Can a Dog be TOO Food Motivated?

We packed up our stuff and I walked Lola outside to the car, both of our feet crunching down the ice and snow in the parking lot. She hopped in the back and I got in the front seat. I turned on the engine and just sat there for a minute, thinking, pondering. I was disappointed. I was somewhat disappointed in myself and in Lola. Were my expectations of her too high? How come she did not listen as well as I thought she would? What went wrong? How could it have been different? I thought I had done a great job of exposing her to different situations and settings. Is it my fault for even bringing her to this event, was I being selfish?

Which brought me to the question I was asking myself, “Can a dog be too food motivated”?

Earlier that month, I had brought Lola to an audition. A dog modeling audition to be exact (more on how we got into that will be brought up in another post). I thought to myself, “How cool is this, it seems unreal”?! I was excited and I  thought it was worth a shot, the experience can’t hurt and what the heck…it’s not like she’ll be picked anways.

The audition went great. Lola sat there like the little model she was for the (short) moment and wasn’t bothered one bit by the bright flash, equipment and people surrounding her. I only had to correct her once when she broke her stay, but overall she rocked it. I was so proud of her. All the ‘sit-stays’ and ‘down-stays’ we have been practicing were paying off.

Three weeks later I received the phone call – Lola was chosen.

They wanted LOLA for the photo shoot! My heart raced with joy and excitement.

I raced to pick up Lola, she jumped in the back of the car and drove up to the photo studio. The setup was very familiar to the one from the audition a few short weeks ago, only this time it was for real.

We arrived at the large, warehouse-type studio and waited for a short period of time before it was our turn. Lola was doing fine and was sitting calmly next to me. Since the shoot was for dog costumes, we tried a costume on her to make sure it was the right size. Everything was going fine. I had my training treats and she was staying focused. I expected her actions to follow our previous experience at the audition.

Once it was our turn, I was told to stand off to the side and the photographer was the one handling her (may have also contributed). They then brought out HAM and CHEESE! I’m sure Lola was thinking, “Wow! This is awesome.”. And then everything went down hill. She started losing focus, trying to sniff out that bowl of ham and became very anxious to receive the reward. She held her ‘sit-stay’ for about a minute and then began to lose focus yet again, becoming a little too interested in that strong aroma coming out of that bowl! At one point, she even ran off the set and over to a duffle bag. Well, this was a duffle bag chock-FULL of treats. This was not normal and I couldn’t help but continue to go back to my question.

So what exactly do I mean, “Can a dog be too food motivated?” Can a dog value food too much so that it begins to negatively effect your results when training. Can they begin to lose focus if they are too interested in the reward and not performing what you are asking of them?

Can a dog be too motivated to the point where they don't respond as well?! @lolathepitty

My immediate response was yes. I believe that had the situation been handled different, the results would have followed. I kept going through what could have been done differently. I would have taken away the ham, cheese, and other meat that was left open in a bowl. I would’ve used lower value treats in either a plastic bag or treat bag like we typically do. However, I am not an expert so I consulted with Lori Nanan, one of the trainers behind Your Pit Bull and You and owner of La Dolce Doggie.

Here is what Lori had to say, along with tips if you have experienced a similar issue:

“If a dog appears to be overly-interested in getting to the food without having done the work to do so, it’s possible there are a few things going on. One is that the dog has learned that the preparation of food, the putting on of the bait pouch and the moving to a specific location predicts training is about to begin and so becomes very excited. To address this issue, you can teach the dog that all of those things predict nothing and vary your food prep time, wear your bait pouch all the time and vary the locations and times that you train.

Another is that the smell of the food is very salient and therefore overshadows everything else, so the dog is unable to focus on anything other than that smell. In that case, placing food in a baggie inside a bait pouch can be helpful, or use a food that is a little less stinky. Making sure that you don’t reach for the food until the dog has completed the behavior is important and this is where a clicker or marker word can be helpful, because they buy you time to get the primary reinforcer to the dog. You always want to be sure to mark (or click) and then reach for the food (or have a stash in your other hand behind your back.) The dog is generally in more of a rush to get to the reinforcer than we are, so by marking the behavior, we are letting the dog know that it’s coming.

If food is consistently an issue, one could “close the economy” to some extent, which means that the dog earns part of his daily rations via training. By doing this, the food becomes more valuable to the dog and this generally increases motivation. You can also audition other classes of reinforcers, such as toys, play and simple praise.” – Lori Nanan, CTC, CPDT-KA

I immediately associated what had happened with the smell overshadowing everything else going on. Lola was unable to focus on anything and quite frankly began to lose her mind over that smell.

Have you ever ran into this issue with a dog?

Typically, I use this food reward continuum from Your Pit Bull and You below but I believe in this specific case, the treats used were actually too high of value.

Source: Your Pit Bull and You
Source: Your Pit Bull and You

43 Replies to “Can a Dog be TOO Food Motivated?”

  1. I had this happen with a training student once. The owner thought is she used some if that “dog sausage”, you know the stinky stuff that comes in a roll? That maybe this would be a good motivated for her dog in class. Well, turns out it was way to high value for her guy. He wouldn’t listen because he was way too focused on the food. When we turned our backs on him for just a second, he was in her purse pulling out the Baggie if treats! We had to switch it out for a less rewarding treat and he did a lot better.

    1. Well I’m glad to know we’re not alone ;). Lola became quickly un-motivated to do anything BUT get to those treats, ha. It’s just a process of finding out what value certain treats have to your dog. What may be too-high valued to one dog may be necessary for another. Thanks for commenting!

    2. I ran across this story today and thought this is my dog! I adopted my first pit cross this year and have never met a more food focussed dog. I have had basenjis in the past, picky eaters, but this dog will scarf anything! I have used clicker training – still too food focussed even with carrots and sqeaky toys get her revved up so far it isn’t even funny. Voice and touch are the only rewards that I have been able to use and still maintain focus. I have trained a lot of dogs and this one takes the cake! Lol.

  2. My dog is super, crazy, uber food motivated. So much so that if I actually want to have a real training session, I need to use his kibble. Even the least smelly treat is too exciting for teaching new behaviors.

    On the flip side, his extreme food motivation makes training certain things easier. For example, I needed to use kibble to teach sit, but when I wanted to teach “we always sit on an elevator, no matter who else is in it”, I needed him to focus on me and only me and stinky fish treats did the trick. Normally, Kabota attention seeks with humans and wants to greet all other dogs, but with the fish treats, he wouldn’t have cared if an 800 lb gorilla stepped onto the elevator. The same proved true with getting him to look at me when he was spooking at almost everything on walks.

    It’s like anything else with positive training- you need to know your dog and figure out what to do with that knowledge.

  3. Glad I am not the only one! My Chihuahua Basil is so food motivated that it can make training a problem because as soon as he realises we are in training mode or I reach for the treat pouch he either dances in his back legs or sits. When we tried to teach him drop it all he would do is sit and look at us!

  4. The higher value treats could be used as a distraction to help proof the stays. This could work with some dogs, but if I used this with Eja, my very food motivated boy, he would be drooling buckets.

  5. I have a new (failed) foster who is a puppy mill rescue and who has not used his brain in the past. He is SO food motivated that he will actually fall down trying to get to a treat. We are struggling to figure out what is high enough value without making him lose total focus. Any tips would be appreciated.

    1. Hi Brenda,
      As the guide shows, we use different ‘value’ treats for different situations – but just tone it down a little ;). At home, we can get away with using Lola’s dog food as the reward. She will work hard for that! I knew right away when the ham was brought out in this scenario that Lola would begin to lose her mind. I think soft dog training treats in this case would have been sufficient. Have you tried just using your dog’s kibble for training?

  6. Fascinating – I have this issue with mu Border terrier, she can become so excited by knowing there is food around she loses focus completely and gets completely strung up to the point where she’s quivering with anticipation. I get round it to some extent at home by using low value treats (eg kibble), things like cheese or sausage are far too arousing. Even then I haven’t really been able to free shape behaviours with her as much as I’d like because she gets more and more anxious if she can’t figure out immediately how to earn her next food reward, so I have to break everything down into tiny steps with guaranteed quick payback or she goes into meltdown. I’ve never come across this with any other dog nor heard it discussed before as a potential problem so it’s very interesting to read this.

    1. Hi Fiona,
      Lola does this, too! She will actually begin to quiver with excitement the moment we begin preparing her food for a meal. We always make her sit and wait while we put her food on the ground and once we give her the command, “Okay”, she can begin eating. If I try to add any other requests in there, she begins shaking and becoming a nervous/jittery mess! BUT…I have been working on it and I will say that consistency has been paying off. She has learned that she has to focus and do as I ask and she will THEN be rewarded :). Good luck!

    2. Hmmm… I’m having the same issue with my one-year old rescue Dachshund, who is basically a nose on legs!
      He will also start quivering and salivating when I as much as move towards the treats. I can’t really use kibble because he won’t eat it (he’s on a raw food diet). I generally use the soft treats and have been since he’s been with me (4 months now). I had no idea there were different levels of motivational treats… I might have to seek out something else, if I understand correctly.
      He is still learning the basics and has got his head around sit, down, stay (I can move back about 2 meters before his attention is drawn away by something else), paw (only the left one)… but hey, it’s a start. He was taught absolutely nothing while he was a puppy and was basically confined to a crate most of the time…
      I occasionally have to use treats to get him to stay close to me when there are lots of people around, because he has this tendency to follow his nose, which means he’s scooting around all over the place, from left to right and back again… If I dare stop somewhere to have a chat with someone he will start barking at me to get treats… which kind of exasperates me. I know you’re just meant ignore them and they will quieten down, but when you’re trying to have a conversation with someone, it can become extremely annoying!

      1. Hi Tania,
        Sounds like you have a little work cut out for you, but doesn’t every dog owner? Haha. Keep up the training, he’ll get better. I’ve learned patience is the most important thing when training. But yes, you have it right – play with the different levels of treats – you’ll quickly learn what is “high value” to him and what is a much lower value. Best of luck!

  7. Congratulations on being chosen for the photoshoot! Lola really is a little model, wouldn’t you say? 🙂

    As far as being overly food motivated, I will say that my dog is that way only with a tennis ball. There are times when he simply will not stay if someone is holding a tennis ball, and it can be really, really frustrating. Over the years, I’ve worked with him a lot on remaining calm and focused around a ball, I guess I’ve done this the same way you would slowly build a dog’s focus around other “exciting” things like other dogs or squirrels or whatever it might be. And yes, he sits and shakes sometimes as you’ve described, only he does this around a tennis ball, not food.

    Crazy dogs. 🙂

    We’ve made progress, but there are always challenging situations, especially when he’s really “amped up” for whatever reason.

    1. Hey thanks! Yes, she is quite the little model ;). Ha, well now that you mentioned the tennis ball – I guess if someone bounced one of those in front of Lola, she might have lost her stay, too. At home and in training of course she does pretty well with distractions, but then there’s always the real world. And flyball has only increased the desire of the tennis ball! I guess you could say she’s a little obsessive/driven. Thanks for stopping by.

  8. I’ve run in to this a few times in puppy class, needing to trade out the string cheese and chicken for a more “boring” food item like a milk-bone piece or the dog’s regular food if the handler is experiencing shark-like behaviors in their puppy. Lowering the value of the food reward for those pups who are keeping their handlers busy with bite inhibition PLUS everything else they need to be putting together during foundation training!

  9. I’ve definitely experienced food over-stimulation. I have a spitz mix who is very prone to frustration barking. It has been a complicated dance training him, because if he gets fed up with a task he easily finds it more rewarding to bark at me than figure out what makes me hit the clicker. One time when we were taking a class, I had trained with him extensively the week before so he knew the commands. In class we performed perfectly in front of the trainer, so she selected us to demo. I switched to the most high value treats I had brought, cooked chicken bits, and he just lost it after he ate the first one. He was running up to me, nosing the treat bag, and barking, barely registering that I was asking him to do commands. Whoops! He usually only gets homemade dried chicken jerky because I don’t want to carry around slimy chicken, which may have contributed to his reaction.

  10. Mort is this way with the frisbee! It is too much of a reward that he doesn’t focus on me for what I’m asking him. I have to switch to a less rewarding type of disc, or different kind of reward altogether. He’s pretty food oriented too but it doesn’t seem to overload… I have to laugh though (LOVE your chart on the post)… I had them both working really hard for a *grain of rice* the other day. Just happened to have a few left on my plate and decided to work them for the bits. One frikkin’ grain of rice as the reward. GREAT post, btw!!!

    1. Haha!!! Jen, your dogs sound like Lola. Although it wasn’t a grain of rice, it was a piece of shredded lettuce that Lola was working for, lol. Silly girl. And we can totally relate to you with the disc – I’m sure Mort starts jumping around the same way, running around you and barely about to sit his butt on the ground before he can take off to fetch the disc. Thanks for stopping by.

      1. Haha! Lettuce is the only thing my dogs have refused (so far). They spit it out like “really…”

        Mort goes insane for the disc but will do absolutely anything he already knows for me to toss it. Sits, downs, etc… actually has totally helped train an “emergency down”. But new behaviors? Really iffy – too amped to concentrate I think!

  11. I totally get this. I have 3 Boxers; all highly food motivated. Malcolm is the worst though. He will steal food out of my dog bag and if he can’t get that, he’ll take it from another handler. They (whoever “they” are) always say to bring your dog ‘hungry’ to class so that he’ll want the treats and work for them. HA! NEVER! Mine have always been fed about 45 mins. before they go to agility or obedience classes. They’ve never turned down the treat, but if they are hungry, look out everyone else. Malcolm is coming for your treat bag. He’ll take everyone’s treats. He’s not particular. He will work for regualr training treats, but if some other handler has cut up cheese or hot dogs, look out. Malcolm won’t behave at all until he gets them. Then he’s fine. LOL
    PS. He’s really great in school too. He actually does what he’s asked very well. Just not when he smells hot dogs.

    1. Hi Brenda,
      I’m so glad that so many people share our *issues*, lol! Lola does quite well also, but we as the owners know them best and what works well :). Thanks for commenting.

  12. Congrats on being selected for the photo shoot! Don’t be down on yourself because it didn’t go as you had hoped. Think of it as an opportunity to see what you need to work on next!

    No to being too food motivated. It’s an important trainer skill to be able to reward dogs while keeping them “in their head”…it the dog becomes too fixated on the receipt of reinforcement, it is difficult for them to learn/think about the behavior that preceded the reinforcer…puts them in a reactionary frame of mind, not a thinking one. This can often happen with owners who train with toys to increase drive/enthusiasm…the toy becomes so motivating that the dog is unable to think about what it’s job is. It’s essentially an impulse control issue.

    You may also have run into a situation where you dog was asked to perform some skills in a novel environment without a critical environmental antecedent…YOU. Sometimes, when we are teaching dogs, the dogs come to over-rely on us for focus,guidance, and impulse control. In the photo shoot, you mentioned that you were not longer the handler but the photographer was and then your dog lost focus when they brought out ham & cheese. Is it possible if you were still “inthe picture” that your dog would have been able to remain focused? If the answer is YES, that’s great because you just need to change your location/proximity to your dog when training!

    1. Hi Scott,
      Thanks for the comment. It does give us an opportunity to learn what we need to work on.
      It’s funny that you mention training with toys. We are involved in flyball and while we never reward with toys for training, it is clear in flyball training that she is so focused and driven on the ball. Getting her attention to focus on anything but her ‘job’ for the flyball routine can be difficult – even treats immediately lose all value. She is a very obsessive dog – however, sometimes a weakness can be one’s biggest strength I believe.
      During the shoot, myself being taken out of the equation almost certainly contributed to the actions. I was standing to the side but was not the one working with/handling her. I think if I was the one working with her using my choice of reward, it would have went much smoother. Like many dogs, I think they rely on their main handler for direction/cues for several reasons. Would you say that it is less preferable if a dog is ‘over-reliant’ on their handler?

      1. It depends on the dog and its needs. But I do feel it is important to empower dogs to make choices for themselves(in situations where it is safe and appropriate to do so)…it contributes to helping the relationship between the dog and their person flourish and blossom! However, only if the dog wants or needs that…sometimes they want/need for us to help them with choices to reduce their stress/anxiety/frustration.

  13. Great post! My youngest rescue definitely has this issue. He can barely restrain himself during training session if he sees I have food. Challenging! But I have seen progress the more we use the clicker and work on his self control.

    1. Thanks, Patty! We are also training with the clicker! Keep up the good work with your pup…I’ve learned that consistency and repetition are the most valuable tools! Thanks for commenting 🙂

  14. Bentley is only motivated by food! BOL! If we are doing tricks or taking photos, I cannot have the treats in my hand or he will continually go after it. Don’t beat yourself up over it, it was your first time. : )

    1. Thanks, Melissa. I’m wondering if we should even continue (that is of course IF we get a call back ever, haha!)…I keep asking myself if it’s worth it and if it’s selfish of me. Anyways, too funny about Bentley, he’s probably thinking, “Well mama, they smell so good I can’t resist!!”. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  15. Yes, Blueberry has this issue too! I started training her using cut up turkey dogs for her because of the nose-work training. Well, she goes nuts for them; so much so that the sweet little old lady at the park that hands out bits of hot dogs to the dogs there (all the dogs run to her) had her little baggy of hot dogs swiped by my Blueberry! Apparently the old lady wasn’t moving fast enough so B thought she’d just speed things along.

    So now, I avoid that lady until I get the situation with B figured out. She is just so crazy for certain treats. I will have to try the lower value ones and try to work our way back up. Hard to believe she’s the same dog I adopted from a rescue 2 years ago that would refuse all treats as if I were trying to poison her. 😉

    1. Too funny! Well except that Blueberry stole all her hot dogs! So I guess “less value” treats it is! Thanks for commenting 🙂

  16. I can’t tell you how glad I am that you took the time to consult with Lori. Many people, confronted with the same situation, would simply stop using food. It’s important to keep all pain-free motivational tools in your tool box. I have a dog very much like yours. He’s a hound, and once he smells the Pecorino Romano, he gets very very excited. So, when I am training ordinary behaviors, I use something less smelly, such as Charlie Bear treats, or kibble, or organic dog biscuits. However, his important behaviors, such as recall, are trained with the most delicious morsels I can dream up. That’s cheese, beef, and turkey time!!! As trainers, we need to understand that all dogs can be trained using principles of force free training, but that we can vary our management, reinforcement, and other variables to create an environment where it’s most likely for the dog to succeed.

    1. Hi Anne,
      Thanks for the comment. I love reading Lori’s posts and then putting her training methods to work with our own dogs – we have made so much progress with both of them in the past few months. We used to use a prong collar (eek, I know) on Lola because that is what our trainer recommended…well, no longer. I now see a different trainer who uses all positive reinforcement and it’s been amazing. And like you said, we really just have to learn what motivational tools to use. We now know in situations like that, use a lower value treat. However, if we are out at the park (where she could care less about the treats we use at home) and I need her to come to me, I now reward her with a high value treat such as chicken pieces. I feel like we are really growing and bonding as a team now. Thanks again.

  17. Delilah is so motivated that a green bean makes her salivate, I kid you not. If I pull out a treat for a reward, she will bust past Sampson and try and take it. Of course, I don’t let her, but she tries.

    She is also a gulper, meaning when I give a treat if I don’t present it exactly the right way, half my hand ends up in her mouth. Most times I’m very careful about treating her and making her work for it, but there are times when I don’t have that luxury. Like if I’m trying to walk them past a reacting dog.

    My walk treats are high value, because I want them to return to me, regardless, I just have to get her better at realizing the treat is there and she will get it. I feel your frustration.

    1. Had to laugh at the remark that ‘a green bean makes her salivate’, lol! It has to be of extremely high value for Lola to get goofy, but none the less, it can be annoying. Glad to know others get to suffer with me, ha. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  18. Haha, I’m surprised you only put food rolls on the “medium-high” side of the spectrum, because my dog would basically do backflips for natural balance rolls! My first trainer turned us on to them when she wouldn’t pay any attention to me and my measly treats but was constantly running to him for attention. My pup is EXTREMELY food motivated and has picked up some bad habits, one of the worst getting super excited and jumping up when a complete stranger puts his hands in his pockets, because sometimes we carry treats there. I stopped using my pockets for treats about a year ago, but she still hasn’t stopped associating! Dogs have looooong memories 🙂


  19. I have a lab/hound mix who comes unglued when I use treats for training
    All of the comments and suggestions here are very helpful. I am going to lower the “value” of the treats in an effort to get him to focus on me instead of my hand with the treat. I also am working on “gentle” when taking a treat; tired of losing my hand every time I give him a treat during training.

  20. Great article! I completely have this issue with my 3 year old Border Collie. We did a lot of her agility training with food and now she will not work for long unless food is used to reward. Currently, she will will not work for anything else (toys etc) so we had to go back to the beginning and teach value for other things besides food. Very frustrating as she has great agility skills but now on course will just sniff and be distracted. She is a slug out there! in a timed event 🙁

  21. Yes, my dog is the same. She is a 3 yo mini aussie-shep mix and loves food. If she hears the crunching of a wrapper she will likely seek out where it’s coming from in hopes that she will get something. I read through comments and I know to use kibble or lower value things but what can I do for situations where someone has a plate of food and I ask her to come but don’t have anything on me (we’re at a party or whatever) and she won’t listen? She looks for a second and then continues to sit in front of the person in hopes of food. Even if I ask for ‘touch’ one of her other favorite cues, she just sits there and seems to get more worked up. Should I just work on set ups of this scenario? Making sure I have the highest value so when she does choose to leave it’s just as awesome? Thanks!

    1. Thanks. That was intended and I do understand the difference between “too”, “to”, and “two”.

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