Building Food Drive

“My dog is a picky eater.”  A label used for dogs that don’t gobble up their food.  While some breeds and individuals have a higher natural drive for food, you can build food drive.  Afterall, food is a primary reinforcer for animals.  You must eat to survive.

Dogs that lack food drive fall into this category for one of three reasons:

1. Health. 

2. Stress (this can be good and/or bad stress).

3. Learned history.


This is always the first consideration.  If your dog is not eating meals, talk with your vet.  There are a variety of physcial ailgments that can lead to low food drive.  If a health concern is the cause of your dog’s lack of food drive, it is important to address it first.

It is also possible for dogs to have deficiencies in dopamine production. If that is the case, their drive to obtain food will be low. However, this is uncommon. It is worth taking the time to investigate other reasons for your dog’s low food drive before assuming it is due to low dopamine production. 



There are many forms of stress.  Some are good and some, not so much.  Playing with a dog friend is good stress.  That same scenario is bad stress if your dog is fearful of other dogs.

When an animal is stressed, stress hormones are released in the body to prepare them for fight or flight (or one of the other stress responses – The Four F’s Podcast Episode ).  Since digestion is not required for these stress responses, the body diverts resources away from it.  What does that mean?  Less drive to eat food.

Learned History

Toppers/Different Food

If you put toppers on your dog’s food to get them to eat, or offer them something different every time they refuse to eat their meal, they are learning that holding out gets them better food options.

Free Feeding

When food is always available, eating is less important to a dog.  Why?  Because they can eat at anytime.  Therefore, any food or treats offered will be less interesting.

A Poisoned Reinforcer

When food is used to lure a dog to do something they find unpleasant, over time the food begins to predict the unpleasent event and thus the food itself becomes aversive.

An example includes luring your dog with food into a vet office, if they are afraid to go in.

Please note that food only becomes poisoned if the event the dog is being lured into is already aversive to them.  If your dog loves going to the vet, luring them in with food will not have this same posioning effect.

Building Drive

There are a few simple things we can do to teach our dogs to love eating their meals and treats!

Ditch the Bowl

A lot of times people use this phrase with the intention of hand feeding all food to our dogs.  That is definitely not what I mean.  This is a lot to ask of you and can also not be in your dog’s best interest.

You can allow your dog to work for food in ways that do not involve your time or even attention.  Working for food adds a mental challenge and solving that challenge releases dopamine (the feel good, seeking hormone).

Some simple ways to add a mental challenge to your dog’s meals:

  • Scatter kibble around the room, in a blanket or outside in the grass.
  • Place dog safe items like measuring cups, small plastic containers, spoons, etc… into a big plastic bowl and scatter their food into the pile.
  • Put the kibble in a box with the lid open.  Too easy for your dog?  Close the box!  Egg cartons are great too.
  • Place kibble in toilet paper rolls and pinch the sides shut.

The important thing is that it is a challenge.  That means that you will be switching it up daily, especially at the beginning.  You wouldn’t want to do the same crossword puzzle every day would you?  Scattering kibble in a different area counts as different.  It doesn’t need to be a drastic change to provide a mental challenge.

It is also important that the puzzle is not TOO challenging as you don’t want to frustrate your dog.  We need your dog to be successful so they get that release of dopamine!

Variety is not the spice of life!

Ok, your dog may disagree with this one. However, this comes back to learned history.  If a dog has learned that they will get tastier food if they don’t eat what is presented, why on earth would they eat their kibble?

If you have a dog that likes, and can tolerate variety, you certainly can switch up flavours with each new bag of food.  However, if you have bought a bag of food and it sits well with their stomach, that is what they get.  Leave it out in their puzzle for 15-20 minutes.  If they don’t eat it, pick it up and offer it to them again for lunch.  If they don’t eat it at lunch, pick it up and try again at dinner.  Unless they have an underlying health issue or severe chronic stress, they will eventually eat it.

Tricks for Meals

Teaching simple tricks is a fun way to incorporate a challenge into your dog’s meals and build your relationship at the same time!

Remember, this only works to increase food drive if your dog is having success to get that release of dopamine!

Looking for some trick ideas?  Check out this list:

Do More With Your Dog – Trick List

Marinate that Food

  • Portion out your dogs meal for the next day.
  • Mix in some high value people food (pieces of hot dogs, cheese, chicken, etc).
  • Put it all in a container and let it stew in the fridge over night. 

I do this for 2-3 days to kick start the process.

Raw Feeders

Everything above, other than marinating, is applicable to raw feeders!  Camping squeeze tubes and mustard bottles work great to put the raw food in and use for training sessions.  You can build food puzzles with containers, just ensure to do it on an easy to clean surface.


Taking the time to build your dog’s food drive opens up many training options for you!  Using food to reinforce the behaviours you like improves your relationship with your dog.  It’s worth the effort!