We have all heard people say, “My dog just isn’t really food motivated”. While all dogs have to eat to live and so they are essentially all food motivated, it is true that in some cases, you might find that a dog whose nutrition needs are generally well met, is MORE motivated by other things in the environment at a particular time, such as chasing squirrels, playing with other dogs or a particular toy or even sniffing interesting smells, than by the food the owner is offering. You may also find that a dog is not able to take food in a particular situation due to stress (arousal of the autonomic nervous system), which is a clear indication that the dog is not coping in that environment. BUT in many cases that I have observed, the dog’s lack of interest comes from something which can be prevented – the dog viewing the offer of food as “SPAM”.
What do I mean by this? I am referring to constantly offering food to dogs as a lure, but actually rewarding with the food seldom/never/far too late. Many times, I have watched someone trying to get their distracted dog’s attention: they will wave the treat in front of the dog’s nose and then ask the dog to “watch me” as the food is raised towards their face. However, rather than marking and instantly rewarding the second they have the dog’s attention, the person will then try to hold the focus for a while or ask the dog to sit or do something else. Immediately, you see the “light” go out of the dog’s eyes and they start to sniff the ground, watch something else or give up completely. The dog has learned that the “promise” of food is false, because compliance does NOT result in them getting the food.
If a dog is struggling to pay attention and respond in a training situation, luring them with food and then failing to feed them when they comply, is effectively desensitizing the dog to a food lure – they learn that the food has no relevance – it may look and smell good, but following it won’t result in acquiring it, so the food becomes an irrelevant stimulus. In this case, food is very much like SPAM MAIL: the first time we get an email telling us that we have won the UK Lottery, have a tax refund due, an inheritance from some distant relative or a fantastic business investment opportunity, we may very well get a bit excited and investigate further. But when the promise of a reward is revealed to be a lie on closer investigation, we become immune to such emails and quickly consign them to our SPAM folder.
When handlers or dog owners constantly promise rewards, but never/seldom follow through on those promises by actually rewarding the dog, we are effectively causing our dogs to consign food treats to the SPAM bin. The dog learns to discard such promises and food loses its value in the training process. It is seldom the case that owners or handlers are intentionally refusing to reward their dogs, but more often that they are PUSHING FOR MORE BEFORE THEY GIVE THE REWARD. The key to successful training, especially with a dog that is easily distracted, is to start with LOW criteria and a HIGH RATE OF REINFORCEMENT. You want to reward absolutely any bit of focus, compliance or attention immediately and a lot. DON’T HOLD OUT FOR MORE when you are just getting started or YOU WILL LOSE YOUR DOG’S FOCUS.
So, if you have a distracted dog, ask yourself if you are expecting too much before you reward. Show your dog that food is relevant and that you are not making false promises, by instantly reinforcing any tiny bit of focus or compliance – literally just looking in your direction is a good start. I guarantee that the more you reward, the more responsive your dog will become!