Every so often there’s a dog who does not really care to work for treats or toys or praise; it may enjoy those things but not care enough for them to have a motivational impact. What do you do about these dogs?
The long answer is that you slowly, over time, build up the “value” of the treats, toys and praise – hand-feeding meals is a time-honored way to develop more food drive, or making the dog work for some or most of his kibble (“no free meals!”), and spending time encouraging your dog to play with you (in some cases, especially with rescue dogs, you have to literally teach them how to play), and building your relationship with your dog until your praise really starts to have meaning for him.
But until you get your reward systems in place, then what?
One thing to think about is that if a dog doesn’t want the treats, toys and praise, what does he want? Most likely the answer is ACCESS. He wants to sniff the grass, go exploring, continue the walk, check things out. And you lucky owner, do have control of your dogs access to stuff. You decide what he gets to sniff, where he gets to go, what he gets to see. The great news is that you can use this “access” to stuff as a reward that’s equally or even more motivating than traditional treats!
Let’s say you’re walking by a patch of inviting grass. Your dog really wants to sniff the grass, but is willing to walk with you on the boring sidewalk instead. “Sit,” you request, but the dog just looks longingly at the grass. You don’t budge though; you’re not going to move off that sidewalk until you get what you want, which is a sit. Finally the dog sits. Praise and “Go sniff!” as you trot your dog over to the grass and reward it with a good sniff session.
What will happen next time you walk your dog past a distraction, and then cue “Sit”? I would bet that it sits very quickly!
You don’t have to allow access as a reward every single time, but it helps if you occasionally allow access. I once had a dog who loved to run so much that she would do anything if the reward afterwards was to run for a couple of steps. After a while, as she grew more experienced with training, she started to develop a taste for treats and toys as well, and now she’s willing to work with those too, but for initial work running was her favorite reward. She’s now a great dog who can work without rewards outside of practice sessions, so be prepared to think outside the box and come up with other reinforcers if your dog doesn’t seem to care about food or toys right now.