Have you ever wanted to train an animal that was ‘not food motivated’?
This challenge is something I have often heard people tell me over the years! And I always think to myself “does your animal eat?” If the answer is ‘yes’ then I’m curious if we are able to say it’s not food motivated. An alternative way to describe these animals could be to say ‘they’re potentially not motivated by the kind of food you are offering and/or the context you are offering it under!’
Huh ?!? ?- “Ryan what the heck does that mean?” lol … Below are some offerings for you to ‘chew’ over & I would love to hear what you think about them.
1) Is there an underlying medical issue you don’t know about!
Regardless of what behavioural intervention and/or training we might be doing for our animal, checking that they are in good health is always step number one. Book an appointment with your vet to get their expert opinion.
Also, consider specific veterinarian subject matter experts that might focus on certain physiological areas of our animals health – for example a gastro expert (it could be possible for health issues to be missed, especially if you consider rarer conditions)
2) Is your animal just not eating in your presence?
What happens if you leave the food there and walk away? Does the animal eventually eat it? Does the latency (time it takes) of the animal to come and get the food decrease over time?
This might happen if we are working with a fearful, nervous, aroused or anxious animal. (Note: what the observable behaviors are that aid us in hypothesising how our animals are feeling can vary significantly between animals and contexts).
You can learn how to work with an animal that might not eat in your presence in this podcast episode here (Listen in around the 34 minute mark) >>> https://www.animaltrainingacademy.com/podcast/training-tidbits/erin-davidson/
In this situation you could also potentially try a remote feeder such as a manners minder or put tutor. Or present the food on a long stick and/or pair of tongs?
3) Have you tried to use food in different contexts?
There are always competing reinforcers on offer in our animals environment. Consequently, trying to use food for training in a less distracting environment could be a great place to start.
For example your dog might readily take food at home but not out at the dog park!
If this is a situation you are experiencing – implementing a training plan that slowly increases more and more distractions over time is something to consider.
4) Have you reached out and asked your network for their thoughts and input?
This can often lead to new ideas and thoughts. My recommendation is to ensure that you find a tribe of people that you trust and you know share the same values and ethics as you. Whenever I have a problem I always ask ATA members in the ATA premium membership community areas ? (members only FB group and website forums).
5) How are you presenting the food?
I’ve heard some people tell me that their animal won’t eat if they try to hand feed them – however if they throw the food and the animal gets to chase it then it will eat it!
Maybe offering the food in a different way might yield different results? ?
6) Can you use not food reinforcers to motivate your animal?
Maybe you don’t even need to worry about motivating your animal with food and they will readily work for other non food related reinforcers. What have you tried so far?
7) Are you leveraging motivation operatives to your advantage?
Examine your animals diet, daily routine and eating habits.
Regarding the food item you are attempting to use as a reinforcer; Does your animal have access to this at other times of the day? If so, how much and how often? Possibly by examining your animals daily access to specific high valued food items, (for example only making them available during training and/or select periods of time) we can make these items seem more valuable & consequently increase motivation to work for them.
I’m not saying you have to give your animals less of a particular item just suggesting a possible review of where and for how long your animals have access to specific high valued items.
8) Offer variability.
How many different food items are you offering your animal? Maybe by adding a lot more variability to what you are trying to offer you will see an increase in motivation? Or you might just find a food item that your animal goes nuts for!
You can even get your animal to choose what reinforcer they want by teaching them to pick! I have seen this done really well with animals being able to point to food items they wanted – from a selection offered in front of them.
9) Have you collected actual data on your animals?
It’s possible that sometimes we tell ourselves stories that are more based on how we feel about our animals and situations then raw hard facts! This is something I learned recently in an amazing ATA members only web-class where we were super lucky to have Dr. Eduardo Fernandez join us to talk about Being Evidence-Based with your Animals: Using Data to Optimize Animal Training & Welfare.
If you want access to the full web-class replay click here for your exclusive ATA trial membership >>> https://www.animaltrainingacademy.com/2019-membership-trial/
You can also listen to a free podcast about using data to make decisions with Dr Fernandez here >>> https://www.animaltrainingacademy.com/podcast/training-tidbits/eduardo-fernandez/
This is by no means an exhaustive list of options and ideas that cover every situation but hopefully it can help you brainstorm if this is a challenge you come across. And if you think I can build on this list please post your ideas and suggestions in the comment section below – I can’t wait to hear them!
Animal Training Academy
Wuzz Ling says
I found that clicker/marker training gave a lot more value to the food, even with dogs, who are “not food motived” and initially only take 3-4 pieces of food with no great interest.
Maybe the social context and the “puzzle” of the game worked like that? Don’t know, but saw an increase in “food motivation” in all dogs – no matter how little it was in the beginning.
Joerg Schultz says
This might also be caused by ‘context’, especially with otherwise ‘traditionally’ trained dogs. The training situation is poisoned by having used aversives before. Over time the dog learns, that if there is a clicker involved, there will be no aversives. So stress level decreases and the dog is able to focus on the food reward. Just an idea..
Wuzz Ling says
Just saw your comment now, Joerg.
In the cases I refer to, the animals weren’t “traditionally” trained. So in these cases this couldn’t be the cause.
Also these dogs, I referred to, were gereally not attracted by food too much – even without training context (meal included 😉 ). (But – which might be a next guess – no medical issues known. )
And in deed the clicker changed that. It did not change the value of food in general, but specific to training situations. So not more enthusiasm for the regular meal, but a lot more for getting a food reward.
Most probably the value of food could also have been raised by a strict feeding regime (food put away after short period of time for example), but as those dogs were perfectly sound, not obese at all, that was not preferred.
The most “extreme” dog was easily rewarded by praise before having done the clicker training. He preferred praise and some cuddling over food. Although his owner was quite gently and loverly with him anyway.
CAROLINE HOWLETT says
My boys have certainly been a challenge. They didn’t eat everyday, ate at time I couldn’t predict and I had an idea of what would help. I was very wrong.
It took time and if I could do it again I would work hard to offer them all types of food and see what response I got. Pancakes rules over chicken steak or sausage. I also learnt that I had to reward with food in larger quantities……..they needed to eat enough to stimulate their appetite!
They eat everyday, one has always been more reliable with food thankfully however even the reticent one enjoys his food now. I can reliably feed outside in most situations though rabbits do create extra stress.
Lastly the food delivery was so important to my boy who was reluctant to eat….throwing the food is the optimum way for him.