But my Dog is not Food Motivated




I train with food. There, I said it. I don’t expect my dogs to work for me for just praise or affection or because they respect me. I get paid for my work. I pay my dogs for their work. I pay them with food.

What is a Primary Reinforcer?

A primary reinforcer is one that satisfies a biological need. They are necessary for the survival of an individual and continuation of a species, such as food, water, air, shelter and sex. Of all the primary reinforcers, food is the safest to deliver or withhold for training and the easiest to use. If you are using small, easily eaten, high value treats, food minimally interrupts the flow of behaviors which allows more repetitions of a behavior in the same timeframe.

One of the biggest objections to using food to train that I hear is “My dog is not food motivated”. Provided the dog in question is healthy, that is unlikely. Food is a primary reinforce. Dogs need to eat to survive. If they don’t eat, they will die. So dogs are food motivated.

So Why Would My Dog rather Chase a Ball?

When my 14 year old Pomeranian was younger, she loved to play fetch. My arm was often sore from throwing long before she was done playing. It was her favorite game.

One night, while we were grilling on the back porch, we gave all the dogs a piece of hamburger. I watched as Angel took her piece down to the bottom of the yard, buried it for later, and then immediately brought back the ball for us to throw.

Confusing, isn’t it? My dog preferred playing fetch to eating. Does that mean that for Angel, fetch is a primary reinforce? No, it does not. It simply means that at that time, Angel preferred playing fetch to eating. Playing fetch may have been a more rewarding activity, but she did not need to do it to live. She just liked to do it. A lot.

There are many reasons a dog might not eat at a given time. Like Angel, the dog may prefer a different activity. The dog could be too excited, scared or stressed to eat. The dog may not be hungry. The dog may not want the food being offered. The food may not be equal to the distraction level. Most of these obstacles can be overcome by setting up appropriate training sessions.

Why do I use food to train?

There are many reasons to use food to train. Unlike the other primary reinforcers, I can delay feeding for a short time and use the food in a training session. Using small, soft, easily eaten treats allows me to train quickly. I can increase or decrease the value of the treat to match the distraction level of the training session. And, since all dogs do eat, I can use meals to train.

I train with food. Why wouldn’t I?


7 thoughts on “But my Dog is not Food Motivated

    • Thank you, Lori. My aim is to break down some of the techno jargon that is so necessary in any scientific discipline and make it understandable. So I am glad it is easy to understand.


  1. Thank you for this. However, my understanding is that play, whatever form, is a primary reinforcer. And there are indications that control over one’s environment is also a primary reinforcer. Primary reinforcers are unconditioned and I’ve been given to understand that play is unconditioned; that it’s a natural drive. Since many agility dogs are trained with play as the reinforcer for learning to negotiate the obstacles, doesn’t that indicate that play is a primary reinforcer?

    Again, thank you for your blog. 🙂


    • Primary reinforcers are biologically necessary for the survival of a species. Sad as it may be, an organisms can and do live without ever playing. Many, many dogs live with no control whatsoever over their environment and do not die because of it. Mill dogs come specifically to mind. Dogs will continue to live without play or environmental control, but without food, a dog WILL die.

      And that is what primary reinforcers are, needs. Food is a need, play and environmental control are desires.


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