated).


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