Have you ever tried training your dog first thing in the morning, before breakfast? Or shortly before dinnertime, when she was really hungry?
Some trainers even tell their clients to show up for classes or appointments with a hungry dog.
Because we use food as rewards during dog training, it is natural to think that a hungry dog would be more motivated to learn and complete tasks.
However, a University of Kentucky study showed that eating before training sessions can actually boost your dog’s performance. In this small study, they worked with dogs in three groups: one group hadn’t eaten yet, one group ate 30 minutes before training, and one group ate their meal 90 minutes before training.
In the study, the dogs were required to search for hidden food. The group that performed best was the one that ate 30 minutes before the task.
The hungriest dogs actually performed the worst, while the dogs who ate 90 minutes before showed no advantage over the hungry dogs.
This was a small study, and it only involved one simple task. So, you shouldn’t necessarily use this study to make decisions about your dog’s schedule.
I have noticed, however, that Matilda and Cow are best at playing and doing tricks shortly after breakfast or dinner. When they’re hungry, Matilda will ignore toys and keep leading me to her food bowl. If I offer her a few bites of food, she’ll start to work with me.
When To Train Your Dog
You will need to wait at least 30 minutes after a meal to start training. Activity right after a meal can contribute to bloat, a fatal condition in which your dog’s stomach twists and gas gets stuck inside, causing stomach distension and unproductive retching.
If you think your dog has bloat, rush to an emergency vet – it can kill your dog in an hour if left untreated. Bloat is more common in large, deep-chested breeds, but it can happen to any dog.
You can also use your dog’s meals as food rewards. If you offer a portion of their meal before training, you’ll avoid making her feel frustrated and overly hungry.
You can still reduce your dog’s meals to account for the calories in her treats, it’s not necessary for your dog to have a big meal before training to help her focus.
Does Your Dog’s Diet Matter?
What’s also interesting is that Dr. Miller, who led the above study, says that they do not see this same effect in wolves.
Our modern dog eats a carbohydrate-rich diet, which causes their glucose levels to fluctuate. A wolf’s meat-based diet is very low in carbs, so they do not experience that blood sugar drop that can lead to poorer cognitive skills.
Matilda and Cow also eat a low-carb diet, though. It might not be as low as the diet of your average wolf.
But it stands to reason that some dogs might have more trouble learning and completing tasks if they eat a lot of carbs from kibble, they might experience a brief blood sugar spike that quickly drops, making it harder for them to think.
You may want to try adding some fresh, low-carb foods to your dog’s diet if she eats kibble.
Maybe try an egg the morning before a training class, if you know your dog’s stomach can handle it. Eggs have a biological value of 100, meaning they are very easy for your dog’s body to break down and benefit from.
Boosting Your Dog’s Drive For Other Rewards
Some dogs are just not food motivated.
Even if your dog is a total food hound, it’s good to reward her through other means. That way you can train when you don’t have treats or when she’s full.
Praise and petting really do work as rewards, even if dogs do not get excited for them as much as food. I wouldn’t teach a new cue using solely praise as a reward, but I would try it with older cues.
You can also use toys as a reward.
Try using a brand new toy that you’ll store out of your dog’s reach, only bringing it out for training.
Probably the best type of motivation, though, that we never talk about: the joy of learning.
Some dogs enjoy some tasks more than others. While I can motivate Cow to paint like Matilda, she just doesn’t get the same joy out of it. She likes more physical challenges like running or backing up.
Switch up your dog’s tricks, try new skills, and keep them on their toes. Dogs really love to learn, and with the help of other motivators, they’ll always enjoy their training sessions.