Help! My dog is CRAZY about FOOD!

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Help!  My dog is CRAZY about food…

When I am working with him doing tricks or training behaviors he will stare at the treats or try to get them out of my hand or the second I click he is mauling chomping lunging for the treat.

What can you do to prevent this from happening?

Having a food obsessed dog is a wonderful problem and you should be happy that your dog is a food maniac.  Having a dog that will work for food is helpful when training.

The first step is to teach your dog to focus on you even when food distractions are present.  Training a dog to ignore food and focus on you has many benefits.

  1. Impulse Control
  2. Proofing around distractions and teaching that when distractions are present great things happen to your dog.
  3. Great attention from your dog

Teaching Impulse control to the food fanatic dog:

Many dogs that are only fed a specific diet of plain kibble dog food will come over excited by training treats or real bits of meat and cheese, which is common when training.  A few fun basic attention games (exercises) will help a food motivated dog learn a better more controlled way to get what he wants (the yummy food).

Start by placing food in one hand and close your fist.  Your dog will mug your hand trying everything to get that food.  That is just fine, let him lick, mouth, sniff and paw at your hand and WAIT.  Wait for your dog to eventually give up and move away from you hand.  When he finally moves away or pauses from his mauling of your hand, CLICK and give him a treat from your other hand or from a treat pouch.  You could feed him to his mouth or on the ground away from the hand that has the food in it.  Repeat this until your dog is no longer mugging your hand and has learned that by not trying to get the food he actually earns a click and a yummy treat.

Once your dog understands how to leave a closed fist of food alone, it is time to take it to the next level.  This time you will have your hand open…  If your dog tries to go for it, simply close your fist.  If he ignores the food, click and treat.  It is nice to have your dog look at you instead of staring at your hand.  To do this you can make a kissy noise to get your dogs attention and when he looks at you, click and treat.  You can also wait until the dog looks at you as if to say, “can I have the treat now?”.  In other words, he asks for your permission.  Either way, you will click and treat when your dog looks at you and focuses his attention from the food to your eyes instead.  WOO HOO!  Now you are getting somewhere!

Putting the behavior on a verbal cue:

At any point in your training, if you would bet $100 that your dog will leave the food alone, then and only then should you attempt to put the behavior on cue.  When you know your dog will leave the food alone, you can say, “Leave It” right when he looks at the food and click, treat his effort.  Keep practicing!

Once the behavior is under a verbal cue, you will not need your clicker anymore.  However, if you cue your dog to “Leave it” in a new environment around a distraction that he just can’t seem to ignore, then you can get out your clicker and re-train the behavior around that particular distraction.

Now that your dog can leave the food alone from an open hand you can keep increasing your criteria by:

Holding the food close to his face.

Placing the food on the ground.

Walking past the food on the ground.

Tossing the food to the right or left of your dog.

Dropping the food right between his paws.

The dog is able to watch you instead of the hand.

Can he leave a ball or dog toy alone?

Place treats on the paws…

Practice using dogs walking past, sniffing bushes, and anything else that you might want your dog to leave alone.

Anytime you raise your criteria, it is a new situation and at first your dog might be tempted to get the food.  Make sure that you prevent the dog from being able to get the food by simply getting to the food first, covering it, keeping the dog on a leash so that he will not be able to reach the food, or have a helper remove the food.  If the dog is able to get the food he will think that sometimes if he tries hard enough it actually pays off and it will take longer to teach him to leave the food alone.

DO NOT use any forms of force or intimidation:

Be patient!  No matter how persistent your dog is, he will eventually give up and look at you.  Just wait, you will see, it works.  When the light bulb goes on in your dogs head, you will know it.

Reframe from yelling, screaming NO, EETTT EETT, or jerking your dog.  If the dog lunges toward the food, make sure the leash is not so loose that he will hit the end of it and get a correction.

Teach your dog that treats may or may not be on your body…

You can do this by having treats in random places when training your dog.  A treat pouch, pocket, on the counter, or somewhere that you will have to go to in order to get the treat for you dog.  I like to place treats in a bowl on top of my dogs crate.  This way at the end of an agility run, we can hurry back to the crate and get the dogs reward.  If you are clicking, make sure the food is somewhat close so that you can deliver your dogs primary reinforcer in a timely fashion.

Make sure that the click comes first and then you reach for the food.  The food needs to follow the click.  If you are not familiar with clicker training, check out this clicker training basics video.

To use or not to use a food lure:

For dogs that are over aroused by food, minimize the use of food lures until the dog understands to not mug the hand.  You can teach luring as a behavior, however I will not be covering that in this article.  To learn more about teaching luring as a behavior, you can find the information in my “Insider Secrets to Canine Freestyle”  and “Dog Sport Foundations” ebooks.  You can use a target stick or hand target instead of a food lure.  Some dogs just can’t think when following a lure.  Although, luring is a perfectly fine way to get a behavior and can allow for many behaviors to be taught quickly it needs to be faded fast.

At the end of the day…

You will have a dog that loves food, has impulse control and knows how to appropriately get what he wants.

Pamela Johnson, CPDT-KA, M.A., and B.S.