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When your dog won’t take treats or toys:

By Matt Wiggins
01.20.22
treat (1)

If dog training was as simple as throwing a few treats down a dogs throat then nobody would ever need a dog trainer!

It’s become apparent to me that over the last decade or so, in conjunction with the rapid rise in force free dog training practices that more and more owners see the fact that their dog won’t take treats as a huge barrier to successful training.

In reality, what we are dealing with is substandard trainers putting glass ceilings on their clients chances of living a great life with their dog.

I’m here to tell you that treats and toys are absolutely not necessary when it comes to transforming your dog’s behaviour. In fact, it often gets in the way and muddies the water.

If you think that all your training problems would be resolved if your dog was interested in treats or toys then you are wildly mistaken. Below, I’m going to go into detail on this subject with you so keep on reading.

First things first

The top of the tree

All living beings have a hierarchy of needs and usually, when you are having dog training issues, it’s because no matter the motivation you are offering in an attempt to try and change behaviour, your dogs level of motivation to do what you dislike is higher.

To put this into perspective, most reactivity issues are borne of fear. Your dog has basically worked out that by being reactive he or she can control the distance between it and the source of the fear.

If you are walking down the road and your dog spots the distraction and then starts barking and lunging one of a number of things will happen.

The source of the fear will move away (person or person and dog cross the road, go in the other direction, the car/bike/jogger will go away etc) or, you, the handler, will move away to subdue your dog’s reactivity.

In either case, as soon as the distance between your dog and the source of fear gets bigger, your dog feels less scared and got what it wanted – to feel more comfortable. When any living being does something that works, it is likely to do it again and so, by default, your dog begins to show reactivity every time it encounters the distraction.

Now, I’m actually a big fan of using treats in dog training but I’m also a realist. Food has its limitations in dog training. Lets look at this logically.

When your dog gets scared, it has two choices. Either to go forward reactively or to run away. This is called fight or flight. Usually, because your dog is on lead, the option to move away is not available leaving the only choice – to go forwards aggressively.

Whichever your dog chooses, its end goal is to increase the distance between itself and the source of the fear.

The problem is when all your dog is thinking about is protecting its wellbeing, essentially he or she is trying to survive. 

How many people do you think would accept a nice meal, £500, praise, sex, social interaction etc when they were in a life or death situation?

That’s right, none of them. In that moment, when the chips are down, the last thing on anybody’s mind is everything other than survival. Staying alive, in that very moment, is the only thing that matters.

Now we may know that the dog over the road is friendly, or the child walking down the street won’t hurt your dog, or the man on the bike just wants to get home after a long day at work but your dog doesn’t see the World in the same way that we do. You dog see’s the World from its own point of view and, if your dog feels threatened, no amount of sausage, ham or cheese is going to help it see reason.

If you believe that your dog not accepting treats is standing in your route to success you are wildly mistaken.

It’s not your fault though, the blame lies with the trainers who push this rubbish as a viable way forwards.

Don’t get me wrong, if we want to teach a dog to sit, lie down, roll over or shake a paw then food is a wonderful motivator. The food will work because your dog has all of its other needs satiated on all levels. Of course it will accept the food and engage with you.

But when your dogs main priority is it’s  immediate survival and self preservation, of course it won’t take the treats. 

So what can we do about it?

When you ask most trainers that they would  talk to you about increasing the distance between your dog and the thing that makes it worried until you are so far away that the worry subsides enough that your dog will begin taking the food before gradually getting closer and closer.

When you ask me or one of my trainers?

We’d advise that the typical approach, whilst it may work, would take a long time and is completely impractical in the real world. Unless you can control your environment at all times, there is no way it will give you success.

We take another approach, one that works regardless of the environment and regardless of if your dog will take treats or not.

We motivate your dog to do what we want more than it is motivated to do what it wants. We teach your dog how to pay more attention to you than it does everything else WITHOUT relying on treats and toys etc.

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