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Do All Dogs Have Food Drive?

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Interesting question, so let’s spend a minute thinking about it.

I think we can agree that all animals must eat to survive, and that hunger is a driving force in making that happen.

But when we talk about food drive, are we really talking about hunger?  If yes, then why use yummy treats?  When I’m hungry I don’t need a bowl of ice cream; I need the most filling food possible.  If a dog works for food out of hunger, then any food will do.  And since I’m not a deprivation trainer, I have no intention of allowing a dog to go hungry in order to get behaviors.  I happen to find hunger more uncomfortable than physical pain – if I have a choice between a few shots or going without food all day, I’d take the shots.  With that in mind, I will not withhold food to get my dogs to work out of “hunger”.  I will, however, ask a dog to work for a meal that I plan to give to them anyway, if they are willing to work for it.  If not, they’ll still get it.

So what is usable food drive?  We’re talking about love of food – ice cream and snickers, not bread.  Most of my dogs enjoy delicious food.  They will eat pieces of cooked chicken even if they’ve just finished a huge meal.  That is because they are eating because they like food, not because they are hungry.

A dog that will eat tasty treats even though it’s not hungry – that dog has usable food drive for training.  Most dogs fall into this category.

A dog that will eat any food even though it is stuffed – that dogs has a very high food drive.

And a dog that only eats when it’s very hungry or in it’s cozy house with no distractions?  Does that dog have usable food drive?  I’d argue “no”.

Some dogs eat regardless of what is happening and others lose all appetite when they are excited.

That’s Lyra.  She likes food well enough but any competing alternatives will negate her food interest.  If I starved her I’m sure there would come a point when she’d work for food even with competing interests, but why would I do that?  Is that humane?  I don’t think so, especially if I can find alternatives that keep her in the game.  Honestly, if you’re training for sport, it makes no sense at all to train a dog that has to be subjected to chronic deprivation in order to work.  That dog isn’t cut out for competition, and that’s perfectly fine.

Some trainers have never seen a dog who lacked food drive.  I’m surprised by that because I see it rather often – maybe 10% of the dogs I train do not have usable food drive.

If you’ve really never seen it, take a look at this video.  For background, this dog is young; about a year of age.  We have tried just about every food known to man; from kibble to tripe to cheese,  chicken, beef, etc.  both cooked and raw.  In this video, we show her favorites sitting on the floor – there for the taking.  This includes dehydrated tripe strips,  freeze dried lamb lung, and a popular cookie. As you can see, she is not overweight. At seven pounds, there would be serious ethical/medical concerns about not offering food for an extended period of time.  On the morning of this session she had not been offered breakfast, so one would expect that she would be hungry.  She has been training for several months, and is comfortable in the room.  She does know a few behaviors – touch, up, sit, down, a bit of heeling, etc.  Fortunately she has some interest in work for the sake of work, so the work causes the eating rather than the other way around.  Offering food “marks” approval rather than rewarding her.

She eats enough to keep her alive.  She eats to live; she does not live to eat.  It’s important for dog trainers to recognize that this is a real phenomenon rather than suggesting that the owner just hasn’t found the right food or withheld enough meals.  Finding alternatives to food is a necessary skill for a trainer, and probably the hardest thing I need to do.

In this video, you’ll see that this dog could care less about the food laying around the room (which happens to include the food that is in the box).  What eventually captivates her and gets some work is the idea of “food as contest”; chasing the container, and curiosity about what might be in it.

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.

20 responses »

  1. So I have one of these….she has spit out $20/lb rabbit bites when shaping. At 3 years of age, I would say she see’s the offer of treats as a marker of “good” behavior but not as a reward, but that in itself was a long fought battle. She has toy drive up the wazoo. Her lack of interest in food has made teaching stationary behaviors challenging. My question is since I have a primary reinforcer (the toy, any toy) do I really care that she isn’t all that interested in food? Understanding that I have had to learn to be creative in rewarding certain behaviors, she has learned those behaviors. In reading your last blog post, I thought that was something I could try, but then the question arose…do I really care if she has food drive?

    • Interesting. I have a puppy who is unwilling to eat but has toy drive out the wazoo. Linda, would like to follow what you are doing. No idea how I am going to train this dog with little food interest.

  2. I’m not a trainer, but I’ve been around a lot of dogs and have found that most seem to have some sort of food drive. But my parent’s dog absolutely does not. She is terribly picky about her food and some days simply won’t eat. You can offer her the best food on earth (and we’ve tried it all) and she’ll just walk away from it. Once in awhile she’ll take a piece of it but half the time, forget it. She’s also not toy, ball, tug, or anything else motivated. Thankfully she landed in a place that is well suited for her: she’s the perfect lapdog. I cannot imagine how hard it would be to find something to motivate their dog.

    Thankfully my dog has pretty strong food drive. She doesn’t have a truly strong drive (in that she won’t work for low value treats if she’s not hungry), but pull out something fairly tasty, like a bit of turkey hot dog and she’s up and ready to go.

  3. Thank you! There are so many people who think if the dog isn’t working for food then the dog must be fat or you must be doing it wrong.

    But, I do want to add that I think it’s possible to build more food drive. Most dogs who aren’t all that willing to work for food still get excited by their food dish as that is practiced twice a day.
    I’ve also successfully premacked the swallowing of a treat to get a ball. And while I don’t think that would work with every dog, my toller will now usually take treats even when excited by his ball and doing so increased the value of the treats so that he usually takes them eagerly.

  4. I like these comments. Yes, I think food drive can be built and yes, you can train without it and it surely makes you more creative, but I like as many options as possible.

  5. Great writing and love the video, especially the point about the hunting for and hiding the food, it seems to really engage the dog rather than just being presented with it. I know of someone whose dog was not very interested in food but she pursued the point that the dog needed to like food when being trained to the point where food became an aversive to the dog. I think the dog expressed its thoughts well when it urinated on the food container!

  6. Very interesting video. I’ve always been one of those who thought that those who said their dogs were not food motivated just weren’t doing it right; I stand corrected. All the dogs I’ve trained would work for dirt, but mostof them have been retrievers (assorted). My older flat-coat, Lia, is far more motivated by a tennis ball than by food delivered to hand, but when I click & then toss the food so she has to snatch it out of the air it trumps even the ball.

  7. That is really cool and interesting. Since I’m relatively new to dog training, all I can say is that my dog is awesome! She is not a chow hound and doesn’t overeat, but she will work for food and likes some stuff better than others. For a new trainer I think it would have been challenging/frustrating to have a dog that doesn’t have much food drive. I’m glad to have food as a tool to work with as I’m still learning how to use all the tools available to me to train Soba.

  8. I’ve worked with a few dogs that weren’t food motivated. All but one were herding or sighthounds, plus, amazingly, one Dalmatian. All of my Dals have loved food and would split a seam to earn more. The current darling is the same way, but just the same, I am always exploring new delectibles. The current favorite is marshmallows.

  9. I have interacted with quite a few dogs that were either too timid to eat or were supposedly picky. Unless the dog is super timid I found that the “right” treat does the trick. “Right”
    can either be something tasty that’s new to the dog (Wellness Venison treats most recently) and sometime you have to go all the way to the fat trimming off a costco rotisserie chicken. Alphonse, my 16mo old bernse is definitely food motivated, but when I was teaching him to swim (he did not like the idea at all) it took chicken trimmings to convince him to get into the pool.

    • I’ve come back to here from Behaviour Chains Part 9.

      I would say that this attitue (all you need is the ‘right treat; has caused more surrenders of dogs than you could shake a stick at, and more misery to these dogs owners than they deserve.

      I’ve had several dogs with such lo ‘food drive’ that they have almost starved themselves to death. (And yes, vets D see dogs with life threatening anorexia).

      With one of my dogs we at least *thought* she was eating her meals — but after she died we discovered many many buried meals in the back yard.

      With another dog I did indeed ‘teach’ him to take treats — by ONLY throwing his ball for him IF he swallowed the food treat. Hmm. But three treats in a row and he was out of there — and come back with SOMETHING/ANYTHING to throw. When I trained with him in Agility I had to be sure to only ever train on an empty stomach or after a small amount of work he’s vomit anything remaining in hs stomach.

      This dog and another one both developed a ‘food drive’ as they aged.

      With my current two, the dog is happy to work for food treats, the bitch much prefers praise and petting. (OK, she’s a strange little timid thing. She wants to be offered treats when the other dogs are given them, but as often as not she acknowledges them but declines.)

  10. Thank you for writing this! I got my standard poodle when he was 7 months old, and he was almost totally uninterested in food, was afraid to play tug (he’d been too often yelled at for picking up kids’ toys in his mouth), and was distracted/overstimulated by everything in the world. When I started to transition him from the kibble he’d been eating onto a higher-quality kibble, he picked every one of the old kibbles out of the bowl and left the new ones behind.

    He’s now 3 years old, and after lots of hard work (and lots of great advice gleaned from your blog and Susan Garrett’s) I’ve got a dog who has some food drive, but will also work for toy play, personal play, physical contact, and the opportunity to do well-known trained behaviors. It’s been tough (and I’ve often doubted my abilities as a trainer), but it’s made me a much better trainer. I find myself more easily able to work with new dogs, since I am well practiced at using my voice and movements as reinforcers.

    I also want to put out there that some dogs are just motivated by different foods than “the usual.” My dog still thinks most real meat is not food (he’ll spit it out or not even take it in his mouth), but he’d leap over burning coals for a bite of apple or banana or peach. But as he gets older, he’s accepting more and more new foods, especially if he sees other dogs eating them.

  11. My dogs have always loved food, but when it comes to working for it their love isn’t very consistent. Once by first dog got the idea that work was fun, then any reward is great. My new one hasn’t gotten the “fun” part yet, but I have always been able to get her driven when the food is moving. She’s a hunting breed (GSP) and always loves the thrill of chasing down a cheese ball! Same idea as the dog in the video, if the treat is fun to get then the game is on!

  12. Hmmm, ‘driven by food’ or lured by food – that is the question.

  13. In the words of Dr. Grant in “Jurassic Park,” “T.Rex doesn’t want to be fed, he wants to hunt. Can’t just suppress sixty five million years of gut instinct.” 🙂

    Katie (one of Minka’s dog parents)

  14. Something else to keep in mind, though the occurrence is probably quite rare: When at CDSP obedience trials a few months ago, I met a woman with a nice Rottie. She said that the dog was found to have a brain anomaly that meant he always “felt full” and therefore was never hungry. The owner said it took a lot of coaxing and hand-feeding to keep the dog at a normal weight and that treat rewards were not motivating in any way.

  15. Thanks for another great post!

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  17. Pingback: Behavior Chains, Part 9 | Denise Fenzi

  18. I also have a dog who had to acquire food drive. For him it was going to Puppy Agility Foundations class and seeing all the other pups earn rewards. He sees food as a “gold Star” for a good achievement. So if he is in “learning mode” he wants his “Gold Stars”. For him praise and party-ing are the most high value rewards generally. Also he is a fussy eater and generally will not touch liver. But at a recent DWD workshop, the instructor took him to demo something. He is an adult ACD and generally will not work for others. He waivered and then decided to give it a go and then he really wanted his reward and so he gobbled down her liver 🙂 But he has an even less developed toy drive, unfortunately.


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