The Beginner's Guide To Picking And Feeding Dog Treats
The good news is that many dog treats not only make your dog spin in circles with excitement, but also are relatively healthy. A win-win scenario!
January 5th, 2019
Every dog deserves treats. But every dog also deserves to stay healthy!
For humans, indulging in sweet desserts and staying healthy seem to be constantly at odds with each other.
However, the good news is that many dog treats not only make your dog spin in circles with excitement, but also are relatively healthy. A win-win scenario!
So how do you go about hunting for these top-notch dog treats? This post will introduce you to some basic guidelines to picking out the best dog treats for your beloved pup.
First Of All, Why Treats?
Sure we’ve already mentioned that dog treats are “relatively” healthy, but this must mean they still contain some undesirable ingredients, right?
And if those ingredients are undesirable, why don’t we just use regular dog food as a training currency? Isn’t it healthier that way?
I suppose in theory, yes, provided that your dog food is indeed healthier than the treats you speak of!
But it’s the very fact that treats are a “training currency” that warrants something more delicious than your dog’s food as the reward.
For many dogs, their desire for food is insatiable. And frequently, when their noses come in contact with something smelly and delicious, they’ll be more inclined to listen to our commands.
Their regular dog food is familiar, and boring. You’ll want to step it up a notch if you’re looking to set your dog up for successful training sessions.
In general, using a yummy treat your dog goes crazy for can dramatically speed up your dog’s learning process.
For many more complex commands and behavioral issues, such as aggression, leash pulling, etc., a high-value treat stands the best chance in correcting and then reinforcing behaviors.
Of course, the article I linked a few lines above also goes into the cons of treats, and those definitely exist as well.
For example, your dog may focus too heavily on the treat and not on you, or the actual command you’re trying to teach them.
In addition, you must always have treats handy on you, which may be impossible depending on your lifestyle (note—if you’re really serious about training your dog, you should find a way to always have treats on you to reward good behaviors whenever they spring up).
But the majority of dog owners agree that having treats not only expedites the training process, but also brings more happiness and joy to the dogs themselves. And it also helps strengthen the bond between human and dog. They’ll love you that much more for spoiling them with that manna from doggy heaven.
Convinced that treats are necessary? Good! Now onto treat selection.
As With Food Selection, Ingredients Are King
In The Beginner’s Guide on How To Feed Your Dog, we covered the whole shebang on dog diet essentials, dog food types, and building literacy in the dog food world to finally select the best.
A big chunk of that is reading the ingredient list to check for premium ingredients in whatever food you look for.
This is an absolutely necessary skill to pickup and it’s not super hard to become adept. All of the information in that article is key in selecting dog treats as well because of the fact that the ingredients make or break the food—treat or not!
Thus, I highly recommend viewing or reviewing that article to understand those basics, since I won’t discuss them again here with as much detail.
With that in mind, you’ll want to scrutinize the ingredient list for every single dog treat you purchase just as hard as for your dog’s everyday food.
Just because we are now dealing with “treats” doesn’t mean you can be any less harsh on those ingredients! What goes into your dog’s body is very important stuff—an improper diet and/or obesity is a common dog problem that limits life expectancy and can be avoided with just a little extra knowledge and care.
Types of Dog Treats
When it comes to dog treats, there are a variety of types to choose from.
Along the dog treat aisles, you will come across various hard and soft treats, jerkies, bones and chews, and perhaps some other shockers if you are a first time dog-owner like me (cow ears? what???).
With so much variety (not just with type but also with brands and flavors), let’s take a step back and first go through the different types you’ll see and give a quick summary of each.
The Hard Dog Treats – Biscuits, Cookies, etc.
The go-to reward for many dogs is a nice, crunchy dog biscuit.
They normally come in all shapes, flavors, and sizes and you’ll usually want to hand break them into smaller pieces (I’d recommend no larger than the size of a piece of adult kibble).
Biscuits are popular because they can easily be carried along with you. They’ve got a long shelf life provided they are sealed properly in their packaging or other container.
I think all households with a dog should contain some biscuits for regular training sessions, or just for the occasional pampering. Find out what flavors your dog is into and pick out a high-quality treat accordingly.
The Soft Dog Treats – Freshly Baked Goods, Soft Biscuits, Soft Chews etc.
Many prefer to feed softer dog treats. They don’t put as much a toll on the teeth, and are also easier to partition into many pieces.
Dogs often find that softer treats have a more pleasing texture, and may be more aromatic because there are generally fewer preservatives.
At least in Seattle, there are a handful of dog bakery shops which specialize in freshly baked dog treats. These shops seem to be on the rise, and they offer unique dog treats in flavors canines love. Your dog will thank you for these treats for sure.
Dental Chews – Mind Your Dog’s Teeth
Don’t have the time (or are just lazy) to brush your dog’s teeth every day? Dental chews can help out with that.
Of course, you’ll still have to brush occasionally, but dental chews are a great treat for your dog if they absolutely will not tolerate a thorough brush.
The downside to this is that they can be high in calories. Some may contain large amounts of corn starch or other ingredients that do not add much nutritional value for your dog.
In general, I like to feed less than the recommended amount on packages—for some reason they always seem to over-portion. Where a recommended package label may say feed one treat a day, I’d feed once every two days at the most.
The preferred option is still to brush your dog’s teeth to get rid of that tartar and plaque! But the fact that an entire class of treats has been created to specifically target dental issues only underscores the importance of our dog’s teeth.
Meat Jerkies – Delicious!
It’s no secret—dog’s love meat. While their mouths water next to your dinner table begging for a piece of chicken leg, they now have a pretty close alternative: jerkies.
Jerkies have the advantage because they’re pretty easy for us humans to understand. They’re made from mostly meat, and we know that’s a good source of protein for our dogs.
In my opinion, jerkies are perhaps one of the best food rewards you could practically offer a dog for training, second only to real cooked chicken or turkey meat.
Some may be very hard and difficult to break into pieces, but others are very soft and easily partitioned.
Having a go-to high-value treat is a must have when correcting bad behaviors. So invest in some jerkies!
Bone Chews – Rawhide, Bully Sticks, Animal Bones, etc.
Rawhide is yet another one of those controversial things. Same with bully sticks and animal bones.
If your dog is not thoroughly chewing the material and accidentally swallows a large piece, it could end up getting stuck in their throat.
Moreover, too much rawhide can cause stomach irritation in dogs or gastric disorder if ingested too often.
I along with other dog owners have also thought that rawhides and bully sticks just flat out reek!
But the pros are numerous as well. A healthy chewing session can be therapeutic for dogs and prevent them wrecking home furniture instead.
It also offers dental benefits similar to dental chews, and can remove plaque from your dog’s teeth and gums.
The entire discussion on whether or not rawhides have their place on the dog treat shelves is more involved, and it’s up to you whether to try them.
Personally, Yuna herself is not super interested in rawhides but absolutely loves bully sticks. We tend to stick with those!
Human Food – Generally Not Recommended
Table scraps are generally frowned upon. Don’t give your dog leftovers, because it’s likely to upset their stomachs as the high salt, sugar, and fat content of many of the foods we eat are not suitable for dogs. Even if they beg like this.
Then there are those human foods which are completely toxic, such as (but not limited to): onions, grapes, chocolate, coffee, nuts, raw eggs, coffee, foods that are too salty.
Other human foods are okay to feed in moderation though. Boiled chicken breast with no additional flavor is a great way to soothe your dog’s stomach, and is also a very high value treat.
Some dog owners incorporate additional vegetables (i.e. steamed carrots) into their dog’s diets.
A lot of fruits are also highly desirable, such as apples, strawberries, pineapple, watermelon, blueberries, and mangoes.
But to be on the safe side, please check before feeding your dog any human food.
Other Funky Stuff – Animal Ears, Dietary Supplements, Etc.
I was shocked when I first learned cow ears and pig ears were a thing.
At first glance they seem to be pretty similar to rawhides. And indeed, after doing a bit of research they are faulted with some similar problems rawhides exhibit, such as the use of unhealthy processed chemicals.
Moreover, these animal ears are usually high in fat content, which can cause vomiting if eaten daily.
If you decide to use pig ears as treats, make sure you feed them extra sparingly. They can be delicious, but beware of possible obesity!
Selecting A Dog Treat
All the major types of dog treats have been introduced. So how do you pick one from the shelves?
Well, if it’s your first time with dog treats, you’ll likely just have to bravely pick a flavor you think your dog will enjoy, and see how your dog reacts.
Keep in mind that just as when we selected our dog’s food, the treat you select does not and should not be the treat you stick with for the rest of your dog’s life! You have dozens of opportunities to change up your biscuits, chews, and other arsenal of treats in the future.
A lot of dog care is about learning best practices, but there is also an immense amount of experimentation involved. Your dog is unique among millions of others in the world.
So don’t get stuck up with making the perfect decision in the beginning. You’ll have to slowly learn what your dog is most into and then you’ll be able to optimize your future selections.
Of course, a few technicals are involved. As mentioned previously, you’ll definitely need to look at the ingredients list.
Natural ingredients are always preferred. Chicken (real meat or skin), chicken meal (meat or skin or bone, but grounded), and chicken by-product (clean parts of carcass, such as feet, organs, necks, unborn eggs, etc.) are all different. Definitely prefer natural chicken over the other two, although each are technically high in protein value.
Also, check if the treat has caloric content labeled on the package (shockingly, it is not required that dog food manufacturers do this). Compare caloric values listed with other treats on the aisle, and choose the one most appropriate for your dog.
The most common cause of dog obesity is overfeeding of high-caloric treats. Many times, dog owners will think they’ve only fed a couple of biscuits a day, but the caloric value of those may startle them.
The final tip would just be to explore different treats. Your dog has taste buds too—give them a new experience once you’ve finished a pack.
Also, buy many different types of treats we introduced earlier in this article, probably one per category. As we’ll find out in the next section, different treats work wonders in specific training scenarios.
Tips For Specific Cases Regarding Treats
Are you working on a primary training session with your dog, where you’re completely focused on trying to teach him a new behavior?
Especially in the first few sessions, real cooked meat can be a very motivating treat. Make sure they are broken into small enough pieces and you’ll be able to extend your training session as long as possible without racking up the calories.
However, in some specific scenarios, you may want a more long-lasting treat.
For example, crate training is necessary during puppyhood. Dogs should learn that cages are like their own personal safe spot in the house, not a scary place of confinement.
A good way for them to learn this is to ensure they spend happy time in there. What better way than to reward them with a nice long, slow-eating bully stick inside the crate?
It will last much longer than the biscuits and jerkies!
Finally, if you are serious about positive reinforcement like I am, you’ll want to capture key good behaviors whenever they occur inside the house, and during walks.
This requires you to keep a stash of treats in multiple locations around your house so you can quickly reward your dog whenever they surprise you with good behavior.
Or, you can keep a treat pouch attached to yourself.
Obviously, since these treats may be sitting there for a while, perishable goodies like real meat would not be a good choice here. This is when you’d go for the jerkies or biscuits!
So really try to anticipate the types of training scenarios you’ll plan out for your dog. Different scenarios call for different bounty!
Portioning Treats – Labels Tend To Overestimate
Finally, we will discuss treat portioning.
At first, I was confused at what a portion even meant. If a treat packaging recommended 4 pieces of jerky per day, and my food packing recommends 3 cups of kibble for a day, is it safe to feed 3 cups of kibble AND 4 pieces of jerky per day?
Or is that grossly overfeeding?
Well, if you actually dive into the caloric content and nutritional content, in general I think that food packagings tend to recommend portions that are too large.
In fact, I could just tell by examining Yuna’s figure. Whenever I tried feeding her that much, any progress she made in losing weight was nullified, and she actually gained some pounds back.
Given that she was already slightly obese, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that all these recommended portions are not correct.
In general, right now I always feed one weight group lower than the recommended, and half the treat recommendation. In my fictional example above, I’d perhaps feed her 2.5 cups of kibble per day and 2 pieces of jerky.
I monitor Yuna’s weight on a weekly basis and my system keeps her at about where she needs to be, along with regular exercise.
However, this feeding strategy also gives me some leeway in giving her a couple of biscuits here and there, and also for her to chew on her bully stick in the car while we are on a ride.
As a general rule of thumb, it’s recommended that treats do not take more than 10% of your dog’s diet. Keep that in mind no matter what feeding strategy you use.
“Treat” Is A General Term!
When we talk about “dog treats,” usually we mean all the types of delicious foods that we introduced above.
However, this article reminds us that treats are really just anything that your dog enjoys!
A nice walk or play session with your dog could be more rewarding to your dog than a tasty treat. Dogs crave our love and attention and we should be there to give it to them.
We always want to give priority to our dog’s happiness, so just keep this in mind!
Treat Your Dog In 2019!
2019 is still fresh, and it’s a great time to try out some new treats for your dog.
As long as you’re keeping a watchful eye on your dog’s diet and caloric intake, feel free to explore many of the treats out there. You’re bound to land on the one that makes your dog go nuts.
Or you could be like Yuna who is pretty okay with mostly anything!
In any case, our dogs deserve the best treats, whether that is a mouth-watering snack or just taking some time out of our busy lives to interact with them.
Let us know what your favorite treats are!
Keep following Yuna’s Instagram for some super valuable dog tips every other day! We’ve dubbed them Lab Reports—hope puns don’t scare you away.