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My dog doesn’t eat treats or play with toys…..what do I do?

Life is full of rewards, think outside of the box!

I often read comments on various posts where people really struggle when their dogs don’t seem to enjoy food treats or toys. Sadly, people seem to be under the impression this means you can’t train your dogs.

You can!

I really hope this blogs helps you and your daxies find more fun and positivity in your approach to learning new skills.

The easiest way to get any dog to work with us is through some sort of incentive and food or treats are the easiest for us to use. Try to remember however, those incentives are an extention of you. They extend and support your relationship with your dogs to help you achieve a goal. They are a starting point to help you achieve your goals. We just need to find the right one.

Tip: Before discussing the variety of rewards at your disposal I want to clarify a few things.

A lure - is tempting an animal to do something using a reward. Generally they are following the treat to help you create the action or behaviour you want.

A reward is something given in recognition of an achievement. It comes after the behaviour.

How do you go from luring to rewarding?

Initially you may start with the treat in your hand where your dog follows, but you quickly leave that treat on the side/in your pocket and using the same signal you repeat in the same way but produce the treat afterwards. Gradually make that hand signal smaller. If you get stuck where the treat is part of the signal, reward from the pot rather than your lure hand. They'll get it quickly.

To help you with this I wanted to throw some suggestions your way.

But first…..just take a moment to think about what YOU find rewarding in life?

Praise? A bar of chocolate? A glass of wine? A hot bubble bath? Sitting down with the family and watching a movie? Someone saying thank you?

Without that… do you feel?

Please remember a life without praise leaves us very lost, and one full of criticism leaves us feeling anxious and with absolutely no incentive to try! Whatever the species, we need to know when we get it right. Else we won’t bother trying!

Lets start with food.

Believe it or not, I used to be really anti treats. Why? I fell into that “its bribery, and I don’t want to bribe my dogs” thought process. That was my lack of knowledge showing there. As I learnt more, I realised that food or anything my dogs enjoy was a great way to build a trusting relationship with my dogs and really helped them enjoy learning. Our knowledge surrounding animals, how they learn and the best ways to facilitate that have evolved so much over the last 10 years alone. Whilst we all resist change, and there are many conflicting arguments online, that really is just us being stuck in our ways and being scared to step into the unknown. Ultimately ask yourselves....why wouldn't you want to use something to make something more enjoyable?

At the recent Zoo Animal Training Symposium I attended I was blown away watching polar bears working happily with their keepers whist they perfected the skills they needed for stressless veterinary care. Was there any question about using food? Nope, and you're hardly going to wrestle a polar bear to cut its nails are you? They used clicker training and had worked out the best reward for them was salmon oil (yes, it was stinky!) (All the animals we watched were free to leave the session at any time, they chose not fact they refused to leave after training too! They thoroughly enjoyed it!)

Obviously the keepers need to be kept safe as these bears are HUGE!
Target training - being rewarded with fish oil

Do I take treats on every walk? Nope. But when I am teaching new skills, or am working with a dog it gives me that extra bit of oomph and motivation to help my dogs want to work with me instead of going to investigate badger setts or chase deer that randomly appear on our walks I absolutely do! And sometimes, I just do to keep it varied. Do I use treats forever? Yes. Do I use them all the time? Nope. Eventually with consistency the rewarded behaviours I teach them become habit and I use different rewards through our training journey to create the behaviours I want. But often I will start with using food combined with verbal praise and touch.

People often think “treats” equal biscuits out of a bought bag. Treats are anything your dog enjoys eating, including their meals.

If your dog eats its food happily at home, and will happily take food from your hand at home then your dog will take food treats. HOWEVER, if they are not eating in different locations this is usually a BIG indicator that your dog is not comfortable or is overwhelmed, over excited…..just “over!” This in itself is a red flag that there are some things you need to address and food here is a really useful tool to help you assess at which point your dogs lose the ability to cope. Ideal world, we’ll understand their body language before they get to this point, but we haven’t all spent thousands of hours watching and understanding communication skills and sometimes the subtleties are missed. I wrote a blog on some of the basic body language signals here. Please take a look.

If your dog is just not a foody in the home or out of it, I would first be wanting to rule out any medical reasons as to why. Sometimes its as simple as them needing more fluids (There will be a blog on this one!) and other times there is a genuine issue around food that needs addressing. Please talk to your vets or a nutritionist about this. There are a lot of undiagnosed gastrointestinal issues which need to be addressed and these can have a big impact on your dogs behaviour.

Sometimes it can be as simple as the foods you are offering just do not float their boats. Don’t rush out to buy expensive dog treats, my dogs won’t touch them. I tend to stick with what’s in the fridge, sandwich fillers, hot dogs, low fat cheeses. My “bought” treats tend to be natural meat products. Obviously it depends on what your dog can and can’t eat.

Here you may just "shape" and reward tiny movements to the ultimate aim
Luring down using food

Do you really know what they like? Or do you only give what you think they like?

Treat selection test: A selection of different foods, veg, meat, fish, fruit (check they are dog friendly) and give it on a cutting board or flat surface. Try it in different locations – what do they choose? Mine love the cheese’s and the meats – the veg however… chance!

Note: this exercise does a lot more finding out what your dog likes or is a bit 'meh' about. As it’s a new thing to your dog….look at how they interact with it. Are they suspicious? Do they just dive in? Do they skirt the board? What about doing it in rooms where they don’t usually eat? It tells you a lot about their confidence with new things too!

Treats mean we have a huge array of exciting or less exciting 'things' to give the dogs an incentive to work with us to learn “tasks” that are not really part of a dogs repertoire. We can use them to “lure” (not a swear word) a behaviour initially, and quickly progress from following the treat to rewarding after they have done something rather than having the food in our hands. We can use them to create behaviours we want….if my Auntie always gives me my favourite chocolate I am definitely going to go over more frequently…….not just for the chocolate, but because she is kind enough to get that chocolate in the first place. We are always drawn to people who are kind and think about our needs too.


Toys are great for training and I love using them. Be selective over which toys you use and in which environments. My dogs favourite's are the rabbit skin ones from TUG E NUFF (Here's the link Use PERFECTLY on your first order for 10% off.)

I save these for walks or in the garden rather than indoors as they can be very exciting and often mean the training is over as they are just TOO exciting. That said they are great for teaching the dogs impulse control when you get to this point.

Here’s a video of me playing with Zella with her new toy. Sadly the offer on the toys has expired but I hope you find the video helpful:

Using toys for a reward is great fun, you cannot play with a dog with a straight face, you have to smile. It does wonders for your relationship when done right. However do make sure you have good control over the toys and don’t play with them to a point where they lose the plot. Use the toy as an extension of you.

If a dog offers a behaviour naturally you can "capture" the behaviour too.
Using a toy as a lure for bow

Many dogs won’t play on walks. Lets think about that. Is it that they won’t play? Or is it that you’ve never taken the toy on walks with you? Or used it outside the home? Is the toy just boring? Try an exercise similar to the treat test. Which do they prefer? Keep that one for walks! It may be a skill they need to learn? Often on walks we leave them to their own devices, so they just aren’t used to interacting with you. How about you change that?

Have a watch of me playing with Popi on this video, but also listen to words of warning when using toys: Remember, the reward should be with you, not over there, especially if you have a dog that likes to chase…..dogs, people, bikes etc!

Tip: A word of advice regarding play if you have a high energy dog indoors: if you do not want your living room to be a high energy area, or your office to be a area where they play, don't play with them in there. Use lower value toys, or calming activity toys here so you don't create an expectation of playtime. Just this simple change can encourage dogs to relax in certain environments. Think about where you do things not just what you use. Is that something you want them to learn? If you do....great, keep doing it. If not, change what you are doing.

Now, what about the rest? There are so many rewards that we just don’t see as rewards. Can you list what your dog enjoys? Rewards are ANYTHING they enjoy. Some are easier for us to use for “training” sessions. And others we don’t even think about.

Think about it, what does your dog absolutely love? Verbal praise? Well, for most dachshunds it can be a genuine “yay, you’re a good boy/girl!” That smilely, goofy, waggy response says yup, verbal praise is a huge reward for your dachshund. Try it, “Good boy” in a genuinely said and almost drawn out “goooood boyyyyy!” Even your tone of voice is rewarding if you get it right! Make sure you are smiling when you say it....they know when you mean it!

What else? Touch. A stroke along their backs or pat on the ribs? Most dogs don’t really appreciate a hand coming in over the top of their heads. If you look carefully a lot of dogs may duck. (Not when they’re sitting next to you mid cuddle time necessarily, but especially if you are approaching and leaning in). For many dogs that ruffle on the head is not pleasant so try to avoid that. A scratch on the chest or under the chin is so much nicer, and helps maintain that loving gaze between you.

If your dog enjoys being handled this is a great reward for our dogs
Using touch as a reward

Freedom – being off lead and running around is a HUGE reward. Rather than just letting them off, get them to work with you first. This is a great way to work on self control and working on frustration issues but also builds in an expectation to engage with you before they go off snuffling. And then frequently call them back for a bit of fun time before saying “ok, off you pop.”

Freedom - often the biggest reward we don't take advantage of

What other things do your dogs find rewarding? What can you use? Generally speaking, rewarded behaviour repeats itself. So if you look at their behaviour – what is encouraging them to repeat certain behaviour's? Can you change things so the behaviour;s you want (and we often ignore or take for granted) are rewarded and the ones we don’t we manage so they don’t repeat them? And yes, I appreciate that last sentence is rather loaded and I am over simplifying.

As a species we have this awful habit of setting ourselves and our dogs up for failure. We constantly put ourselves in situations where we just struggle. WHY? That’s not to say we should avoid everything. But, perhaps we need to think about setting ourselves and our dogs reachable targets which meet with our own abilities. Constantly striving to meet a goal that we haven’t prepared for sets us up to give up. Making mistakes is ok, its part of learning, but constantly making the same mistakes means something needs to change as we are not learning. Use things we enjoy to help make learning more pleasurable. There will be something they enjoy, FIND IT!

Create micro goals to get there…and reward yourselves and them for each step along the way.

Tip: Try to change your mindset. When thinking of "training" we think of boring, general obedience type stuff. Change it to "education" or "learning through living." Our mindsets make a huge difference to our approach to anything!

Nothing more rewarding than snuggling up with these guys!

For me, my reward at the end of a long day is to snuggle up w ith my sausages and sausage imposters with a cuppa knowing today I did my best, that I may have helped change at least one persons life and improved the life of a family as a minimum. It may be through a consultation, or it may just be by sharing a kind word with someone to help them find a way through their challenges. That is my ultimate reward.

What about you?

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