Why Am I Changing My Dogs’ Food?

Because I read this incredible book, that’s why. 

Book Review

Dog Food Logic book coverDog Food Logic: Making Smart Decisions in an Age of Too Many Choices, by Linda P. Case, MS

Available at Dogwise.

A book about dog nutrition and feeding choices that talks about cognitive biases and logical fallacies? My kind of book!

Author, trainer, canine nutritionist and consultant Linda Case has written a unique book on how to make decisions about what to feed your dog. She has the right credentials:  B.S., Animal Science, Cornell University, M.S. Canine/Feline Nutrition, University of Illinois, Urbana, and tons of high-level professional working experience. The book is packed with information about dog nutrition, but equally important is the information about **how** to go about making decisions about feeding. Ms. Case realizes that most people don’t make decisions about their pets based on charts of data. Of course she includes the charts, and gives instruction on how to use them. But she also teaches us how to navigate the waters of cultural assumptions, advertising, our own upbringing, and most important, cognitive biases.

The writing style is casual and pleasant, while still being precise.  She jokes around. And the book is well organized, persuasive, and thorough. There are chapters on dogs’ nutritional needs including adjusting for their age and “lifestyle,” common ingredients and what they really are, critical thinking and decision making about our dogs’ food, the history of dog food, dog food companies–who really makes what, dog food marketing and labeling (read and weep), and what regulating bodies work to keep dog food safe (in the US) and how to contact them.

Goals of the Book

I knew I would love this book when I saw the three-point synopsis in the introduction:

[In order to make good decisions about our dogs’ nutritional health…]

We need a strong emotional attachment to the idea of making the best choice for our dogs and an understanding of how that attachment affects our choices; we also need a grounding in the science of canine nutrition (an understanding of what we know to be true and proven versus what is mere speculation or conjecture); and we need a set of strong critical thinking skills to allow us to sort truth from marketing hype when evaluating dog food companies, brands, and products.

I would have been happy with just the second and third points, but the first point converts the book from merely useful to a slam dunk. And she delivers on all three.

Later in the book, she reiterates her point:

It should be evident by now that my goal with this book is not to tell you what food to feed to your dog or how to specifically advise your clients about their dogs. Rather, my objective is to promote well-reasoned decision making that combines a working knowledge of the scientific method, canine nutrition and critical thinking skills.

You get it? She’s not going to make a master list of the best dog foods and recommend the top five. She’s going to teach you how to do it yourself, for your own dogs.

Biases and Fallacies

Is Summer a skeptic too?
Is Summer a skeptic too?

A great strength of the book is the focus on biases and fallacies about dogs, their needs, their nutrition, our own motivation, and much more. Here are a few highlights.

Illusion of Control: She takes as a small case study the Internet claims that a certain ingredient is connected to seizures in dogs. She shows the tortuous path that led to the rumors. Most important, she points out that the known possible causes for seizures, genetics and idiopathic, are both something over which an owner has no control. Because of confirmation bias and the illusion of control, diet is most people’s go-to solution for any health problem that is making us feel frustrated and helpless.

Overfeeding and treat training: She points out that connecting food and love (a good thing) can lead to dog obesity (a bad thing) if critical thinking and self observation are left out of the picture. She points out that training sessions strengthen the association between food and love in our minds and can have an effect on our choices. And even though she mentions training with food in this section, she does not equate that with having overweight dogs. She states the obvious without fanfare, that it just requires the ability to subtract the calories from the dog’s daily needs to prevent any weight problem. I had never thought about how training with food reifies the food/love connection…in the human.

Zani performing a "natural canid behavior": Eating grass
Zani performing a “natural canid behavior”: Eating grass

Naturalistic Fallacy: She introduces and first discusses this fallacy in the section about dogs’ nutritional needs. She sums up the problem with a sentence that may tick some people off, but which she defends flawlessly: “There is no rational reason to believe that, just because something can be classified as natural for dogs…that it without question follows that these things are better for dogs.” She goes on to explain that benefits need to stand on evidence, not just a claim of naturalness. She discusses the effects of the naturalistic fallacy several more times:  in an extended case study about choosing a dog food from the myriad choices available now, in the section on pet food marketing, and (oh boy!) in the section on labeling.

Credentials and Social Media

In a short but chilling section, Ms. Case lets us know how frustrating the world of a nutritionist can be. In an almost perfect parallel to the training world, anybody can blast their opinion on nutrition for dogs all over the internet and not be called to task for it. You can’t go a day on social media without running into it. As a nutritionist, she is ethically and professionally bound to take extreme care about recommendations, but, for instance, I, as an uncredentialed blogger, can write anything I want. I could start promoting Eileen’s All Egg Diet starting tomorrow without much risk of repercussions. But I’m going to follow her advice, which is “If you don’t have the creds, don’t make the claim.”

And indeed, I can’t start recommending this book fast enough. Just yesterday I read someone’s post on FaceBook decrying the lack of attention to nutrition that people give to their pet dogs. She went on to make four points about choosing a food. Three of this passionate, caring person’s points, it turns out, have absolutely no current basis in science, and two of those three actually have minor but documented risks. The fourth was a recommendation about labeling. The writer said to look for a certain word connected with the food. And I just learned that word has virtually no regulated meaning in the petfood industry.

Critique

Frankly, I am so thrilled with this book and grateful that it is available to us that it’s hard to find a flaw. But just so you know that I did read it with a critical eye: I would have loved a central listing of all the BS myths that we hear about feeding dogs. However, these fallacies are so numerous and so central to the arguments of the book that making a list in addition to addressing them in the flow of the text would substantially increase its size. One other thing: Appendix 5 is called a flow chart for dog food choice–a great idea. I spent a bit of time searching for the actual flow chart–could it have been an insert and it fell out?–until I finally realized that the list of questions in text format was the flow chart. I would have loved to see a graphical decision tree as well.

Odds and Ends

I learned something on almost every page of this book. Here are a few little tidbits:

  • The evidence that dogs are omnivorous
  • Which label terms on foods are actually legally defined
  • Why “filler” is an empty (ha ha) epithet
  • The pros and cons of both raw and cooked, extruded food
  • The legal bounds of the term “natural”
  • Why it’s hypocritical that a food that is supposed to be complete and total nutrition is marketed with additional implied claims about improving your dog’s health

Personal Response

I said at the beginning of this post that I intend to change my dogs’ food. I’m relieved to say that I haven’t chosen a bad food, and many of the principles I have followed in making my choice are pretty good. But now I’m better informed and can make a better choice.

Bottom line:  I trust this book. Ms. Case gives us the information we need, and teaches methods of making assessments on our own. She doesn’t set anything in stone. I am completely confident that when new information comes out that updates or even contradicts information she has in the book, she will be the first to spread the word, hopefully in a future edition.

This review was not solicited. I saw that Ms. Case had written the book, I bought it, I read it, and I hope every other dog owner reads it as well.

Coming Up:

BarkBusters: Myths about Barking
How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
Thresholds: The Movie
You Can’t Cure MY Fear by Shoving Cookies at Me!

 

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Copyright Eileen Anderson 2014