I wear many hats in my canine career and am often on the receiving end of popular dog misconceptions. “I don’t feed my dog people food,” is something often said with an air of pride by owners who think they are doing right by their dogs in holding to this idea.  In this blog, I want to unpack this statement and talk about why it is worth revisiting this position if it is one that you hold as well.

What is people food anyway?

People don’t really hold an exclusive on the things we eat. Rabbits and even slugs eat what we call salad. All of the animals we eat are also eaten by other animals.  In fact, we don’t eat a lot of the things that we could.  We could be eating insects or other greens that most of us wouldn’t even consider food. Let’s also not forget that your dog probably eats poop and random roadside greens … you know — doggy salad. That being said, there are plenty of “dog foods” I wouldn’t eat myself or even feed to my dog. There are also plenty of foods I eat that aren’t really all that good for me, and shouldn’t be fed to my dog.

What is dog food anyway?

There are literally tons of food and treats marketed to you for your dog.  What is the selling point ingredient?  Often it’s chicken, turkey, salmon, chetreatsese, even apples and pumpkin and blueberries.  Those are all “people” foods, right? Advocates of homemade and/or raw diets are giving their dogs whole turkey necks and other home prepared combinations of greens, beans and vitamins, fully constructed of “people food.”

According to Wikipedia, the first food made specifically for dogs appeared in the mid-1800’s.  James Spratt, an American who was living in London at the time, watched as dogs ate biscuit leftovers from the workmen at the shore.  Later on, in the 1890’s, he brought it to market in the United States as “Spratt’s Patent Limited.” Later, after WWI, in order to deal with the bodies of deceased horses, the Ken-L Ration brand came to the market. In the 1950’s Spratt’s became part of General Mills, and to this day companies such as Nabisco, Quaker Oats, and General Foods use pet food to use and sell the by-products of human food processing to increase overall corporate profits.  Prior to Spratt in the 1800’s, dogs were fed kitchen leftovers or organ meats of whatever fallen farm animals were around — things the people didn’t want or couldn’t use.

What are people really saying?

When people use this motto I think what they’re really saying is that they’re trying to avoid overindulging or creating intestinal upset in their dog, or they’re worried about creating a dog who begs for food. The problem with this is that these are actually separate issues from the idea of feeding “people food.”  I have seen both of these issues in dogs who never got a morsel of people food. To avoid creating a dog that begs, don’t feed a begging dog.  You can wait until the dog is doing something else and then say their name.  When they look at you, toss them something and then walk away — you just reinforced name recognition. I sometimes feed my dog food that I am eating while I’m eating it.  If I am taking a break on a walk and eating an apple or banana, I will hand him some if he is doing something I like – which is a low bar in that scenario, like just not being a trouble maker at the moment.  Earlier today I was mixing my yogurt with granola and blueberries.  Fuzz was standing by my side patiently waiting for his yogurt container to lick and while he was standing there I offered him a couple blueberries, just because I love him and we can all use more antioxidants, right?  What happened was my dog learned that being quiet and standing next to mom is something that gets rewarded.  I would not have done this if he was barking at me, jumping on me, spinning, or in any other way being a nuisance.  If he had had been doing those things he would not get his yogurt container either.

Novel food is good for the mind.

Sharing our time together and bonding over our food supplies is part of creating a relationship of relevance and resources. If I am chopping up ingredients for a meal and my dog is laying nicely in the kitchen, I will walk over and put some kale, tomatoes or avocado chunks in his bowl.  He’ll pick through it and decide what he wants. It’s fun to watch him investigate a new food item. You will also be getting to know your dogs’ food preferences. Do they like tomatoes and oranges, or prefer carrots to apples?  You won’t know if you don’t ask. When you have a baby puppy, doing this can teach them to like a variety of food items and keep their digestion healthy and less sensitive overall. Tossing a new food item is done in zoos to encourage exploration of new stimuli, as it is good for the brain too.

Keeping your reinforcement options open.

Not giving human food would also limit what you can put into a Kong or other stuffable toy.  I often put yogurt, peanut butter, apples, and other “leftovers,” like unwanted scrambled eggs from my niece or a leftover casserole, into a Kong (provided there are not too many onions in the casserole).

Overall, you want to avoid the known toxic items: onions, grapes, raisins (cuz they are just grapes, folks…) and the obvious, chocolate.  Make sure your peanut butter and other items aren’t sweetened with Xylitol, and stay away from too much ham or bacon due to fatty liver and pancreatitis issues. Other than that, most fruits, veggies, meats, and cheeses can be seen as part of a well-rounded diet plan, and can also be used in Kongs to settle down busy puppies, etc.  Another seemingly obvious use of people food is as a training reinforcer.  Why take string cheese and other bits from your meals like steak or chicken off the proverbial table when they can be tossed into a bait bag?   You are using one, right?  If not, get one here.  These are very nice rewards for important training like recall or leave it,  or for taking with you when you know you’re going into a high distraction environment and want to keep your dog interested in you.

Keep your options open when deciding what you can and cannot give your dog.  Don’t limit yourself to foods and treats marketed for dogs.  Think of anything that your dog can eat as a resource you can leverage, as something new to investigate,  as a training treat, or a Kong ingredient.

Be a resource. Be reliable. Be ready

 

 

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