Q&A: My dog doesn’t like treats or other dogs; help!


My new pal, a nine-pound, six year-old Poodle mix named Dog Marley, was rescued with the help of Pets for Patriots. Dog Marley is not a big fan of treats. I have tried six different types. Sometimes he’ll take one then hide it under my bed. I’ve left then, not wanting to take his stash. So for training, treats are no big incentive.

On an unrelated issue, what is your opinion of crate training? I had to leave Dog Marley alone for about two hours and he apparently barked almost the whole time. Any thoughts?

- Joe


Hi Joe,
Just as with people, some dogs are more food motivated than others. However, all dogs are food motivated to some degree, as food is essential for survival. With that said, because food is such a handy form of reinforcement for improving behavior and maintaining good behavior, I think it is wise to make an effort to help your dog learn to be more interested in the opportunity to earn food from you in exchange for playing the training game. 
Some things to consider:
  • Make sure Marley is at a healthy weight. You might imagine that an overweight dog (whether mildly so or obese) would be super into food. But, that is not always the case. 
  • You might consider the treats you have offered Marley to be super good. However, Marley might not be such a fan. Try something like turkey or chicken (cold cuts or boiled), Dognation treats, or Natural Balance rolls. In general, dogs tend to be most interested in softer treats (as opposed to hard biscuit type treats). Plus, softer treats are generally more useful for training in that they can be broken into tiny bits and are more easily consumed by your dog. This means you can plan for more repetitions and reinforcements of a particular behavior in a 3-5 minute training session.
  • Consider if you are offering treats in environments and contexts when Marley is stressed. Even low level stress can result in an animal not being in a state of mind to be able to eat. So, do a little ‘treat trial’ when you are as confident as possible that Marley is in a stress-free state of mind.
  • Marley might just not be hungry when you offer treats. If you are free feeding Marley (that is, leaving food out in a bowl for all or most of the day), I would suggest you switch to set meal times of two to three times a day. The food can be put down for about 15 minutes or so. If Marley chooses not to eat, then you can remove the bowl and replace it at the next meal time. This is potentially beneficial for another reason other than training. If a dog is sick, you typically know because they vomit, have diarrhea, are lethargic, or don’t eat their food as promptly as usual. It’s a shame to lose one of these first indicators because a dog is a picky eater.
I would consider this same approach to treats. Rather than giving him something and allowing him to run off and store it for later, offer him something when he is on a leash and in exchange for a behavior you like. He gets to eat it then. If not, it goes away and you can try later. 
You might also consider occasionally using at least some of Marley’s meals as rewards for training. That might mean using it to practice manners like sit, down, stay, and hand targeting indoors, or even taking it with you on a walk to practice skills on the street. Obviously, Marley is eating his meals, so he has an interest in that food. You can use that as rewards just as you would a high value treat.
Another thing to consider is that food rewards are just one of the many, many things you have at your disposal to reinforce behaviors you want to see more of. You can also use toys, attention, access to the environment, and just about anything your dog wants. So, for example, if Marley likes to go for walks, use walking through the front door as a reward for sitting or hand targeting. If Marley wants to take a good sniff at a particular spot, maybe ask him to make eye contact for the count of three, and then say “Yes!” and let him go sniff. Basically, you can make everything a fun game of Marley doing a little something to get what he wants.
In regards to dog to dog aggression, that’s a big topic. You didn’t mention any particulars, so I will just give you some general advice. Firstly, not all dogs grow into adulthood and maintain an interest in playing with other dogs. While dog parks can be beneficial for some adult dogs (as a release for energy and an opportunity to have fun playing with other dogs), there are loads of dogs for which the idea of being confined in a space with lots of other adult dogs coming and going is really no fun at all. Again, this is a lot like people. Some are super social and love the idea of going out to dinner, to parties, etc. But, there are lots of people who are much happier just hanging with their families and small circle of friends. You can provide Marley outlets for his energy by going for walks (to different locations, for variety), and playing off leash games like hand targeting and fetch when safe and appropriate.

As for crates, I think when used properly, they can be a useful aid to help in house training, preventing destructive behaviors, and helping a dog learn to self pacify and spend time quietly alone. You can start with the crate door open and put Marley’s meals in there so he associates the crate with meal times. You can also put food stuff able toys like the Monster Mouth, Twist n’ Treat, and white sterilized bones in there for him to play with. Help Marley learn to see the crate as a safe place to rest by limiting confinement in there to very brief bits of time to begin and with the crate right next to you. You can gradually increase the time, but only when you are confident he is calm with a specific amount of time. Think of it this way, if every time you walked into a room, someone handed you $100, odds are after a while you would be OK being in that room. If it was a room that you started off not being comfortable in, it might take some time (even with this monetary reinforcement!). But, eventually you would make a positive association between the room and something you want and presumably feel more comfortable being there.