As you know, food is a powerful tool in dog training. One of the main reasons that food works in reinforcing behaviour is that dogs find eating pleasurable, much like humans do. Some food will produce a more pleasurable internal response than other, for example, most dogs would prefer a piece of cooked chicken over a piece of dried kibble. Now, because dogs need to eat, we can use their daily food (e.g. kibble) as a means to train them.
So what if your dog isn’t interested in food? One of the reasons is that many dogs in the western world are over fed and most of them are well fed. If your dog gets all of his food in a bowl once or twice a day, why would he or should he work for the same food when he is outside and you want to train him? If you had a job where you were able to sit with your feet up on the desk all day, reading the newspaper and surfing the internet and were paid handsomely for it, your boss would have a pretty hard time motivating you to do work for him. One of the ways he could motivate you is to start to withhold your wags until you start doing the work required of you and then pay you when the work is done.
Your pet dog’s job is to be a good dog. When you think about it, it’s about what he’s expected not to do, rather than what to do, in the most basic of relationships with you. Most pet owners can live without competition level obedience. We can live without our dogs being able to perform complex tasks. However, what we should expect is that our dog doesn’t mug us or our visitors, doesn’t run out the door when it is open, doesn’t chew our furniture, shoes or dig up our carpets, comes back when we call, and isn’t reactive to other dogs and people (in an ideal world, most of us would want our dogs to be friendly to other dogs and people, but for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll talk about minimum standards).
If your dog is well behaved and does most of the above most of the time, then we’re on the right track. If he doesn’t, one way to help him get there is to motivate him through hunger. I’m not for a second advocating starving our dogs, but making him have slight hunger pangs for a short period of time will prove beneficial in the long run. Dogs who are not well behaved (by our standards, not the dog’s), tend to be physically restrained/excluded or man handled by their owners more than their well trained counterparts. There can also be the tendency for frustrated owners to shout at their dogs more. This in turn can lead to an increase in adrenalin and cortisol (stress hormones) in the dog’s bodies, which can cause many health problems such as cancers and heart disease. As a trainer, I’m always looking for the least aversive way to train a dog. Given the alternatives of making a well fed, ill behaved, stressed dog a little hungry for a few days and using a more physically punitive method such as a choke chain, I’ll always choose the hunger.
How do we do this to minimise hunger and stress to the dog? Rather than have the dog eat from a bowl twice a day, we measure out the dog’s daily portion of food and ask him to work for each piece. Well fed dogs can go several days before feeling hungry, but as long as we’re offering the food to the dog, the dog has the choice to take it or not. The criteria for feeding initially can be something as basic as not jumping, not barking or not pulling ( see https://glasgowdogtrainer.wordpress.com/2012/04/11/the-power-of-all-or-none-reward-training/ for more details). We’re not asking the dog to work for loads of complicated behaviours, just basic manners. As the dog starts to feel hungry, he’ll feel a sense of satisfaction internally when he is fed, we then use the power of this internal feeling to motivate him to train. After a few days of feeding your dog in this way, you’ll probably see a change in his willingness to work for food. The first day he might take very little or no food from your hand, remember, we’re only requiring really basic behaviour. Day two he might feel a bit more hungry and might take a bit more, but still not his full daily ration. By day three of four, you’ll probably find that he is willingly taking most food you offer him from your hand. We can also put some of the food in chew toys such as Kongs so we are training him to chew appropriate items.
Now, with this as with all training, you need to start in a very low distraction environment. This could be your kitchen, living room, front garden or a place your dog is really familiar with. If the level of distraction is too high, the dog is very likely to be far more interested in what’s going on than the food you have in your hand. As he regularly starts to take food from you, you can gradually increase the level of distraction. When you have the dog that you want and are happy with, he has earned the food in a bowl.