Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
In dog training classes, a time may come when trainers stumble upon dogs who refuse to take treats. This may be a frustrating situation for the owner, especially when all other dogs are drooling and eager to do what it takes to get a rewarding tidbit. What causes this refusal, and what can be done about it?
Luckily, experienced trainers have some tips up their sleeves, but not always will they work. I have had dogs over for board and training who failed miserably in classes because they weren't taking treats. It's unfortunate that the owners tossed their money for little or no results. First and foremost, what's the role of treats in classes?
In dog training, food can be used for various tasks. In luring, food is shown to elicit the dog to assume the correct positions for a sit or a down. The food is delivered once the dog assumes the correct position. Once the dog repeats several times, the use of food as a lure can be faded gradually as hand motions/verbal cues are used alone or combined to guide the dog as muscle memory sets in.
For those who erroneously think that using food in training is bribery, they are definitely doing something wrong, this article is a must read: the difference between luring and bribery.
After using food for luring, it no longer should be in sight, and can be given exclusively as a reward. The food becomes a form of communication which tells to the dog that he has done a good job. Positive reinforcement causes behaviors to repeat as dogs look forward to the pleasant consequence.
The ABC of dog training, tell us that the cue to sit (verbal command or hand motion) is the antecedent, the action of sitting is the behavior and the food reward is the consequence. Therefore, in order to have a dog perform and repeat, you better have food the dog likes and a food-motivated dog!
On top of that, food can also be used for behavior modification, by creating positive associations with stimuli--and not only. Famous dog trainer Victoria Stillwell claims
" Food has a powerful effect on brain chemistry which encourages dogs to learn and helps them overcome emotional states such as fear and anxiety (the root cause of most aggression)". For more on this read "the use of food for behavior modification."
So as seen, food is very important in training and in behavior modification, but not necessarily essential though as other forms of rewards may be reinforcing enough for the dog to work for.
In the next paragraphs, we will go over how to help dogs who are not motivated by food and/or who categorically refuse treats.
Why is my Dog Refusing Treats?
Before going into how to get dogs to readily accept treats, we shall cover the reasons why dogs may refuse treats. This is a very important step. There are believers that investigating why dogs behave in certain ways is a pointless activity, but I really think that finding the underlying cause reveals important subtleties that point you in the right direction when it comes to solutions. So why is my dog refusing treats? Let's see some possible causes.
1: Your dog is not feeling well
Just as people, dogs can have their off days too. It could be your dog is a bit nauseous or had a bit of an upset tummy. Some dogs will not take crunchy treats if they have tooth problems as they have associated with pain. If your dog has always been eager to eat treats, and now he is turning his head away, consider this as a possibility. Seeing your vet for problems is important and I think the most fundamental step before assuming the dog just doesn't like food. Sometimes, finicky eaters have an underlying digestive problem that has been causing them to turn their nose up at food for some time.
2: You got a bad batch
If your dog has always loved a certain type of treat and now doesn't want anything to do with it, suspect not feeling well, but also consider you may have gotten a bad batch. A while back, I recall a client telling me how her dog no longer wanted to eat her food. As usual, I told her to see her vet, but that evening I surfed the net only to find out that that particular food had been recalled!
Dogs have great noses, and if they smell something not right, they may turn their nose up at it. Always give your dog the benefit of doubt. In some cases, it could be though something minor as failing to keep the treat bag sealed well causing the treats to go stale or not smelling at their peak of freshness.
3: Value of food has decreased
Do you keep your dog's food out all day so he can nibble on it whenever he wants? If that's the case, food may appear boooring. Imagine going to the Chinese buffet every Sunday. Most likely, you look forward to it all week.
Now, imagine instead working for a Chinese buffet and having access to that food all day long. Your boss says you can eat anything from the buffet, anytime and as much as you want as a perk for working there. Chances are, you will get sick of that food sooner than later, and that, that would be the last place you would want to dine on your Sunday.
Same can happen to Rover. Free-feeding often takes away value of food because it's always available. And if you always use the same types of treats, your dog can soon get bored of them as well.
4: Your dog is over threshold
Is your dog in group classes when he refuses food? Chances are, he is over threshold and too emotionally affected to eat treats. He may be overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety, stress, over arousal or excitement which are causing his digestive system to shut down. The sight of other people and dogs or just being in a new place may cause several dogs to feel this way.
Same can happen on walks, or if a trainer comes in your home for private classes and your dog doesn't do too well with people coming into his territory. This is one of the most common cause of dogs refusing treats I see, after ruling out medical issues.
4: Not high-value enough
Another very common issue is not using treats that are high-value enough. In classes, you may stumble upon owners bringing along the dog's usual kibble that is fed 365 days a year. The dogs often respond accordingly, with little or no interest.
Kibble may perhaps work at home, in a low-distraction environment, but in classes with so much going on, owners need to kick their treats up a few notches. In classes, owners were often surprised by their dog's response once I handed some high-value dog training treats such as freeze-dried liver or greet tripe treats.
How to Get Your Dog to Eat Treats
Depending on the underlying cause, getting your dog to eat treats for training will take different approaches. The following are some ideas on how to make treats appear more valuable from Rover's perspective. And if your dog is truly not very food motivated, there are also some other options to reward him for wanted behaviors. Let's see some of them.
- Have your dog see the vet. As mentioned, above, some dogs who are finicky may have some form of underlying digestive issue or other health problem. Try to turn a bit into detective to help your vet. Does your dog refuse only crunchy treats? There may a dental disorder in play or perhaps his ears may be bothering him since chewing can aggravate ear pain. Is your dog aging? Chances are his sense of smell may be deteriorating. Is he drooling or licking his lips? Your dog may have nausea.
- Check your treats. Are they expired? Did you keep it open and they have become stale? Check online if there were any recent recalls. Don't force your dog to eat them; he most likely has a good reason why he no longer likes them. Try a different type or make your own.
- Increase value of food. When training in class, there are many distractions going on; far more than in your living room. Give up kibble or those stale cookies you have given him for a lifetime. Try liver, chicken, hot dogs, string cheese, steak. Things that make your dog drool and that he doesn't get on a routine basis. Even better, offer a variety of treats that will surprise him as you dole them out of your unpredictable treat bag.
- Lower the threshold. Often, being so close to other dogs may cause dogs to feel anxious, stressed or two aroused. Good trainers can change settings so to increase distance or may use visual barriers to help these dogs out. At times, certain dogs do better in private classes ate first and then other dogs can be gradually added in the picture. A trainer's dog is often composed and calm enough to be used for help in cases of dogs who get overwhelmed around hyper dogs. Some timid dogs may also dislike eating from people's hands and do better if the treats are tossed on the ground.
- Make other dogs pig out. The basenji, Siberian husky and the Yorkie are some breeds known for lifting their noses at certain foods. I remember a dog we had in class a few years ago. When offered food, no matter how good, she would turn her head the other way or take the treat and spit it. When I asked the owner to take a few steps away from the other people training just to see if space was an issue, another owner moved straight to her spot and her dog gobbled up in seconds ALL the treats she had left behind and even looked for more. The finicky carefully watched this dog gobble up all her food, and then it was as if a switch turned on and she had learned a lesson. It almost seemed as if she must have thought: "gosh, if I don't eat my treats another dog will!" and therefore she started eating all the treats that were tossed her way after that. Not saying this is a recommended approach as I feel it may encourage food guarding in the long term, but in that single case, this accidental happening seemed to have helped this dog put eating treats into better perspective, making them appear more valuable. Looks like this quote applies to dogs as well! "Only when you lose something, do you realize the value of it."- Tulha Looji
- Reward for taking treats. This may seem odd, but I had a very shy dog once who was very reluctant to take treats. When she started taking some, I rewarded her lavishly for doing so and from then on she started loving treats and even started taking them on walks.
- Give a sample. When I worked for the vet, I recall sick dogs and cats were often enticed to eat by rubbing their gums with a little bit of canned food. Once they got a taste of it, they then started asking for more. At times, when I am stuck with a dog who won't take treats on walks and no progress is being made no matter how hard I work on making the walks more relaxing (these are dogs who have been nervous walkers all their lives) , I get a bit of canned food and just place it gently right inside their lips. Things usually improve dramatically after that.
- Skip the meal prior to class. Some trainers suggest to skip the meal prior to class. So if class is say, Saturday morning, try to skip breakfast that morning, you can then give a part of it when you come back.
- Last but not least, try other forms of rewards. When owners tell me their dog is not food motivated, they often haven't tried hard enough to find the right treats or their dog is so overweight, they care less about eating more or any other reasons listed above. However, there are times where dogs may enjoy a game of tug or loads of praise enough to work for those. Sight hounds for instance, love a game with the flirt pole, and some ball obsessed dogs may love to sit in exchange for you tossing the ball. Learn what your dog loves the most and use it to your advantage. Does Rover love spending time in the yard? Ask him for a sit before opening the door. Does he want to go play with your other dog? Ask him to lie down first and them release him to play--and so forth.
As seen, there are several options to help dogs enjoy treats or other rewards to help them reap the rewards of dog training. Don't give up!
© 2014 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 24, 2014:
Awesome job DDE! How did you let them know they did a good job? Sounds like you had a very strong bond.
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on May 24, 2014:
When I had my dogs I trained them and did not give them treats they were so obedient and well behaved.
Elizabeth Parker from Las Vegas, NV on May 23, 2014:
Very helpful hub, although my dogs all love treats!! There is a dog that we dog-sit who refuses treats. (However, he's so well behaved, there's no need to train him)! :)
Dr Mark from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on May 23, 2014:
Great ideas, thanks.