Training Puppies

The three most important things your puppy needs to learn are:

  1. The world is a safe place.
  2. It’s okay to be alone sometimes.
  3. Where the potty area is and how to hold it.

These are in order of importance.

Teaching a puppy that its world is a safe place is top priority because there is a short window of opportunity to teach this. Before the age of 12 to 16 weeks, a puppy is more accepting of new experiences and the sights, sounds, smells that come a long with each experience. After 16 weeks, a dog becomes less accepting of new things and will be cautious and uncertain at first. Sometimes this can go really wrong and cause severe behaviours through adolescence and into adulthood.

Separation anxiety (and the unwanted behaviours that come along with it) is a complex problem that is very difficult to change once it becomes moderate to severe. Puppies are not designed to enjoy being alone, but it is a skill they will need (sometimes very quickly upon arriving to a new home). The unwanted behaviours associated with separation anxiety are in the top reasons why dogs are surrendered to dog rescues and animal shelters.

Housetraining is also one of the top reasons people give up their dogs. Training this successfully is a lot of work at the beginning but it’s worth it because it saves you a lot of work later. Going potty is a “self-reinforcing” behaviour (it feels good to the puppy to relieve the discomfort of a full bladder or full bowels), so it’s essential that you start early to teach a puppy that it’s more reinforcing to potty in the right area.

There is much more to training a puppy, but the three listed are the most important for raising a happy, confident, well-mannered puppy.

Enrichment Tip: Bringing Nature Inside

Why not bring a little bit of Mother Nature home to your dog?

When you are outside, pick up a few “souvenirs” that your dog might find interesting to smell later. You can put items in containers with holes in the lid if you don’t want your dog to touch the item or mouth it.  If you want to preserve the scent for a week to a few months, place each souvenir in its own clean container or plastic bag and place in the freezer until you need it. When the winter is long or when the weather is very poor, setting out the souvenirs for your dog to investigate can be a nice indoor activity for your dog. Be sure that the items you collect are safe for your dog to sniff and that you are not violating any laws by removing the items from the area.

This activity takes very little effort if you collect items while on a regularly scheduled dog walk.

Ideas for souvenirs:

  • small rocks
  • sticks
  • leaves
  • a clean paper towel or napkin rubbed on a tree trunk or light post
  • a glove you wore while petting a friend’s healthy pet
  • pine cones
  • a sprig of a plant that is dog safe (herb, weed, garden vegetable, flower)

Training Tip: My Dog Won’t Walk Nicely Unless Wearing a Prong/Pinch Collar

NOTE: In no way is this article promoting the use of the prong/pinch collar. The purpose of this article is to help dog owners (and perhaps even some dog trainers) transition away from using a prong/pinch collar. There are very good reasons why not to use a prong/pinch collar, but that topic will be addressed in a separate article. 

A prong/pinch collar is promoted as a “training” collar to reduce pulling on the leash, but a common problem is that many dogs require the continued use of the collar in order to maintain the behaviour (almost like a person who still requires “training wheels” in order to remain upright while pedalling a bicycle).*  The dog that seems to require the continued use of the prong/pinch collar has learned A) to show enough impulse control to the point where the discomfort from the prong/pinch collar is tolerable, and B) that “pulling works” when not wearing the prong/pinch collar.

Quitting the Prong/Pinch Collar “Cold Turkey”

Switch to a comfortable harness (to take pressure of the dog’s neck) and train your dog that “pulling doesn’t work” and that good things happen when your dog maintains a loose leash.  Some harnesses (e.g. Ruffwear Vest Harness) have a leash attachment at the chest, which can help give you more control if the dog is a strong puller (the dog’s pulling force causes his/her body to turn to the side and eventually towards you when he pulls hard enough).

See Teaching a Dog that Pulling Doesn’t Work.

Weaning your dog from requiring the prong/pinch collar

You will need a comfortable harness or a flat collar in addition to your dog’s current prong/pinch collar.  The harness or flat collar should not be designed to squeeze the dog when the dog pulls; you are trying to move away from using coercion to stop a behaviour.

Put the harness or flat collar on the dog and the prong/pinch collar. Instead of clipping the leash to the prong/pinch collar, clip it to the flat collar or the harness.

Does your dog walk the same way he/she would if the leash were clipped to the prong/pinch collar?

If so, then try going for walks several more times this way (with the prong/pinch collar on the dog but the leash attached to the harness or the flat collar). Be sure to loosen the prong/pinch collar gradually each day so there is no pressure from this collar at all.

In addition to this, you will want to teach your dog that “pulling doesn’t work.” Begin teaching this inside the house and then in the yard before trying it in an exciting environment. When your dog is consistently “walking nicely” for a week or so without you having to attach the leash to the prong/pinch collar, you can try a walk with just the harness or flat collar.

See Teaching a Dog that Pulling Doesn’t Work.

You will also want to build a very positive emotional response to the harness or flat collar by pairing it with lots of fun, food, play, etc. — to develop a positive emotional response to help compete with the negative emotional response that the dog may have towards the prong/pinch collar. If the positive emotional response to the harness or flat collar is stronger than the negative emotional response to the prong/pinch collar, it can help change your dog’s emotional state while wearing the prong/pinch collar and the harness or flat collar together.

Does your dog pulls the same way he/she would without the prong/pinch collar?

You could try quitting the pinch collar “cold turkey”, but if you don’t want to (for various reasons), you can modify the instructions for Teaching a Dog that Pulling Doesn’t Work. You could continue to use the prong/pinch collar, but pay very close attention to even a minor bit of pressure the dog puts on the leash. Teach your dog that even the barest bit of tension makes you stop. Combine this with training your dog to walk beside you using food, which you would start in the house and yard off leash first. You may also want to address the underlying emotional causes of why your dog is pulling. Your dog may be distressed, frustrated, or overstimulated by the outside environment. Addressing these emotions can do wonders for improving behaviours. But that is a topic for another day.

*Except in this analogy, the training wheels would have prongs that poke into the rider’s body to reduce the wobbling behaviour, in effect coercing the rider to stay upright to avoid the discomfort. 


Training Tip: House Soiling and Separation Anxiety

If a dog urinates/defecates in the house when left alone, it might not be a “house training” issue, but it might be caused by anxiety/distress at being left alone (isolation anxiety) or being away from a particular person or the family (separation anxiety). (For this discussion, “separation anxiety” will include isolation anxiety and separation anxiety.) “House Training” is about teaching the dog how to hold its bladder/bowels, where it is appropriate to potty (e.g. outside), and how to signal to the humans in the home to be let outside to potty. Addressing separation anxiety is about teaching the dog how to be comfortable being left alone.

Below is an excerpt from an article I published a few years back. The information has proved very helpful for many clients over the years. There are also some resources listed at the end that you may find helpful.

Separation Anxiety can be a very difficult problem to address. If you require one-on-one professional help, please contact me for a private consult. 

Separation Anxiety

There is a big difference between a dog that chews up the furniture out of boredom and one that does it because of separation anxiety. Exercise, mental stimulation, restricting the dog’s area when alone (perhaps in a cozy crate), and providing enough chew items are some things that can help keep the bored dog from chewing the furniture. These things may provide some distraction for the dog with mild separation anxiety, but the approach to working through this disorder is much more complex. One of the hardest things for people to accept is that a dog with separation anxiety is not “being bad” or “getting revenge.”

Dogs are social creatures and learning how to be alone can be a difficult thing for some dogs. Some dogs are anxious about being left alone and some are anxious about being separated from a particular person with whom they’ve bonded strongly. When working on a plan to address this problem, it’s important to know if the dog suffers from one or the other (or both). Often there are simple things dog owners can do (and avoid) to help reduce mild separation anxiety or even prevent the problem in the first place. Separation Anxiety is something that usually gets worse if it’s not addressed early or properly, so if your dog is showing signs of distress when left alone, it’s best not to ignore it. There’s a very good chance that the dog will not “get over it” but instead will become more sensitized to being left alone.

Unfortunately, many people let the problem become extreme before they get help, and sometimes they get some bad advice that makes the problem worse. (Separation Anxiety is not a ‘dominance thing’ and cannot be “punished away” and letting a dog cry it out can make things worse.) Sometimes the problem becomes so severe that the owners who love these dogs dearly have no choice but to euthanize or surrender the dog. Dr. Ian Dunbar ranks this problem as one of the top reasons why people give up their dogs to shelters. Finding the right home for a rescue dog with separation anxiety is a difficult task, and sometimes people are not aware of the problem (or the extent of the problem) when they adopt the dog.

Having even a bit of knowledge about what to do and what to avoid can make a big difference. If your dog has mild separation anxiety or if you want to prevent this from becoming a problem, have a look at the following tips and resources. If you have a dog with moderate to severe separation anxiety, you may wish to consult a reputable professional for help, but be sure to find a professional that understands behaviour modifcation and specifically how to use desensitization and counter conditioning effectively.

Quick tips:

Take the emotions out of your departures and arrivals. Communicate to your dog on an emotional level that your arrivals and departures are “no big deal.”

If your dog is excited to see you when you arrive, wait until your dog is calm before giving your dog attention; avoid direct eye contact, touching your dog, or talking to your dog until your dog is fairly relaxed. You can let him out to pee and that sort of stuff, but limit your attention. When your dog is calm, pick a special chair or place to deliver your greeting; you’ll likely notice that he begins to wait for you there for the greeting. When you do greet him, try to keep it rather low-key and not too intense, even though you may have really, really missed him when you were gone.

Try to avoid having very exciting things happen too soon after your arrival. Sometimes the anticipation of a super fun thing (e.g. a walk) can get your dog worked up. You want to avoid stirring up emotions too close to your departures/arrivals.

Some mild to moderate physical and mental exercise an hour or so before you leave can help some dogs with separation anxiety. However, the exercise should not over-stimulate your dog, but instead meet some of her physical and mental needs and encourage a more relaxed state. Playing intense games like fetch or tug can cause some dogs to become too stressed, so figure out what works for your dog.

Vary the order of the ‘clues’ your dog has picked up that signal you are leaving. Do some of these things on days when you aren’t going anywhere (e.g. pick up your keys and sit and watch TV; wear your work shoes for an hour at home on a day off).

Crate training your dog can be very helpful. Teach your dog to LOVE being in his crate; have him spend time in there when you are home, too, so he doesn’t associate it with you leaving. Feed him his meals in his crate. Give him super yummy treats that he gets ONLY when he’s in his crate. If your dog has already learned to dislike his crate, you’ll have a tougher job. Contact a professional who understands behaviour modifcation, positive reinforcement, and specifically how to use desensitization and counter conditioning effectively.

To help take the “sting” out of your departures, you can keep your dog occupied with a long-term treat such as a bully stick, a meaty bone, or a Kong-type toy that is stuffed with little bits of yummy things. If you want to make a Kong-type toy last longer, layer it with yummy bits and canned dog food or peanut butter and then freeze it. Be sure he has lots of positive experiences in his crate with these items when you are home so he doesn’t begin to associate these things with being left alone.


Helpful Resources:


Free webinar on Separation Anxiety

I’ll Be Home Soon! How to prevent and treat separation anxiety by Patricia B. McConnell (2000)
Don’t Leave Me! Step-by-step help for your dog’s separation anxiety by Nicole Wilde (2010)



Dog Training Tip: Loose Leash Walking

Dogs need to learn how to walk on a leash. This sounds obvious, but think about it: walking beside the human at a steady pace in a direct line (usually a straight line) is not a normal way of walking for a dog. If you watch off-leash dogs walking with a friend (doggie or other) they move in curves, and romp, and stop and sniff, and romp to the next spot, and race ahead or lag behind and then catch up.  The point I’m trying to make is to have patience with your dog, break this difficult task into steps that your dog can learn (from easy to hard), and try to find a balance between your needs/wants and your dog’s needs/wants. Is the walk mostly for the dog? For you? Or for both of you?

NOTE: there is the misconception that there is a “proper way” for a dog to walk on a leash. Well, if you are competing in a dog show or dog sport, then yes, there are specific rules to how the dog should walk. But for casual dog walks, you can decide what the rules are. It doesn’t matter if the dog walks on your right or left side (unless you have a good reason why you prefer one side to the other). It doesn’t matter if the dog walks beside you or in front of you or behind you, either. Unless you have a good reason why you prefer one position. I like to have dogs walk ahead of me because then I can keep an eye on them (what they are sniffing and what they might be trying to consume along the way), but there are some parts of a walk where I like the dog beside me (to keep the dog out of the way of something or closer to me for safety).

To let the dog sniff or not sniff? Well, that’s your choice. I like to let the dog stop and sniff (as long as it’s safe for the dog to do so). Dogs see the world through their noses; not being able to stop and sniff seems unfair or a set up for frustration — like taking a child to the fair but not letting the child go on any rides or play any games. As well, sniffing can be very calming  for dogs — they are gathering information about their environment and their “thinking brain” is being stimulated. A 15 minute walk with lots of sniffing can calm a dog as much as a 30 minute non-sniff walk that focuses on physical exercise. I like to plan dog walks by using TIME rather than DISTANCE. If it’s a 30 minute walk, I let the dog sniff as long as he/she wants (again, as long as it’s safe) and I make sure to head back at the 15 minute mark. Sometimes I’ll encourage the dog to disengage with the sniffing and move along, but if I have no where I have to be, I’m usually happy to let the dog sniff as much as the dog wants.

But there are rules on a walk. I want the walk enjoyable for both of us.

I don’t allow a dog to pull me. I teach the dog that pulling doesn’t work to get where he/she wants to go. When the dog pulls on the leash, I stop. I wait until the dog makes the leash loose, then we proceed. Sometimes after waiting a bit, if the dog isn’t self-correcting, I’ll offer some guidance: I might prompt the dog to step towards me by patting my leg, making a kiss noise, turning my body in the direction I want the dog to move, or even starting to walk in the opposite direction (not a sharp jerk on the leash, but a gentle and increasing pressure on the leash that the dog must then follow).

I sometimes will also carry bits of yummy food to reinforce the dog for walking beside me. I might be walking along and have a piece of food in my hand as my arm hangs by my side. The dog generally smells the food when walking beside me (I might have to lure the dog to my side a few times until the dog learns that there might be food in my hand). I will also use the yummy food on occasion to reward the dog for a “voluntary check in.”  A “voluntary check in” is basically the dog looks at my face without me prompting him/her. I’ll praise and treat to encourage the dog to do more of this behaviour that I like. At first I may have to prompt the dog to look at me (e.g. say the dog’s name or make a novel noise to get the dog’s attention) and then praise/treat for that behaviour. But after a while the dog learns that this behaviour is rewarded — often at first, then intermittently later on.

What if the dog is too aroused on the walk to “behave”?

Emotions drive a lot of behaviours. Your dog’s behaviours are mostly guided by the emotional state. If your dog’s nervous system is over-aroused, then there is very little chance of your dog learning any new behaviours and the behaviours they currently know will begin to fail.

Learn to read your dog’s subtle stress signals and then control your dog’s access to the environment so that your dog can control him/herself.

Read that again. Don’t try to control your dog. Instead, control your dog’s access to the environment so the dog can use self-control. Start before you leave the house/yard. Wait for the dog to sit before you put the leash on. Wait for your dog to sit before you open the door. Wait for your dog to sit before you step away from the door. You can use bits of food to reinforce this if you need to, but generally, if the dog wants you to put the leash on, open the door, start the walk, then you can use these things as rewards for the sit.

Walk in stages. Don’t proceed to the next stage of the walk unless the dog is showing self-control. Spend a little time in the zone you are in (e.g. sniffing the lawn, the bush at the end of the driveway, etc.). Turn around and go back to a previous zone if your dog is getting over-aroused (e.g. the dog is pulling more frequently or more strongly). If you walk back and forth along the sidewalk or path, your dog is still getting the same number of steps, but the area is becoming less exciting and your dog will calm itself and you can then begin to extend into new zones with new things to sniff.

Many dogs have become SENSITIZED to going for walks. They have learned that the walks are extremely stimulating (exciting, scary, startling, etc.) and they learn to anticipate the extreme experiences before they even leave the house for the next walk. Only by lowering the intensity of the experience of the walk can be begin to condition the dog — to DE-sensitize the dog to walks.

Practicing the loose leash walking skills in the home and yard will also help the dog transfer these skills on a walk. Don’t expect your dog to learn a new skill in an environment that is too exciting. It’s like trying to teach a kid math in Disneyland.

For more tips, have a look at this article

Dog Training Tip: What is a Reinforcement

To successfully train a dog, it’s essential that you understand what a reinforcement is and how to effectively use it to train a behaviour.
A REINFORCEMENT causes a behaviour to be more likely to happen again in the future.
POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT is when you add something and this causes a behaviour to be more likely to be repeated. For example, you praise and treat when your dog is walking beside you. Your dog learns that his behaviour can make good things happen. (NOTE: NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT is when you remove something and this causes a behaviour to be more likely to be repeated. For example, you remove the pressure on the pinch collar when the dog is walking beside you.  Your dog learns that his behaviour can make bad things stop. A force-free trainer focuses on using positive reinforcement.)
The dog decides what is a reinforcer in that situation, not you. You may enjoy patting your dog on the head when he comes to you when you call, but dogs generally don’t like this, so if you do this, you will actually be punishing the behaviour you are trying to reinforce. Maybe your dog sometimes enjoys petting, but in some situations, the dog may not like it. 
The reinforcer needs to be delivered immediately after the behaviour (e.g within 2 to 3 seconds), otherwise the dog will not understand what behaviour you are trying to reinforce. For example, if you call your dog to you and she comes to you, but then you ask for a sit before you give the dog the treat, she will likely understand that the treat was for the sit and not for coming when called. Later, you can add sit into the mix as part of the routine you want to train, but for early training, give a treat for the recall. You can give a second treat for the sit.
Using a marker signal can help signal to your dog that the behaviour was correct and that a reinforcement is coming. This is helpful if your dog is working at a distance or if there will be another reason for a delay in delivering the reinforcer.  This signal can be a word (e.g. “Yes!”) or a sound (e.g a click) or even a visual cue.
Beware of unintentionally punishing a behaviour. Petting the dog in a way that the dog doesn’t like is a common example. Another is getting angry at your dog for coming to you: perhaps you called several times before your dog came to you; perhaps you are upset because your dog ran out the door or across the busy street; in these cases, if you scold your dog after he comes to you, then you are making it less likely he will come to you in the future. Another way people accidentally punish the recall cue is calling your dog for something the dog isn’t going to like such as a nail trim, perhaps, or the end of the fun such as leaving the dog park or coming inside the house. Practice calling your dog in a fun situation, give the dog a little treat, and immediately send your dog back out to enjoy the fun. This way, when it’s time to leave the dog park or come inside the house, your dog will be more likely to come when called because “come” won’t always mean that the fun will end.

3 Myths about Pet Food

Although many of the resources consulted for this article are written by or endorsed by veterinarians, the information presented is not intended to replace veterinary care or advice.  Please do your research and consult a veterinarian you trust regarding your dog’s diet, health, and well-being, especially before making changes to the diet of pets that suffer from diabetes or other conditions.

When it comes to feeding our dogs, many of us have trouble separating fact from fable, and much of our confusion can be blamed on misleading advertising.  Pet food companies, in their efforts to push their products, have inundated us with exaggerations and marketing claims that many of us have accepted as fact, to the detriment of our pets. Many people recognize that advertising claims should be “taken with a grain of salt”, but what about so-called “experts” who have television shows or books?  Surely they would be resources for current, unbiased information. Or would they?

The information here is only a start; there is so much more to learn, and as with all subject areas and experts, there are conflicting opinions. I encourage people to do their own research from a variety of reputable, unbiased, well-supported resources.

Myth #1:  Dogs should never eat human food. 

The belief that human food is unhealthy for dogs, although widely held, is highly inaccurate.  As most of us are aware, there are some human foods that are harmful to dogs (i.e. chocolate, grapes, xylitol, onions, etc.) and there are some foods that are unhealthy to humans as well as dogs (processed food, junk food, candy, overly salty or fatty foods, etc.).  This is the main argument for the standard answer by the pet food industry when it recommends that people should not feed dogs table scraps. What isn’t said is that a lot of healthy human food is also healthy for dogs.  In fact, dog-safe human food is better for dogs than most dog food because of the low standards in the pet food industry.  Human grade meats, especially organic, non-medicated, free-range and grass-fed, are far superior to the questionable sources of protein in most commercial dog food.  This was aptly illustrated in the CBC documentary Pet Food: A Dog’s Breakfast  wherein an old pair of boots, in theory, could meet the minimum standards for protein in pet food.

The book Not Fit for a Dog! : the truth about manufactured dog and cat food (2009) also exposes the poor quality ingredients in manufactured pet food and suggests a strong association with it and many common health and behavioural problems in dogs and cats.  In the section entitled “Better Nutrition, Fewer Health and Behaviour Problems” the authors state that they know this is true because these problems “are ameliorated and often eliminated after the afflicted animals are fed … organically certified, biologically appropriate … whole food diets … that are neither highly processed nor full of synthetic additives/supplements” (p.144).  In other words, the problems lessen or go away when the pets are fed better food.  The authors, all veterinarians, are so certain of this they’ve included some recipes for homemade dog and cat food.

Compounding the problem of poor quality ingredients are the processing methods of most commercial dog foods, especially extruded kibble.  During processing, the ingredients are subjected to high temperatures that degrade most of the original nutrients.  There is also evidence that the high temperatures can create dangerous cancer-causing compounds, and tests have shown that most dry dog foods contain these (See Spot Live Longer, p.92).

The quality of the ingredients and the processing methods are not the only problems with most manufactured pet food.  Another problem is the high starch content, especially in lower-priced pet foods.  Grains and other starches can be cheap sources of protein and are necessary in the production of kibble, which requires a lot of starch. While it seems that dogs can digest some grains, cats have no known need for carbohydrates and they don’t digest them well.  This is one reason why many sources recommended that cats be fed canned food rather than kibble; the canned food tends to have more protein, less-grain based protein, and more moisture. Some veterinarians believe that the high amounts of grain in pet foods lead to obesity, diabetes, arthritis and food allergies.

In their book See Spot Live Longer: How to help your dog live a longer and healthier life! (2005) authors Steve Brown and Beth Taylor detail how grains might be the worst offender when it comes to the major ingredients in manufactured dry dog foods.  The low-quality grains used are often infested with storage mites and dangerous molds, and how we store the dry food in our homes often encourages the growth of the mites and molds. Storage mites are being linked to skin allergies in dogs, and molds produce mycotoxins that can affect the immune system resulting in long-term health problems or in extreme cases, immediate death.  Brown and Taylor caution pet owners who purchase kibble to upgrade to the best quality they can find and afford, purchase only enough that can be used in a week, keep it in its original package, put the bag in an airtight container (if the bag isn’t sealable), and store it in the freezer, if possible.  More information on the problems with storage mites and molds and how to store and handle kibble to help reduce these problems can be found in their book.

Myth #2: Feeding a dog human food encourages unwanted behaviours.

Dogs are opportunists.  Counter-surfing, garbage diving, begging, stealing from plates, food guarding, nipping: these are all behaviours that will continue if allowed.  It’s not a matter of human food; it’s a matter of training.  If you don’t want your dog begging at the table, don’t feed him at the table; put the table scraps in his bowl.  And since most dogs find human food far superior to their regular dog food or dog treats, you can use human food to train desirable behaviours to counteract undesirable ones.

Contrary to this myth, it can be argued that the feeding of commercial dog food encourages unwanted behaviours.  A dog that is voracious will have little self-control around food, and a lot of manufactured dog food lacks the nutrients and/or quality protein to keep a dog sated.  The authors of Not Fit For a Dog! believe feeding manufactured pet food can lead to a variety of unwanted behaviours such as  “constant food soliciting/hunger; increased aggression/irritability/hyperactivity” (p.145). As well, there is strong evidence that commercial dog foods are largely responsible for many of the medical conditions that can require dogs to be put on medications that cause an increase in appetite (i.e. Prednisone).

Myth #3: Dry food helps keep a dog’s teeth clean.

This is based on the idea that hard, dry kibble will help scrape the teeth clean.  This sounds logical, but it turns out to be lacking in evidence. Some debunk this myth by referring to the impossibility of a pet’s pointed teeth crunching the kibble enough for the scraping action to have any effect beyond the tips of the teeth. This is supported by the observation that when pets regurgitate their kibble, many of the pieces are still whole, having made it into the stomach without being crunched up.  Crunching kibble and dog biscuits does not dislodge plaque from dogs’ teeth and small bits of food can remain stuck to the teeth and contribute to plaque buildup.

There are certainly other pet food myths circulating, but these are three of the most common ones.  How do these ideas become so widely believed, especially since there doesn’t seem to be any evidence to back them up?  It looks like these myths were born largely because of the efforts of pet food companies to increase their profits.

One of the “problems” the pet food industry faced was people supplementing their pets’ food with table scraps.  Back in 1964, dog food companies began issuing press releases about dog care that promoted feeding dogs only commercial dog food and warned about the dangers of feeding table scraps.  This information appeared in newspapers and magazines and on radio stations.  Years later, dog food companies stressed the “science” of canine nutrition which was too complicated for the average person in the kitchen. These marketing strategies worked and the mantra “never feed your dog human food” was widely embraced. The pet food companies also wanted to increase kibble sales since it is cheaper to manufacture kibble than canned food. Hence the claim kibble “helps” keep a dog’s teeth clean was born, despite a lack of data to back it up.  Vague words are popular tools in advertising. (For more information about the history of pet food marketing, visit read the article “Pet Nutrition History”; it contains excerpts from The Long History of the Canine Race by Mary Elizabeth Thurston, 1996.  As well, read the first chapter in Raw & Natural Nutrition for Dogs: the definitive guide to homemade meals by Lew Olson, 2010.)

One doesn’t need a white lab coat and a science degree to feed a dog a well-balanced, species-appropriate diet, but it isn’t as simplistic as cooking them some hamburger and steaming some veggies.  There is a lot to learn, and despite the “bad apples”, there are pet food companies that do provide quality products. Educate yourself about pet nutrition and learn how to read pet food labels. Try starting with small changes and see the results.  Find an option that works for you and your pet.

Recommendations for small changes:

  • Try feeding some cooked or raw homemade “complete and balanced” dog food recipes 
  • Change from kibble to canned, especially for cats.
  • Supplement kibble with some fresh, human-grade meats and steamed or finely chopped raw vegetables (focusing on leafy greens) (NOTE: always cook green beans, squash, and pumpkin).
  • Add a small amount of sardines (packed in water) or canned WILD salmon (packed in water) to your dog’s kibble. Be sure to use the right amounts.
  • Upgrade your kibble (see resources at the end of this article) and educate yourself about marketing claims. The better brands are made from human-grade ingredients with little to no starches, and they often have packaging that will keep out moisture and air.
  • Feed a variety of foods from different animal proteins and rotate them on a daily basis.  Don’t mix them together; rotate them.
  • Avoid senior, “lite”, and diet pet foods because these are higher in carbohydrates and fibre and have reduced protein and fat; according to several resources, older and overweight dogs need fewer carbohydrates and better quality fats and proteins. NOTE: Senior dogs with kidney problems are often put on reduced protein diets. The authors of See Spot Live Longer claim that certain studies about aging dogs and protein consumption were misinterpreted which led to the belief that decreasing a dog’s consumption of protein could prevent further kidney damage.  The authors claim that these studies suggested that dogs with kidney damage should be fed better quality protein, not less protein (p. 159).



Dr. Becker’s Real Food for Healthy Dogs and Cats (2013) by Beth Taylor and Karen Shaw Becker DVM (a revised version will be published 2018)

Not Fit for a Dog! : the truth about manufactured dog and cat food by  Michael W. Fox, Elizabeth Hodgkins, and Marion E. Smart (2009)

See Spot Live Longer: how to help your dog live a longer and healthier life! by Steve Brown and Beth Taylor (2005)

Web resources:

What Does Your Dog’s Vet Know About Nutrition?

Dr. Karen Becker’s Pet Foods Ranking (2015)

Pet’s, Protein, Dry Food, and Disease (by Dr. Karen Becker)

Whole Dog Journal’s Approved Dry Dog Food List

Still Buying Kibble? Please Heed This Safety warning (by Dr. Karen Becker)