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When the dog won't pay attention

Sometimes a dog can seem to be unmotivated by food, or too distracted to train.  The following procedure will help troubleshoot training of dogs who seem difficult to motivate. ​


A variety of high-value food (meat, cheese, etc.)

A variety of toys (for toy-motivated dogs)

If a dog seems unmotivated or distracted during training, offer the dog a high-value treat “for free.” If he takes it, he is motivated by that treat. If not, try out other, higher-value treat types. 


If the dog won’t take any type of food, stop trying to train him for a while. He might be full, tired, frightened, or ill. Occasionally, using a toy or game (e.g. fetch or tug) might be more motivating to a dog than food.


Assuming the dog is healthy, the following steps can help keep the dog engaged:



Increase the “currency” and/or the dog’s “pay rate”:

  • Use higher value treats  (e.g., chicken or cheese instead of biscuits or other treats made for dogs);

  • Train faster (less time between repetitions);

  • Change motivator type. If a dog is toy crazy, a toy can be used as the reinforcer;

  • Increase the value of food motivators by training when the dog is hungry, rather than right after a meal.


  1. Follow the “grading rules” on the training plan. For most training plans these are:​

   2. Move away from distractions to train in a quieter environment.

   3. Decrease the value of distractions by allowing the dog access to those distractions for a while. For example, 

       allow the dog the play, meet other dogs, investigate the area, go for a walk, etc., before starting to train 


  • ​Move to the next step if the dog gets at least 4 of 5 repetitions correct;

  • If the dog gets 3 of 5 repetitions right, repeat the current step (another set of 5);

  • If the dog gets 2 or fewer of 5 repetitions correct, drop to the previous step.

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