A black and white dog focuses on a treat in front of his nose.
“Come to papa.”

Most dogs live to eat. A healthy interest in food is not a bad thing, however,  and a dog who likes to eat makes it easier to select a good food since they are less likely to have strong preferences. 

The diets of many dogs include both treats and kibble. While being treat-motivated can often make training a breeze, too much of a good thing can certainly exist. So what is a pet owner to do when a pet is just too treat motivated? Leon Valley Veterinary Hospital has your answers. 

Treats as a Tool

When we talk about things like positive reinforcement, classical conditioning, and counterconditioning, the treat-as-reward often takes center stage. 

We often use treats for our pets to offer an award or even bribe to do the things that we want them to do. Sit on command? Get a cookie! Give me the sock you stole from the laundry hamper? Here’s a bone! Come in from the back yard? Snack time!

It is important to remember, though, that when it comes to pets, treats are a tool. Remember these basic principles and you will be in good shape:

  • Not all treats are created equal. Remember that some treats are more valuable than others, and this can differ from pet to pet.
  • Not all treats are food! Some pets really enjoy attention, verbal praise, or toys as much or more than food.
  • Treats lose their value if offered too often. Be sure that they are truly earned. 

Having a treat motivated pet can help you with everything from potty training to crate training to learning to roll over, making them a great tool to have at your disposal. However…

Is Your Dog Too Treat Motivated? Do This.

As valuable as treats can be for pet owners, they can also be a hazard. Sometimes a pet owner will be too generous and treats will lose their meaning. Other times, witty pets learn how to cheat the system (ever heard of the dog who asks to go outside, only to turn around and come right back in for the treat awaiting him?). 

Some pets, though, are simply very treat motivated. When the excitement of a potential treat overshadows everything else that is going on at a given moment, the opportunity to learn is diminished. If the pet is so focused on the treat itself, it can be hard for them to focus on the task at hand.

However, if this seems to fit your pet’s personality, all hope is not lost. Consider the following suggestions:

Revisit the treat ladder – Remember when we said all treats aren’t created equal? Remember that the reward should fit the situation. Offer high value treats only for very difficult tasks and lower value treats, such as a piece of kibble or a gentle pat, for easier tasks.

Click it – Sometimes substituting a food reward with another marker such as the click of a clicker can be very effective. Clicker training draws attention to the fact that an action (or even subtle movement) was a good thing without always getting food involved. 

Stifle the smell – When it comes to high value treats, they often have a strong odor that can trigger excitement. Try keeping them in a Ziploc baggie or a treat pouch to stifle the smell a bit. 

Bring it down a notch – Sometimes it’s the food, but sometimes it might be you, too. We often inadvertently raise our pet’s excitement level with high-pitched talking, fast movements, and dramatic body language. Slow and calm yourself to encourage Fido to follow. 

Teach impulse control – Working on a command such as “leave it” can help pets learn impulse control and help even the most food motivated dog learn to train calmly. Start with lower value items such as a favorite toy or other valued non-food item and increase the difficulty as your pet’s self control improves.

There are definitely some dogs who are more food motivated than others, but all of them have the ability to learn (and while we are thinking about it, cats too). While a very treat motivated dog can be a little overwhelming, you can definitely use this trait to your benefit. 

Of course, if your dog seems ravenous or this is a new behavior, give us a call so that we can be sure nothing else is going on. Nothing is wrong with a hungry pup, but some medical conditions can definitely cause a dramatic change in appetite.