Rewarding the dog that doesn't respond to food
When we think of positive reinforcement for dog training, we often picture dogs being fed as their reward. Treats for training are of course a super useful and easy way to praise a dog, but what do you do if your dog doesn’t respond to food?
Some dogs are very motivated by food and will work hard to earn it, while others are less keen, and food rewards do not have the same effect on them. In this situation, the first step is to examine exactly what food you are using to treat your dog – some people simply use kibble, the same as their dog’s everyday food. While this works for some dogs, it is better to have treats that are of ‘higher value’ for training.
If the dog is not responding to bought training treats, try presenting treats of even higher value: small scraps of cooked meat (as long as there aren’t any bones in it), sprats, and liver cake are all good choices that may pique your dog’s interest in working with you.
Should this not work, there are many other ways in which you can reward your dog – ideally these should form a part of your day-to-day routine and training anyway, as they help to keep life fresh and interesting for your dog.
Toys are a great way to offer reward to your dog. Having a specific toy for walks or training sessions is a great idea, and toys that allow interaction between owner and dog (such as ‘tug’ toys) can engage the dog in a fun game, while releasing endorphins that are associated with positive experiences.
Petting your dog has a similar effect: it triggers the release of the hormone oxytocin, which is involved in social bonding. Many dogs are not strongly rewarded enough by petting for it to be used in their training, but for some this can work, and is another potential reward if they are not interested in food.
Another way to train a dog that is not motivated by food is using the Premack Principle. This involves using a behaviour that a dog really wants to do, to reinforce a behaviour that the dog is less inclined to do. A good example of this is when playing fetch with a dog: the dog has to return the toy to the owner (a behaviour that the dog finds less desirable) to be able to chase it again (a behaviour that the dog finds very desirable). The Premack Principle does have its limitations and there are many scenarios in which it may not be appropriate, but for basic training it can provide an alternative to food rewards.
Every dog is different, and figuring out the reward that works best for your own dog will make your training more effective. This is especially relevant if your dog doesn’t respond to food rewards, but experimenting with different positive reinforcers is good practice regardless of this.