Without the ability to use food to reward my dogs, they would have a much harder time learning and training. Dogs and other animals come into this world loving food and nourishment. If they don’t there is usually an illness or pathology. So why do so many of my clients tell me their dogs don’t want to eat their basic meals or take treats? Read through these 13 reasons your dog isn’t food-motivated to learn all about it.
Boredom: Why Your Dog isn’t Food Motivated
#1 Free Feeding/ Grazing – This is the most common mistake I see dog owners make with regard to feeding. Free feeding goes against everything a dog stands for. Hunting, foraging and scavenging is in their DNA. Leaving food down all the time devalues their food and removes any urgency to eat when food is available. It is also boring, boring, boring. If your dog refuses food, pick it up after about 10 minutes as a consequence for inaction. Remember eating is a behavior. A negative consequence for not responding to the food offering often does the trick.
#2 Ditch the Food Bowl – Think about why you are using a standard dog food bowl in the first place. We use bowls and plates as humans but why do we put our dog’s food in them? If we think about the previous issues, boredom was a part of each issue. This is a great opportunity to ditch the food bowl and introduce feeding solutions like licki-bowls, slow feeders, snuffle bowls, and enrichment devices to eat out of. These toys and slow feeders help encourage sniffing, problem solving, and help improve your dog’s behavior at home.
Many dogs prefer to work for their food. Remember the hunting and scavenging I mentioned earlier? I am not advocating for you to go hunting for vermin or looking for trash but to offer safe and fun substitutes that mentally stimulate your dog more than a boring food bowl.
#3 They don’t like their food – It can be this simple. Most dog owners simply feed the same ultra-processed dry dog food to their dogs over and over with little variation. This is not only not good for their health, but it is an easy way to bore your dog. Dogs, like us do best with a variety of food types that include different amino acids profiles that can’t be achieved with a single formula of food. Changing flavors, brands, food types( raw, wet, dry) makes it far less likely your dog will snub their noses at you the next time you put the food bowl down.
You May Have Created Your Picky Eater
#4 You trained them to say no– What do you do in the event your dogs turns their nose to the food you put down? There are many good reasons your dog may not want to eat when you offer them food. Your response to this is what can create a picky eater.
Let’s look at this more closely. You put food down, your dog says no, and you add something yummy on top because you want your dog to eat. You have told your dog that if they refuse to eat they are likely to get something better. Why wouldn’t your dog learn to say no next time? So no matter why your dog says no to their food, I advise not to respond with better food. Wait until later, either a few hours or the next meal and try again. You can add whatever you want this time but stick to your guns if they say no again. Do not pressure them to eat!
#5 There is Too Much Pressure – Not only does giving your dog better food after they say no train them to refuse food in the future, but it is also forcing them to eat when they have already said no. I advise listening to your dog and giving them a choice in the matter. No one likes to be forced to do anything and there are plenty of other likely reasons your dog isn’t food motivated at the time. Choice is one of the most underrated gifts you can give your dog. If you pressure them around meal time they will start to have a negative association with it.
Medical Reasons Your Dog isn’t Food Motivated
6. Teeth issues – Up to 80-90% of dogs over the age of 3 have periodontal disease and many breeds are prone to having poor dental health. Your dog may have dental issues. This is something I have battled with my rescued chihuahua. She not only had pretty poor teeth genetically but who ever owned her first didn’t take care of them well. Sadly, after many extractions, we had to remove all her teeth. Coincidentally, her mood, behavior, and desire to eat most foods greatly improved after all her bothersome teeth were removed.
7. Gastrointestinal problems – GI issues can be rather painful. It can lead to a host of behavioral issues including inappetence, poor mood, and even aggression. If your dogs is also suddenly showing signs of unusual or aggressive behavior you might want to make some changes to your dog’s diet or see a veterinarian for a full checkup. Regarding diet, switch to fresher, less processed foods, add digestive enzymes, probiotics, and a little pumpkin puree.
#8 Got Sick From it Before – Your pet may have had a previously bad experience or illness eating that type of food or something like it.
If you’ve ever gotten sick from food poisoning at a place, you probably don’t want to return for more. Your memory may save the particular smell of that food negatively. In some cases, our bodies can have a painful response to foods we have been sick from previously.
When we expose ourselves to these foods again in the future, our immune system may consider them toxins. This may be why some people and dogs may have late life allergies to foods they used to tolerate well.
#9 Food is Expired or Bad–
Many pet parents don’t realize that manufacturers design kibble to remain shelf-stable for 18 months in the bag. That is far to long and likely isn’t true.
If you buy a 40lb bag that takes 2 months to finish, the fats likely turn rancid, and if you dump it into your dog food bin, you now compromise the remaining food. Most people don’t wash dog food bins either. So those rancid fats have now leached into the plastic and are affecting any new food that comes in.
Those rancid fats also affect the bioavailability of fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K. Additionally, sensitive fats like omega 3’s are the first to go bad when exposed to air. These can go bad within days of opening that dog food bag. Your dog’s sensitive nose may tell them not to eat the food because they can sense something is off well before you can tell there is a change. You can’t blame them for being picky eaters in this scenario.
Environmental Reasons Your Dog Isn’t Food Motivated
10. Challenging Environment – Sometimes there is just too much activity happening around the food area. This can include other dogs who finish their meals first attempting to take their meals. Many dogs just give into pressure and walk away because they don’t enjoy dealing with other pushy dogs. This is one reason I feed my pushy dog in a crate.
I placed the other two far apart as well, allowing them to take their time without feeling pressured. This was a big issue in our home until I made these changes. Now everyone finishes their dinner.
11. Distracted Puppies– This is a big one with younger dogs. They are so excited to be with you when they get up that their #1 priority isn’ always eating. They would rather spend time following you around biting at your socks or seeing what you are doing. I believe this behavior is why many people just leave food down all the time. They don’t spend a few moments sitting near their pups to encourage eating. To much activity is distracting for your dog. It can make it seem like your dog isn’t food motivated when it is just a matter or too much going on.
Fear and Punishment: Other Reasons Your Dog isn’t Food Motivated
12. Trust Issues – Trust is a key component in any relationship. Your dog may refuse food from strangers because your dog is nervous or apprehensive of them. This is normal. When your dog is unwilling to take food from a hand it is a sign of mistrust. This is common with strangers trying to make friends with your dog. Maybe your dog heard you tell your kids not to take candy from strangers because it is exactly what happens with shy or fearful dogs. I suggest having guests drop the treats to the ground for your dogs to inspect or have you give the treat to your dog when guests come over.
13. Punishment – This is common if you have tried to lure your dog with food and then tricked them by putting them in a crate, bringing them inside from the freedom of outside, grooming them after luring with food, or pairing the food too close to a reprimand or correction. This is one of the most common issues with early training. Luring had better end with a good experience. Showing the food or treat upfront and turning the tables on your dog by tricking them will teach them not to food offerings in the future.
Using Play and Training to Increase Food Drive
The single fasted way I have found to encourage a picky eater or unmotivated dog to eat again is to ditch the bowl, get some new food and be silly. Keep some food in a pocket or pouch and get on the ground and play with your dog. Dogs enjoy chasing, being chased, teasing, and receiving tickles. Movement is fun. Initiate some play that your dog likes that isn’t too pushy and start to introduce some food.
At a minimum, you can try to toss the food and have your dog chase it then have them chase or come to you. If they are successful keep tossing food when your dog is excited and playing with you. Make it a game and keep it to about 5 min or less.
If your dog knows a few tricks like sit, down, hand target, roll over, or spin, ask them to play along and for the opportunity to chase some food on the ground. The feeling of knowing what to do coupled with connecting and playing with you should get them in the right mindset.
Your dog, naturally food motivated from birth, can regain that drive with relative ease through your efforts. Your dogs should look forward to meal times and using food to reward good behavior is the easiest way to keep order in the home. If you or anyone you know has an un food-motivated or picky dog, send them this article or have them get a hold of me. I am sure I can help.