Having a conversation about the best choices for dog food and treats is an invitation to open up Paw-ndora’s Box. So before I begin, let me first make it clear that I am not a vet, vet nutritionist or dog nutrition expert. However, I am a certified dog trainer and dog-mom who happens to be passionate about what she feeds her dog and what she uses for training.
For our new dog, Ringo, hubby and I wanted to start out on the right paw with his dietary needs. Poncho, the original inquisitive canine, had many dietary issues during the last few years of his life. Because of this, we admittedly had some emotional baggage when it came to choosing Ringo’s new diet. But instead of making decisions based on our own learning experience, friends’ opinions and what Professor Google says, we went to the experts.
First we checked with our local veterinarian, whom we adore and respect. She provided us with her recommendations and rationale behind her choices. Because she knew our history with Poncho, she was fully supportive when I asked for a referral to a board-certified veterinary nutritionist with whom we’d worked in the past, Dr. Cailin Heinze. Dr. Heinze is a specialist who teaches at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.
In addition to our formal consultation, I approached Dr. Heinze about being interviewed for this post. The following are highlights from our conversation and include some fantastic tips to help you make informed food and treat choices for your inquisitive canine.
Inquisitive Canine (IC): Mealtime is a convenient time to train, but what about other times during the day when someone wants to work with his or her dog? How important is it for healthy dogs to be on a specific feeding schedule?
Dr. Cailin Heinze (CH): Once a dog is house-trained, then it doesn’t matter all that much when meals are given. The biggest exception would be for dogs with a medical condition, such as diabetes, and for those pets that require medication that must be given either with food or on an empty stomach. While a routine can be nice for the household, most dogs will adjust just fine to variable meal times/training. If a dog’s regular food is used for training, I would suggest measuring it out every morning to avoid over or under feeding if the training schedule changes. Anything left at the end of the day can then be fed as a meal.
IC: When it comes to food labels, there seems to be a lot of confusing verbiage out there — everything from valid statements to marketing garbage. What should dog parents be aware of when they read a label on a can of food or on the side of a bag of treats?
CH: There is actually very little information on labels that tell you about the quality or usefulness of the food. We have a lot of stuff on the Tufts Vet Nutrition website about labels and terms. “Natural” is an absolutely useless term that is commonly used for marketing purposes only. It has a legal definition – not synthetic – but that doesn’t mean anything because there are lots of very dangerous natural things, including arsenic, lead, yew and mycotoxins, to name a few. There are also plenty of safe synthetic ones, including some vitamins and amino acid supplements.
IC: When choosing foods or treats for training, is it best to just use the dog’s own food as the first choice? What if that doesn’t motivate him or her? What other options work without having too much of a negative impact on the dog’s overall nutrition?
CH: If a dog will work for his regular food, that’s great. For otherwise healthy dogs, lean meats normally work well because they are lower in calories and of course dogs usually love the taste. There are also perfectly fine options for “tiny” training treats that are only a calorie or two.
Human foods, such as egg, meat, cheese or peanut butter, may also be good options. Just be careful about the salt, fat and total calories! Human baby food can also work, but keep an eye if there is any onion or garlic in the food or too much fat or too many calories.
IC: Are there ways to enhance or “dress up” a dog’s usual foods? Can you add or change anything or will this throw off the quality of nutrition?
CH: If you keep within a treat allowance of about 10% of the dog’s daily caloric intake, then you should be fine. For a healthy pet, you can add meats, fat and definitely fruits and vegetables to the main diet without much risk of causing big issues. This is assuming you are feeding an appropriate amount and type of regular food that is within the range of the feeding orders for your dog’s ideal body weight.
IC: You mention adding “fat” to the diet. Are you talking about fish oils or nut butters?
CH: Pretty much anything, as long as your dog does well with fat (some dogs can get upset stomachs or even pancreatitis if they eat too much fat) – chicken fat, lard, olive oil, flaxseed oil, tallow and even coconut oil. Keep in mind that a little bit goes a long way – about 135 kcal per tablespoon. There really aren’t healthy vs. unhealthy fats in dogs because they don’t get heart disease related to saturated fat like people do. As for fish oils, I generally give specific amounts.
IC: If a person needs to change up the treats in order to keep their dog motivated, what is the best approach? Keep within the same protein? Or is it better to stick with the 10% rule and watching for signs of tummy upset?
CH: The latter is fine. It’s probably good to use something for as long as it works before switching, just to avoid exposure to too many protein sources. That could be an issue later if any allergies develop. There is no real evidence that rotating or not rotating food choices makes a difference health or nutrition-wise.
IC: Are there any treat recipes that you would recommend? Or is it best to just go with simple commercial items that are easily accessible?
CH: Most treat recipes that avoid things like onions, garlic, raisins and undercooked animal products are probably fine, so long as you keep within the treat allowance.
IC: What top tips do you want owners to know when it comes to treats/foods for their dogs?
CH: Don’t overdo it. Outside of training, treats are often more important to the owner than the pet. Smaller is better! As an example, the first few bites of that cheesecake you eat usually tastes the best. If you stopped there you’d be thinner and healthier.
Well, inquisitive pet parents, as we’ve discovered, dog treats, food and training can create a recipe for success, not a disaster. And thanks to Dr. Heinze’s sage advice, we’ve also learned that less is more, keep treats to 10% of the daily caloric intake, and use your dog’s meals to your advantage. And finally, it’s okay to ration out portions and use them throughout the day for training.
When choosing the types of foods, it’s important to read between the lines of the labels and consult with your vet. If you feel like you need additional guidance, connecting with a vet nutritionist like Dr. Heinze is a great option to consider. For additional information, check out their website and Petfoodology blog where you can find a lot of information and resources for making informed decisions about your dog’s dietary needs.
Here’s a question for you, my inquisitive dog friends. How do you use your dog’s food for training? Do you turn mealtime into training time? Take it on the road with you? We invite you to join the conversation below.
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