Do All Dogs Have Food Drive?

Interesting question, so let's spend a minute thinking about it.

I think we can agree that all animals must eat to survive, and that hunger is a driving force in making that happen.

But when we talk about food drive, are we really talking about hunger?  If yes, then why use yummy treats?  When I'm hungry I don't need a bowl of ice cream; I need the most filling food possible.  If a dog works for food out of hunger, then any food will do.  And since I'm not a deprivation trainer, I have no intention of allowing a dog to go hungry in order to get behaviors.  I happen to find hunger more uncomfortable than physical pain - if I have a choice between a few shots or going without food all day, I'd take the shots.  With that in mind, I will not withhold food to get my dogs to work out of "hunger".  I will, however, ask a dog to work for a meal that I plan to give to them anyway, if they are willing to work for it.  If not, they'll still get it.

So what is usable food drive?  We're talking about love of food - ice cream and snickers, not bread.  Most of my dogs enjoy delicious food.  They will eat pieces of cooked chicken even if they've just finished a huge meal.  That is because they are eating because they like food, not because they are hungry.

A dog that will eat tasty treats even though it's not hungry - that dog has usable food drive for training.  Most dogs fall into this category.

A dog that will eat any food even though it is stuffed - that dogs has a very high food drive.

And a dog that only eats when it's very hungry or in it's cozy house with no distractions?  Does that dog have usable food drive?  I'd argue "no".

Some dogs eat regardless of what is happening and others lose all appetite when they are excited.

That's Lyra.  She likes food well enough but any competing alternatives will negate her food interest.  If I starved her I'm sure there would come a point when she'd work for food even with competing interests, but why would I do that?  Is that humane?  I don't think so, especially if I can find alternatives that keep her in the game.  Honestly, if you're training for sport, it makes no sense at all to train a dog that has to be subjected to chronic deprivation in order to work.  That dog isn't cut out for competition, and that's perfectly fine.

Some trainers have never seen a dog who lacked food drive.  I'm surprised by that because I see it rather often - maybe 10% of the dogs I train do not have usable food drive.

If you've really never seen it, take a look at this video.  For background, this dog is young; about a year of age.  We have tried just about every food known to man; from kibble to tripe to cheese,  chicken, beef, etc.  both cooked and raw.  In this video, we show her favorites sitting on the floor - there for the taking.  This includes dehydrated tripe strips,  freeze dried lamb lung, and a popular cookie. As you can see, she is not overweight. At seven pounds, there would be serious ethical/medical concerns about not offering food for an extended period of time.  On the morning of this session she had not been offered breakfast, so one would expect that she would be hungry.  She has been training for several months, and is comfortable in the room.  She does know a few behaviors - touch, up, sit, down, a bit of heeling, etc.  Fortunately she has some interest in work for the sake of work, so the work causes the eating rather than the other way around.  Offering food "marks" approval rather than rewarding her.

She eats enough to keep her alive.  She eats to live; she does not live to eat.  It's important for dog trainers to recognize that this is a real phenomenon rather than suggesting that the owner just hasn't found the right food or withheld enough meals.  Finding alternatives to food is a necessary skill for a trainer, and probably the hardest thing I need to do.

In this video, you'll see that this dog could care less about the food laying around the room (which happens to include the food that is in the box).  What eventually captivates her and gets some work is the idea of "food as contest"; chasing the container, and curiosity about what might be in it.



Very interesting video. I’ve always been one of those who thought that those who said their dogs were not food motivated just weren’t doing it right; I stand corrected. All the dogs I’ve trained would work for dirt, but mostof them have been retrievers (assorted). My older flat-coat, Lia, is far more motivated by a tennis ball than by food delivered to hand, but when I click & then toss the food so she has to snatch it out of the air it trumps even the ball.

Connie Kaplan

That is really cool and interesting. Since I’m relatively new to dog training, all I can say is that my dog is awesome! She is not a chow hound and doesn’t overeat, but she will work for food and likes some stuff better than others. For a new trainer I think it would have been challenging/frustrating to have a dog that doesn’t have much food drive. I’m glad to have food as a tool to work with as I’m still learning how to use all the tools available to me to train Soba.

Laura, Lance, and Vito

Thank you! There are so many people who think if the dog isn’t working for food then the dog must be fat or you must be doing it wrong.

But, I do want to add that I think it’s possible to build more food drive. Most dogs who aren’t all that willing to work for food still get excited by their food dish as that is practiced twice a day.
I’ve also successfully premacked the swallowing of a treat to get a ball. And while I don’t think that would work with every dog, my toller will now usually take treats even when excited by his ball and doing so increased the value of the treats so that he usually takes them eagerly.


I like these comments. Yes, I think food drive can be built and yes, you can train without it and it surely makes you more creative, but I like as many options as possible.

Linda Black

So I have one of these….she has spit out $20/lb rabbit bites when shaping. At 3 years of age, I would say she see’s the offer of treats as a marker of “good” behavior but not as a reward, but that in itself was a long fought battle. She has toy drive up the wazoo. Her lack of interest in food has made teaching stationary behaviors challenging. My question is since I have a primary reinforcer (the toy, any toy) do I really care that she isn’t all that interested in food? Understanding that I have had to learn to be creative in rewarding certain behaviors, she has learned those behaviors. In reading your last blog post, I thought that was something I could try, but then the question arose…do I really care if she has food drive?

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