The Unmotivated Dog's Food

"My dog is not interested in food and it won't play. How can I get it to track?"

Last month we looked at making a dog keen to Play, Retrieve, Chase and become Possessive.
This month we'll look at dogs which are indifferent to food.

In the heady world of Behavioral Jargon food is always stated to be the primary reinforcer. The degree-clad behaviorists will bang on long and hard about wolf packs, they will talk about how the only thing that will drive a starving dog will be trying to survive by obtaining food; "old school" trialists will chant refrains about how "all dogs can track, it's natural there's nothing difficult about it". These behaviorists will do all their pontificating about wolf packs from the warmth of the fireside- if you question them closely about the wolf packs they'll probably admit to seeing a program on 'Animal Planet'; their talk of primary reinforcement will come as they are sitting in the armchair sipping 'dry white wine' . The "old school" trialists, while they talk with great knowledge, won't necessarily be in contention on control day in a TD ticket.

So let's get real. In our world starving a dog would be considered a no no. Last month, when we talked about retrieve work, we considered how the dog's lifestyle might well be playing an important part.
Look at people who take serious exercise; they miss at least the meal before the exercise. We were told when we were children not to eat before going to the swimming baths- "you'll get cramp". There is usually some foundation behind these old wives tales- what do we do after a big Sunday Lunch? Go to sleep. The body requires rest to be able to digest a large meal. A number of people who turn up for training and when asked will say "he has only had his breakfast" often 50 % of his daily intake.
When I talk to beginners about feeding, a large number who say "Oh he's not at all greedy, I just leave his food down all the time" then the response continues, "No we never allow him to scrounge food while we're eating, he knows the only place he's allowed to eat is from his own bowl" I know this would be considered an extreme version, but there are parts of it we all tend to use.

The following suggestions are simply that, based on opinion and experience, not on any veterinary knowledge To use or not the following methods is entirely your choice.

Starting at the beginning, when we bring our puppy home, the breeder will have given us instructions about feeding- probably 4 meals a day evenly spaced etc., with instructions as to content. If the puppy is the only dog in the house its perception will be that "food is always available, so no hurry". As ample food is always available, the dog will perceive no urgency in eating it. Habits around food are as relevant as anywhere else.

To begin changing the dog's habits and attitude, to we need to think about it logically. First make sure the dog is at a weight which is suitable for work - this not only applies with regard to food motivation but also if a dog is heavier than ideal, think about all the extra stress that the long jump and scale will be putting on its joints. Assuming the dog is close to an ideal weight we need to help it to appreciate food and enjoy taking it from hand.
During most meals the dog which is unexcited by food will break from eating his morning or evening meal; watch carefully for the dog to move away from his food then remove anything not eaten. If the dog starts to guard his food stay close but do not attempt to take it (the guarding is a sign of the dog's increased interest in food). When the dog has had a few short meals you will find it will become a habit to finish eating.
The next step - miss a meal altogether, then instead of feeding at the normal time feed a little late but instead of simply putting the food down in a bowl feed the dog by hand. (It's worth a mention at this point that the food you are going to feed by hand should be a favourite, not your basic dry 'all in one'; make it chicken, tripe or even a tinned meat.) At this point somebody usually says "ooeeeu- what - tripe from your hand? It gets under your fingernails and makes your hands smell". This is a good time to ask yourself if trials are for you; it is inevitable that in the near future you are going to make the close acquaintance of mud, cow pats, various kinds of manure from; chickens, cows, pigs and virtually anything that tastes good fried from Tesco's; this is all part of the picture we call trials. A bit of tripe or tinned dog food under your finger nails is a small price to pay for motivating your dog. Feed the dog its whole meal from your hand. Probably doing this only a few times will change the dog's idea about you and food. When this is all going well, start asking the dog to perform small tasks in return for its meal. We are building the habit of doing things in return for being fed. If you keep the dogs overall intake at a level where it is usually slightly hungry, your dog's level of motivation and vigour will be at an altogether higher level. When this state is achieved, tracking for food, should become a matter of course.
If you find the idea of keeping your dog slightly hungry but maintaining his weight, is unacceptable or cruel don't do it. I've heard heelwork to music is a nice sport.

There are several ways of teaching a dog to track for food but they all require the dog to want the food, so the preceding advice is very relevant.

The way the Schutzhund people do it is usually with a small piece of hotdog sausage in each footprint; other methods include food drops at random intervals, food in plastic pots, the dog's whole dinner split into portions at the end of several short tracks, and incases where there is interest in food but not in tracking for it, meat stew including gravy placed in a cloth bag and dabbed on the track, leaving spots of scent leading to chunks of food. Any of the methods mentioned will have to be progressed to tracking for articles, but until you have some form of motivation the dog is not going to learn to track.