Let me give you a hint. Yes, your pet is food motivated.
Food is what we call a primary reinforcer. This means that it is needed for survival, and is therefore naturally reinforcing. We don’t need to pair it with anything, or condition it in any special way for it to be a good thing. Other primary reinforcers include water, shelter, oxygen, and sex. In training, primary reinforcers are the strongest rewards to use when teaching new behaviours.
Many people claim that they’ve tried positive-reinforcement training before, but their pet simply isn’t food motivated. I challenge this notion, because unless their pet is dead it must be eating. If their pet is eating, then some of those calories can be used for training.
There are a few things that might reduce a pets interest in food during training:
1. You’re being cheap with your food rewards
Stop breaking your treats into microscopic pieces. Imagine if someone fed you a piece of cake crumb by crumb, you wouldn’t enjoy it and you would probably give up on it before the piece was done. Bite-sized pieces are ideal, as they keep training speedy, but your pet would like to taste his hard earned reward!
2. You’re using a low-value food reward
If your pet has free access to a bowl full of dry food/seed/etc, why on earth would he work hard during training to earn what he can get for free? When training new behaviours, use something good – dogs might enjoy chicken or steak pieces, cats might enjoy some fish pate or tuna chunks, and birds might enjoy pine nuts or sunflower seeds.
3. Your pet is stressed/too highly aroused
If your pet is not familiar with training he may be too stressed or highly aroused to even want to eat. Start somewhere your pet is very comfortable, ask for easy behaviours, and end the session early. Some pets have to learn to enjoy training – it is worth the effort!
Some people choose to further manage their pets diet to increase their motivation for food during training, but in most cases no management further than feeding set amounts at set times (like you would to maintain your pets healthy body condition) is required. For some pets any treat, any time will do! We can work with you to figure out how best to motivate your pet during training.
And of course it’s not always about the food. The goal in positive-reinforcement training is to use food as a reward only occasionally in the long run. Once learned, a behaviour can be maintained using a range of secondary reinforces such as petting, praise, toys, and affection. It’s not about the treats, it’s about the motivation, and science has shown us again and again that food is the fastest way to hitting those early training goals!