OK, I’m going to break the ultimate taboo here and talk about giving so-called “people food” to dogs. 1)Nutritionist Linda Case points out aptly in the comments that even the term “people food” is inaccurate and comprises a completely false dichotomy. I won’t use it anymore, even to make a point.
Most of us who do positive reinforcement training and counterconditioning are already accustomed to giving our dogs some pretty special, high value stuff at times. Tuna, ham, Gorgonzola cheese; most anything fragrant and full of calories has been tried at one time or another.
But these types of foods have something in common, and that is that most consist of one basic flavor.
A friend who doesn’t actually train her dogs, but gives them small amounts of interesting food out of love and as enrichment, caused me to notice how much dogs appear to enjoy complex odors and flavors.
My friend read a quote similar to this one about dogs’ olfactory powers: “We smell ‘vegetable soup,’ but a dog smells each individual ingredient.” 2)In the training community, this quote may have originated in a tracking book in 2010. It was picked up and used by the Canine Nosework folks as well. Author and scientist Alexandra Horowitz writes:
Dogs have more genes committed to coding olfactory cells, more cells, and more kinds of cells, able to detect more kinds of smells….their sense of smell may be millions of times more sensitive than ours.–Alexandra Horowitz, “Inside of a Dog,” 2010
My friend subsequently started making sure that her dogs regularly got–along with the smells–some tastes of safe, home cooked foods that were complex and seasoned. Just because she figured they would like it. She was right. They love it. She calls it “flavors” and all her dogs line up for their special tastes of interesting food, and look forward to a bite in their dinner bowls. And note: her dogs can all proficiently suck up spaghetti à la “Lady and the Tramp.”
Smell vs. Taste
Even though they have those amazing noses, dogs have a lot fewer taste buds than we do. They probably can’t discriminate tastes nearly as well. But that’s no reason to limit their food to “simple” tastes like we often do, even when looking for high value treats. The smell of complex foods is likely rewarding in itself, and I find it hard to believe, after seeing what complex foods dogs often seem to like, that the smell doesn’t enrich the eating experience.
I remember one day at an agility practice when one of the people brought spice cookies for the humans. The dogs, with my Summer leading the way, went nuts over the odor of those cookies and when offered some bites gobbled them down like ambrosia. Summer has had cookies (intended for humans) before. Mostly simple things like vanilla wafers and shortbread. The smells and tastes of butter, sugar, and vanilla are not unknown to her. But add in the clove and nutmeg and cinnamon in spice cookies and it was clearly a whole different experience.
OK, before my suggestions, here are the cautions. Use common sense about foods that are toxic to dogs. Here is a list: Foods That Are Hazardous to Dogs.
Also, be careful about foods with high fat content because of the risk of pancreatitis, plus of course all those calories. Highly processed foods full of sugar or white flour (see the fast food entries below) are probably best kept to small quantities as well. They can’t be any better for dogs than they are for us…. High salt items aren’t great either. And on the other hand beware of artificially sweetened foods, which may have Xylitol, extremely toxic to dogs (thanks to reader Jane for this reminder).
Finally, with regard to using these kinds of treats for counterconditioning: I generally avoid making suggestions about things that “work for some dogs.” It is tempting when working with fearful dogs to try every trendy thing that comes along, without buckling down to do the actual conditioning and training which has been shown to help. So I don’t usually say, “It can’t hurt to try.” It can hurt to spend time on things that aren’t likely to work. But I don’t believe widening the search for foods that our dogs love falls into that bucket. It’s part of the basics of training and conditioning to find something the dog goes crazy for.
So OK, that plate of spaghetti looks great, and it’s not too onion-y, but how could one use something like that as a training treat?
Remember food tubes? If spaghetti with meat sauce turned my dog on like nothing else, I would be putting it in a blender and dishing it out with a food tube. But there are quite a few “people foods” that lend themselves more easily to training.
Things You Can Cut Into Pieces
- Cheese or meat tortellini or ravioli, boiled plain
- Commercial or homemade meatballs
- Grilled cheese sandwich
- Whole wheat waffle with cranberries (NOT raisins)
- Fast food hamburger or cheeseburger with bun (hold the onion, mustard, and pickle). The buns are very soft–just rip off small bites with both meat and bread
- Fast food breakfast sandwich
- Pumpkin or spice bread (no chocolate chips)
Things to Blend and Put in a Food Tube
Some of these may take some finesse with the food processor, especially those with potatoes. They can get gluey. Most of these require the addition of some liquid.
- Spaghetti with meat sauce
- Barbecue meat
- Mashed potatoes
- Hash brown casserole
- Many soups, stews, and casseroles
A Little More Common Sense
OK, before the healthy food posse comes after me, please note that I am not recommending that anyone change their dog’s diet to include these foods in quantity. Just a bite now and then for enrichment, for a very special training treat, or for counterconditioning. And I wanted to give the people who do lots of counterconditioning some ideas for things they may not have used yet.
Also, there are plenty of non-junky home cooked foods. The sky is the limit!
My Summer will do anything for any sort of bread or baked goods. What interesting things does your dog like?
By cyclonebill (Tortellini med valnøddeolie og sort peber) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0 )], via Wikimedia Commons
© Eileen Anderson 2015 eileenanddogs.com
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Nutritionist Linda Case points out aptly in the comments that even the term “people food” is inaccurate and comprises a completely false dichotomy. I won’t use it anymore, even to make a point.|
|2.||↑||In the training community, this quote may have originated in a tracking book in 2010. It was picked up and used by the Canine Nosework folks as well.|