If I received a dollar every time someone told me their dog isn’t food motivated, I would be dog training from my own private island by now!
Biologically, all healthy animals are motivated by food. The search for sustenance for survival is the prime motivation for them to get up and move around every day. When I hear that a dog is not food motivated, I usually count on one of two things being the issue: the dog’s food is too readily available so he does not feel the need to work for it, or the food is not high enough value to compete with other motivators in the environment.
The first scenario, where food is an abundant resource that is always there for the dog to take when he feels like it, can be solved by “closing the economy” on food. If the dog is free fed, meaning that there is food sitting in his bowl all day long and he grazes like a cow, using food for training isn’t going to motivate the dog. In this case, I would advise that the dog gets set meal times and uneaten food is taken away for the next meal time after 10-15 minutes. A healthy dog is not going to starve herself—after a few times that this happens, the dog will eat her food in the allotted time and pay attention when bonus food comes out (training time!) throughout the day.
Some dogs that are very particular about food or don’t eat much can often benefit from not eating from a bowl at all. This is a totally closed food economy, where all food is earned, but it isn’t as harsh as it sounds. Meal times become training times, which actually makes it easier to fit regular training sessions into your day! You might choose to carry your dog’s food in a pouch on walks and feed for nice leash behavior and sitting when you wait to cross the street. You can carry bonus high value treats, such as cheese or chicken, to give the dog when they encounter something scary to them, like construction equipment, barking dogs or emergency vehicle sirens.
Back at the house, you can use the last handful of food to get a few down-stays or teach the dog to come off the couch or go to his bed. Or if he needs to burn some additional energy, give him the food in a work-to-eat toy or hide the food around the room and have him search for it.
In the end, our dogs should expect to get paid with something they enjoy for performing their jobs for us. If we use food to form and shape the behaviors we want, we get a dog that is much more likely to do these things even in the absence of treats, as long as we regularly reinforce the behavior with food, toys, or access to other stuff the dog wants and needs.