How to train non-food motivated dogs

Small white dog in AHS training class

Treats can make great rewards for dogs as they learn to sit, stay, and heel. However, one question that comes up in training is how to teach your dog new skills if they don’t seem to be motivated by food. 

We asked Animal Humane Society trainer Jaceil Carraux about alternate steps pet parents can take if the treats in class aren’t working. 

Make sure it isn’t something else 

First, make sure something else isn’t going on with your dog. Carraux says it might not be as simple as your dog not being motivated by food – there could be other contributing factors including health issues. Medical illness, pain, gut health, and anxiety can decrease a dog's desire to eat. 

She recommends having a conversation with your dog’s veterinarian to rule out any medical factors first. Another thing to consider talking to your vet about is your dog’s diet and meal plan. Free feeding at home could mean your dog is not hungry during training class. 

Another reason your dog may appear unmotivated by treats could be their environment. Carraux says if your dog consistently eats in some places but not in others it could be because your pet is stressed, overwhelmed, or over excited in that environment

Change up the treats 

One easy change that pet owners can make is to switch out their dogs’ kibble or bland treats for more high-value ones. Because training is happening in an exciting, new place for your dog, even those prepackaged dog treats sometimes aren’t enough to get them to do the trick. 

Try offering things like real meats and cheeses in those more stimulating environments. *This is also challenging when your dog has a sensitive stomach/limited diet. Speak with your vet about safe higher value options for your dog. 

AHS trainer and a small white dog.

Find what works

If you find you are still not able to motivate your dog after ruling out medical factors, setting up the proper environment, and trying more high-value treats, then it’s time to get creative. 

The key is to find what your dog does find enjoyable and motivating, not what you think they should like. For example, try using toys. Will your dog chase after a ball? Or play tug of rope? That can be their training reward! 

Also, see if your dog responds to praise and attention. You can also use positive physical touch like finding their perfect petting spot or using slow petting. Allowing your dog to sniff and explore can also be a reward. 

Carraux says she never considers a dog difficult to train. She says it’s all about discovering what the dog finds motivating, ranking the value of those different motivators and finding ways to utilize that. It also takes compromise and readjusting the owner’s expectation for that individual dog. 

Matching up with a positive reward-based trainer, such as our Animal Humane Society behavior and training team, can help you identify those subtle body language cues in your dog, and they can help with your creative process in figuring out what may work best. It will be worth it in the end. 

Do you need additional help training your dog?

Our expert trainers are here to help! We know that all dogs (and their humans) are individuals, so we focus on strategies that meet everyone’s needs and help your pup be successful. 

You can also reach out to our free behavior helpline with specific questions, and our trainers can help guide you. 

Learn more about training at AHS