Rethinking Treats: How to Train Your Dog Even When They Refuse Food on Walks

by 23 Jan, 2024

A common concern among dog owners is that their dog doesn’t eat food on walks. How can we train a dog that doesn’t take food?! In many contexts, food can be our most efficient reinforcer, so if our dog doesn’t want to eat, this can present a challenge! However, if your dog is physically healthy and generally food-motivated at home, there are several strategies that you can employ to overcome this hurdle. Let’s delve into some key points that will give you “food for thought” on this nuanced topic.

1. Training Food Fluency

Although we rarely view it this way, eating is a behaviour, much like sitting or fetching, and we can build it up, just like we can build any other skill! Like with all good dog training, we need to start at a point where the dog can be successful: to develop food fluency, start in an environment where your dog feels comfortable (e.g., at home) and gradually introduce more challenging scenarios, ensuring that your dog is always set up for success. This approach helps your dog associate treats with a positive training experience, regardless of the environment.

2. Understanding Thresholds

A common reason why dogs might refuse food in certain situations is due to intense emotions such as excitement or overwhelm. If your dog is stressed or distracted in the presence of certain triggers, they may not accept food. The key is to find a comfortable distance from these triggers where your dog is aware of them but unconcerned. This distance will vary for each dog, and recognising it is crucial for effective training.

3. Improving Treat Delivery

How you offer treats can make a big difference! Many dogs may find it difficult to take food from pinched fingers, for example, and offering food in an open palm can make it much easier for them. Similarly, many dogs feel less social pressure when offered food tossed on the floor as opposed to taking it from the human’s hand – the goal is to make accessing treats as easy and as conflict-free as possible.

4. Avoid Reinforcing Food Refusal

“My dog won’t take food, so I just give him a toy instead” – be mindful of your reactions when your dog refuses food. Accidentally rewarding this behaviour – whether by offering a better treat, a toy, or releasing them to explore – can reinforce food refusal. It’s essential to analyse and adjust your response to ensure it aligns with your training goals.

Remember, eating is a behaviour, and food fluency can be developed with patience and the right techniques. If you’re struggling with training your dog in certain contexts, don’t hesitate to seek assistance from a qualified professional!

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