When you have a food-ambivalent dog

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how much of our interactions with dogs and “customs” around dog training are built on the assumption that a dog is interested in and motivated by food. When that isn’t the case, you have to think much, much harder and often dig deep for empathy when nothing seems to work like our default assumptions for dogs.

EDIT IN NOVEMBER 2022: this description no longer applies to Grace – see end of post for the longer update. I will leave the post here anyway since it may one day help someone to read about our experiences!

Please note before you read further: this is not a post to complain about her, nor an attempt to ask for help or advice. I’m simply writing this to talk about our experience to clarify my own thoughts and in case it helps someone else to hear our experiences. However, you’re welcome to ask me for more details because I have undoubtedly omitted a lot that has happened during her life, all the things I have tried and experimented simply because it’s not salient in my mind, because it’s too obvious to me to mention or because I’ve forgotten.

I was prompted to write this after buying a product that is supposed to clean dogs’ teeth and help with their breath with an enzyme in the chew (Veggiedent & Virbac Chew Strips). A friend recommended them and I thought I’d give them a try, even though I had my doubts about actually persuading Grace. And sure enough, both products were carefully sniffed before turning her head away to say “interesting, but no thank you”. I have since then succeeded in persuading Grace by covering the Veggiedent in wild boar pate (for dogs) and after licking it, she eventually also ate the stick.

Recently, I also rediscovered a tub of seaweed powder in my cupboards, and tried to mix it with her food as I did before with Nell which, predictably, resulted in Grace turning down the food altogether – same thing happens these days with green lipped mussel powder and any supplement that has even the slightest smell (collagen is odourless so that’s just about passable). This hasn’t always been the case: when we still had two dogs, Grace finished her food but since she has been by herself and there is no pressure from another dog potentially eating her food too, it’s far less predictable and she is much more selective. After seeing this behaviour recently with Zuma in the house, I have assumed the presence of another dog was/is often social pressure for Grace to eat something even if she doesn’t really want to (though not always).

From a recent camping trip – the night before she ate the same food from a large, open brain toy that is the same size as the orange bowl.

Another area of assumptions is around brain toys – they only work if the dog is motivated to get the food. Grace has been around brain toys her whole life and has previously been interested in them (modestly, compared to Nell) but as she gets older, she becomes more ambivalent about accessing food – if it’s easy, why not, but if it’s a lot of effort… forget it.

That is, unless the treats I have on offer that particular day are what she is in mood for – the same treats can be either be a yay or nay in the same location, same emotional state depending on the day or even time of day. What is OK today may not be later today or tomorrow, and vice versa again tomorrow or maybe next week! Not a major problem now, but if we ever have a situation where she needs to rest with only short walks, I won’t be able to entertain her the same way as I did Nell.

Yes, I have tried higher value treats and different kinds, but nothing is consistently high value for her. There’s not a lot higher I can go in terms of quality, and there is no real predictability what she values highly today, tomorrow or next week. On the human side, decision making psychology uses the term unstable preferences which fits Grace well.

One day she might request a second tripe stick (from the cupboard where they are kept, as she has been taught to ask), and other times there will be a tripe stick (or other chew) abandoned on the floor for several days until she spontaneously chooses to eat it. (For examples of the requesting behaviour, see bottom of post for videos)

If you give her a chew when she doesn’t want, she either refuses it, abandons it or hides it for later consumption. With two dogs this created a potentially risky situation so we moved to giving the dogs choice from half a dozen chews – Grace typically sniffs all options at least once and often licks a couple, picks one up only to put it down again before finally choosing.

Another example of these “unstable preferences” is from a few days ago when she specifically asked for poor quality kibble from a freebie bag we got somewhere – she requested it when the bag was open on the table, even though previously she was not interested. The next day she left them lying on the floor and ate something else – they were suddenly worthless.

Another day she asked for DARF Wild kibble (by indicating) that I bought for scattering while the other dog was here and keenly worked on a Kong Wobbler to get them – the day after, she carefully avoided them like poison when they were on the same plate as the poor quality kibble. I mention kibble because these are examples of foods she has spontaneously requested herself – not something I offered her – and still her preference changes dramatically from one day to the next. We always have at least 4-5 different kinds of treats in the house, and I also regularly make treats myself by baking and dehydrating them.

Watch how she carefully picks out the round pieces while avoiding eating ANY of the tube shaped kibble.

Mostly, she likes and accepts treats, but doesn’t feel strongly motivated to make an effort for them which means they are not rewarding for her in the same way they were to Nell. Her attitude towards food rewards could be described as “I’ll do it if I want to, and I may or may not take the treat as a bonus.”

Is it about threshold? Sometimes, but these days not often. When Grace was younger it was clearer when she was not in a mental state to be able to take food – these days, she will often sniff the treat offered to her for several seconds and then decide “no thanks”.

This happens in a wide range of locations and situations, including at home when she is relaxed. Even if she takes a treat, she sometimes spits it out immediately like it’s disgusting or takes a few treats of the same kind and then decides she doesn’t want them anymore. Sometimes you throw her a particular kind of treat to catch and she just lets it hit her in the face… while catching the next one which is a different brand and type. I regularly use treats as an arousal check in different situations, so I monitor this too.

She simply seems ambivalent about food – “if it’s tasty and I’m in the mood, I’ll eat it”. The traditional advice would probably be to force her to eat by starving her and giving her no options, but that goes against how our relationship is based on mutual trust and understanding. I have no way of knowing how she experiences the world and as such I cannot know what internal experiences are contributing to her different reactions to food. As a thought experiment, let’s think about why a human Grace might behave this way:

  1. Gastrointestinal sensitivity: She could have IBS or other “minor” gastroinstestinal issues which means food has both positive and negative associations. I say “minor” to differentiate from anything that in a dog would require medical intervention – some food might make her feel bloated and uncomfortable, and as such it’s hard to feel positive about food in general.
  2. Sensitivity to smell: She could have a very sensitive sense of smell, and as a consequence some foods smell (and/or taste) disgusting and offputting to her. I have a reaction like this to some ingredients (e.g. celery), and I know friends who have even stronger reactions.
  3. Other sensory sensitivity: She could also experience the mouthfeel of certain foods as aversive – for example, this is a relatively common thing for autistic people. I also have a friend who cannot drink orange juice with pulp or yoghurt with any kinds of lumps – both give her a gag reaction. Personally, I dislike things like meringue or in fact most cookies because the way they crumble in my mouth – even imagining it makes my skin crawl.

Forcing a human to eat certain foods in any of these three situations would seem unethical – so why do we consider it appropriate to recommend such approaches in dogs? I understand and admit that it is tempting because the opposite is often highly inconvenient to me and causes a lot of extra work – it would be so much easier to just keep it simple for myself and coerce Grace into what I want her to do when it comes to food (both meals and snacks).

So let’s think about dog Grace again to see what evidence we might have for each of the three challenges from the human list:

  1. Gastrointestinal sensitivity: Throughout her life, Grace’s poop has been variable – it can change in consistency even if nothing much has changed in her diet, or stay great when there are changes. In three years I haven’t been able to spot a consistent pattern but then again it has not been consistently bad either, so I’ve lacked a strong motivation to visually document her poops (yes, by photographing them) and meticulously tracking everything she eats. My ADHD brain struggles with even tracking my own food, so it’s doubly difficult to do so for her. But maybe one day I will do it consistently enough! For now, I have changed to predominantly wild meats for her meals and that seems to have had a positive impact on to her “outputs” – most of her treats are wild too, hopefully all in the near future.
  2. Sensitivity to smell: the fact that she usually smells the food (meals or treats) carefully before rejecting them suggests the smell is important to her, and also because the same food that was happily eaten previously will get rejected if I add a smelly supplement to it. She has also previously rejected entire meals if I mixed in a specific vegetable “compote” – I particularly remember a dehydrated vegetable BARF mix that included beetroot (and smelled accordingly) which caused an instant rejection of the food – meanwhile, Nell ate all of hers with great gusto.
  3. Other sensory sensitivity: when we still fed a DIY raw diet, it was a real challenge to get Grace to eat fish. She would take bits of whole fish in her mouth, chew it a little and spit out – at the same time, she would eat fish if it was ground to a pulp, cooked or dehydrated. We tested this dozens of times because it seemed so odd, and were left with the conclusion that fish simply has a mouthfeel she doesn’t like.

Note: none of these are easily verifiable hypotheses. #1 is not a serious enough a problem to get a vet involved (they’d likely think I’m crazy) and #2 and #3 are impossible to ascertain when she cannot tell me in English.

We have also exposed her to a wide range of foods throughout her life. As a puppy, she ate vegetables but later on has became very reluctant – to the point of eating around pureed vegetables or lifting clumps of it on the floor to get it out of the bowl. This is despite social learning opportunity from Nell who loved carrots, cucumbers and all the rest.

She is also sensitive to the food’s temperature – more so as she gets older. As a puppy, she would happily work on frozen Kongs but now… she will sniff it and leave it to defrost – often forgetting to go back to it. I’ve tried enticing her with peanut butter on the surface to get her licking (to test if she’d do it once she gets started), but she will simply stop when the peanut butter runs out and the rest is too much effort. Combined with her disinterest in making an effort to get food, this makes it quite difficult to use Kong’s for any kind of settling training or as a relaxing activity after something exciting or stressful which is relatively common advice.

Thankfully, we don’t need to do much of this anymore but it’s certainly very different than being able to bring something to e.g. agility competitions as a break time activity to lower arousal and relaxation/refuel, and something like crate training would also typically include food. Kongs were also something we used when training Nell to be home alone, and previously used food when leaving the two dogs home. We’ve really slacked in our training for Grace to be home alone after Nell died, but I already know food will probably not be useful in the process – and this also an example where toys and social rewards do not work.

Lack of consistency in food rewards being, err, rewarding also makes a lot of training much more challenging. For example, toy rewards are not always a good choice because they tend to raise arousal levels and that’s not always appropriate or desirable. In agility, she thankfully takes food because toys tend to amp her up too much – IF they happen to be motivating in the first place.

Food scatters stop being a useful management tool when the dog just doesn’t care (e.g. sniffs at the food on offer and rejects it) or it works on 1 occasion out of 20, and meanwhile you end up throwing a large amount of relatively expensive high quality treats on the ground (which is why I have scatter kibble, but see earlier point about how unpredictable that is too).

There is also no clear solution to this: if you were to google “my dog isn’t food motivated” typical answers revolve around switching to higher quality treats, exploring what kinds of treats your dog finds most rewarding, observing their mental state to see if they’re above threshold etc. I’m aware of all these and I’ve tested my way through lots of hypotheses already – to be fair, they likely apply to a large percentage of dogs who are described as not motivated by food by their humans.

If I was to engage a dog professional, I’m fairly sure they would also suspect those things too and it would take me a long time and money in the number of sessions required to not only explain but document video evidence of even these examples I’ve listed here as well as providing evidence that a) to some extent she has always been like this, b) for the first 2 years of her life I treated her exactly the same as her permanently hungry spaniel friend, and c) this has become more challenging with age. Moreover, the problem with documenting unpredictable behaviour is that, well, it’s unpredictable.

She also has a long learning history of receiving food as reinforcement and she used to be more motivated by food rewards when Nell was around – however, this ambivalence has been observable her whole life to a lesser degree. Her breeder told me that even as a puppy she sat back when the breeder put food down for the pups, and just watched calmly for a while when all the other puppies ran to the food before joining them.

To be clear: it would be inaccurate to say she isn’t “food motivated” – she is, but very unpredictably and inconsistently so. This makes a lot of training and life situations like three dimensional mental chess for me to work out what might be on her mind and what might be motivating right now.

For sure, I guess one solution specifically for training would be to bring a cabin luggage sized bag with me everywhere with different toys, 10 types of treats etc. and offer all of them in turn like a human slot machine but… in the real world that’s not really possible so it can be hit and miss. Additionally, purpose-driven training is only a small part of our lives – Grace feeling mehhh about food is something that affects many small everyday things.

In case you’re wondering: social rewards are motivating for her (or as her breeder put it: she works for love). Unfortunately they are not suitable for all occasions and purposes, and it’s a double-edged sword because she can be quite sensitive to handler pressure. I’m learning it’s a fine line between rewarding with praise and her pushing herself when she’s not comfortable doing so. She’s very subtle in her signs of discomfort and requires me to pay close attention to her.

So, I will just keep exploring and experimenting but I have to say I didn’t realise how much I would miss having a dog who loves food. If you have a dog who likes food, count your blessings!

EDIT: 3 months after I wrote this, Grace is like a different dog: she is ready in the kitchen waiting for meals before they’re served, she keenly works for treats, and she’s incredibly persistent with food toys. The only thing we have changed is that mid-September we removed all beef, chicken and lamb from her diet (i.e. mass produced meats) – she now eats rabbit, boar, deer, duck, fish and occasionally horse. I can’t conclude that she was allergic to anything but her attitude towards food has changed completely so there must have been something going on. Whatever it is, it’s lovely to have a dog with a normal appetite!

November 2022: Never seen her enjoy a Kong with such gusto! She’s like a different dog…

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