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  • Writer's pictureJUNO & CO

Training the unmotivated dog

The classic conundrum. When we talk about a dog not being fussed on treats or toys, we are actually talking about the dogs drives. These are the unconscious, biological impulses that carry out important functions. They manifest in a dog physically, through their personality, behaviour and energy. How a dog sees and reacts to things, such as food, toys, people, dogs, rabbits, squirrels, cars, joggers, things that move all come under the umbrella of drives.

Drives are innate, but they can be affected by a dogs environment and handling. It is so important to recognise and understand drives in order to develop and build on them or harness them to curb unwanted behaviours.

Building Drive With Food

Let’s clear something up first. If a dog was COMPLETELY unmotivated by food, then they simply would not eat. There are a few reasons why your dog may not work for treats; stress, weight/health issues, you’re training after feeding time, training for too long or your treats simply aren’t ‘good’ enough. Here are a few things you can do to build your dogs food drive.

Ditch the bowl & Start Training

Each day starts with a big pot of value. If you are an amazeballs dog owner, then you will be taking the opportunity to add training into all interactions & events - so you need that value right? But what do you do with all that value? Most, put it in a bowl, place it on the floor and leave it there for their dog. The dog will eat from the bowl without much thought, without having to earn it. They have not got anything from it, other than energy and nutrition. Sounds like a waste doesn’t it?

Recognise the opportunity to always be training your dog, no matter what the day throws at you. Dogs love to work for their food. It is a practical and psychological act that taps into their natural instincts. They had to hunt and scavenge for their own food many moons ago, and in fact scavenging played a vital role in the domestication of dogs. The chance to be independent, to show off what they can do, to engage their brain, to move physically & grow their confidence? MASSIVELY reinforcing.

A team of Swedish researchers found that dogs who had to work for their treats were more motivated and keen to return to the area where the work was being carried out. The researchers concluded that dogs enjoy problem solving and making decisions, and having the opportunity to do this has a positive effect on them - they called this the Eureka Effect! It is a simple concept that is accessible to everyone, even if your dog is raw fed or requires medication with their food.

Scatter feeding

Scatter feeding engages your dog both physically and mentally. It gets them using their superpower nose which is not only reinforcing but calming too. Imagine walking to work in the morning and finding £1 on the floor. And then finding another £1. And another, and another and another! Your area of the brain that deals with reinforcement would be going into overdrive ! What a great set up to the day. Even better, having to hunt every last bit of food builds their confidence, frustration tolerance and grit. Top Tip: scatter feed in places you want to reinforce calm behaviours. Are you planning on taking your dog to work with you or would you like a good cafe & pub dog? Scatter feed.

Interactive Toys

There is a huge variation of enrichment toys available for your dog. They engage your dog in natural behaviours, build confidence, prevent boredom and problem behaviours and develops problem solving skills. Snuffle mats, puzzle toys, slow feeders, hide and seek toys, bobbing or rolling dispenser toys are just a few examples. You can shop our recommended enrichment toys here. You can also create your own enrichment toys or games. Try our free scent work guide for some ideas of games you can play or check our YouTube channel for DIY toys and How-To training and trick tutorials.

Stuffed Toys

Filling toys with food is a valuable way to reinforce calmness as licking is an appeasement behaviour. They give your dog an engaging yet calming job. Stuff your kongs, snakes and lickimats with their food or treats. Freeze them if you want them to last longer or if the weather is warm! If using a kong, be sure to put a straw through the two holes when freezing to prevent any tongues getting stuck.

Try something new

My dogs will work for kibble in the house, no problemo. Out in the fields with the scents of rabbits and squirrels, other dogs, joggers, running children, bikers, tennis players? no chance, I’m just being honest, I’m being realistic. A lot of trainers advise to train with kibble, and for some it works. There is no way either of my pet gundogs would work around rabbits and squirrels if they knew that their reward was kibble. In those kind of distracting environments, I am asking them to work really hard to curb their natural instinct to chase - so its only fair that I pay them right. That being said, their reward doesn’t necessarily have to be a store bought treat. Things like pate, fresh meat, peanut butter, salmon chunks, hot dogs and cheese are the ultimate jackpot - but you would be surprised how much your dog would like the things you don’t often consider as ‘treats’. Here are a few examples:

Carrot, eggs, blueberries, plain popcorn, pineapple, seedless watermelon, blackberries, peas, apples, broccoli, sweet potato, coconut, mango, bananas, strawberries, oranges, celery, yoghurt, cranberries, cucumbers, peaches, pears, raspberries, Brussel sprouts, cabbage & spinach. Note: Moderation is key. Remember to remove the skin, rind, pits and seeds of fruits as these can be difficult to digest and/or toxic.

Building Drive With Toys

Food holds essential value. A dog cannot survive without food, so knowing how to eat food comes naturally to them . Toys don’t hold this value, function or purpose, so we need to show our dogs how playing with toys can be rewarding. We can do this in a variety of ways but we need to understand why our dog isn’t playing with toys. Here are some things that can influence your dogs play drive with toys.

Mixing it up

Research has shown that dogs adapted Neophilia as a trait during the domestication process. Simply, they love anything new, novel and unusual. One study researched 16 Labradors by presenting each one with a toy for 30 seconds. The toy was then taken away for no longer than 15 minutes before being returned to the dog. This was repeated until the dog became bored (habituated) and any interaction with the toy had ceased. The dog was then given a new toy and the exercise was repeated. The dogs lost interest in all of the toys after five 30-second intervals of exposure. That is only 2.5 minutes! It is unrealistic to rotate our toys this often, but the study gives us an insight into a dogs level of interest. So, mix up what toys your dog gets, when they get them, and for how long. Rotate them each day so there is a different variety of toys for them to interact with. This helps to prevent boredom with a toy due to constant access. It is also a good idea to put a few special toys aside for walks/outdoor training only. We have a Kong Wubba, Tug-e-nuff Rabbit Skin Chase, Kiwi Walkers hoop & a lotus ball just for our outdoor adventures.


A single toy may not be interesting to your dog, but you can create a brand new toy by combining two together. Get creative! Ropes and balls, sticks and discs! You can also combine dog toys with things that your dog already finds reinforcing, like rough play, treats or going outside. Toys you can stuff with food like kongs, snakes, lotus balls and puzzles are also great toys to ease a dog into play.

The Dogs Senses

In order to understand the significance of what toy you’re using and the influence it has on your dogs motivation & drive, it is important to understand how the dogs senses can influence their interest.

  • The Olfactory System: Toys are typically made from human-made chemicals, some of which are toxic to our dogs, upset the microbiome and offer an unpleasant scent. Dogs are natural scavengers which mean they are very partial to carrion; disgustingly smelling, rotting, and decaying things. Try to keep these innate characteristics in mind when choosing your toys and what you’re filling them with. Remember, dogs use scent to get their information about other dogs. If you have more than one dog using the toys or you are buying things second hand, this might influence your dogs motivation to play with it.

  • Can dogs see colour? Dogs cannot differentiate between certain colours, like green and red (which is why we use red kong for scent work!). Remember this when buying your toys. A good example is the standard green tennis balls. Dogs see green as brown. What will a green ball look like to a dog against green grass? Or against brown wooden flooring? A whole lot of brown. So not only is the colour of the toys influential, but the environment we are using them in too.

  • A Dogs Sight:bVision will influence the toys they play with, from the colour to the degree of light and movement. Dogs see distance and movement better than us but they do not see stillness as well. Have you noticed if you throw a ball your dog sees it quicker? Or once it has landed they have to use their nose to find it instead? Studies have also shown that dogs inherited a crepuscular activity level, meaning they are most active during twilight, dusk and dawn. Take advantage of these times of day to help motivate your dog to play with his toys. Think of the so called puppy ‘witching’ hour!

  • Dog’s Hearing: Humans hear mostly in ranges from 20 to 20,000 Hz, whereas dogs mostly hear in ranges from 67 Hz to 60,000. This is why I am such a big fan of whistle training (Acme Silent or Acme 211.5) and it is also why I love those really cheap pocket sized squeakers from pets at home! They are great to take out on walks to use as a disengagement technique. These high pitched noises are unmistakable to a dog and travel far greater distances than lower frequency sounds.

Prey Drive

Take advantage of a dog’s prey drive. Dog’s naturally want to chase things that move. When thrown, dragged around, put on the end of a flirt pole, rolled, toys will naturally elicit a chase response in your dog. Make that toy come alive! Animate it, move it around and wriggle it like a squirrel (not in his face though!) Most importantly, play WITH your dog. You will build a much stronger relationship playing together. Be sure to check-in with your own emotional state though, don’t play when you’re stressed or stretched for time, give him your full self, be present and be enthusiastic, even if you do receive a few funny looks at the dog park. You won’t regret it.


Dunbar, I., 2010. Before And After Getting Your Puppy. [Place of publication not identified]: New World Library. 2020. Hearing Range. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 8 August 2020].

Kaulfuß, P. and Mills, D., 2008. Neophilia in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) and its implication for studies of dog cognition. Animal Cognition, 11(3), pp.553-556.

Lind, O., Milton, I., Andersson, E., Jensen, P. and Roth, L., 2017. High visual acuity revealed in dogs. PLOS ONE, 12(12), p.e0188557.

McGowan, R., Rehn, T., Norling, Y. and Keeling, L., 2013. Positive affect and learning: exploring the “Eureka Effect” in dogs. Animal Cognition, 17(3), pp.577-587.

Psychology Today. 2020. Can Dogs See Colors?. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 8 August 2020].

Pullen, A., Merrill, R. and Bradshaw, J., 2012. Habituation and dishabituation during object play in kennel-housed dogs. Animal Cognition, 15(6), pp.1143-1150.


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