What treat is right for your dog?

38516eca-620f-488d-ad11-931d45d20989

Editor's Picks
With so many dog treats on the market, how do you decide which are right for your dog, or if you need them at all? Alison Gallagher-Hughes investigates.

Treats — baked, dried, cold-pressed, raw, home-cooked, with fruit, vegetables, herbs and supplements, natural or processed… the list is endless. But which are the best treats to feed your dog, what purpose do they fulfil, and how often should you be feeding them?

Dog treats are big business, commanding significant shelf space and defined sections within many pet stores. According to the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association (PFMA), the total dog food market in the United Kingdom in 2020 was valued at £1.5 billion. More than a third of those sales — £547million — was generated from the sale of treats.

The humanisation of pets is often cited as a key driver in the continued growth of the pet industry. Most of us consider our dogs to be part of the family, so it’s easy to understand how we transfer our own desires — for diet variation and better nutrition — to our cherished pets.

This can be demonstrated across all our pet purchases, from accessories and grooming products to boarding and veterinary care, but why, specifically, do we spend so much money on treats?

Content continues after advertisements

The benefits of feeding treats

A reward for good behaviour is one of the main reasons why we feed treats to dogs. The need to train dogs to live alongside us in a domestic situation requires the adoption of learned behaviours, and we achieve these by reinforcing good behaviour using food, play, or positive interaction (vocally or physically). 

Dogs have a primary drive — core needs, wants, and likes — and food is top of the list according to Staffordshire-based Craig Flint, known as ‘The Dog Man’, who trains specialist dogs for the security sector, as well as offering regular one-to-one training for pet owners.

“A dog will generally value food more highly than other stimulus in a training environment,” said Craig. “He will place the promise of food and the ease of obtaining it ahead of other attractions that may stimulate him, for example a cyclist, bird, or squirrel.”

Studies indicate that rewarding dogs with high-value treats (such as meat) reduces the amount of time needed to learn, compared with those given low-value treats (such as their usual dog kibble). Furthermore, treats tend to work better than praise or petting in the adoption of new behaviours. 

Craig believes that timing also has a role to play — undertaking training before feeding, or substituting a bowl feed with feeding by hand, have noticeable benefits.

“Quite simply, if the dog is hungry he will be more responsive if the reward is food,” added Craig. “However, it is important that this is applied as an incentive and not a deprivation. Little and often will result in a greater percentage of success.”

A tasty treat can keep your dog’s focus on you during training sessions.

Hand-feeding also helps develop bonds of trust between a dog and their human. ‘The hand that feeds’ provides a basic canine need, but the process of feeding becomes a learned behaviour around which focus is applied and trust developed. Feeding by hand can also be used as a method of applying impulse control and slowing down food intake.

Psychologically, we humans get something from this interaction too.

Hand-feeding provides the opportunity to enjoy dedicated time engaging with our dogs, and who doesn’t appreciate thefeel-good factor arising from witnessing the positive changes this can make to a dog’s attitude and behaviour? However, it can be time-intensive, and treats give us the opportunity to undertake this process without the commitment of having to do it every day at a set time.

Some treats also provide us with a solution to a problem. These range from natural ingredients such as mint and rosemary as breath fresheners, blueberry and cranberry for immunity and urinary health, or foods rich in oils such as omega 3 for improving skin, coat, and bones.

However, some ingredients are added simply to make the treats more palatable. Dogs tend to have a sweet tooth, so the addition of fruit or vegetables within the composition of a treat can simply make them more tasty, or provide roughage which may be beneficial to digestion.

Craig teaches training using small, tasty food rewards.

Things to avoid

There are some things that are definitely on the ‘no’ list when it comes to treating your dog. These include human food — those little titbits that you may be tempted to push to the side of your plate when your dog looks at you imploringly throughout your meal.

Of course, it takes a will of steel not to give way, but in addition to reinforcing bad habits, there is also the danger of unwittingly passing over a few nasties — ingredients like onion or garlic, as well as excess salt and fat. The Kennel Club has a list of foods toxic to dogs on its website: www.thekennelclub.org.uk

Although dairy isn’t toxic, many dogs are, by degrees, lactose intolerant. This means they have a difficult time digesting the fat content contained in dairy and this can lead to conditions such as pancreatitis.

Also be wary of treats that include raw hide. Traditionally, it was a substance included in many chews but, as a by-product of the leather industry, it undergoes harsh chemical processes and although a dog’s digestive system is highly acidic and effective in breaking down tough tissue, its consumption has been known to cause choking and intestinal obstruction.

Dog treats are classified as a complementary pet food, meaning that they do not provide sufficient nutrition to be fed in isolation and always need to be fed as part of a balanced diet.

With pet obesity on the rise — it’s believed that around 40 per cent of dogs in the UK are considered overweight — it’s important that treats are fed in moderation to prevent excess calories and weight gain, advises Nicole Paley, deputy chief executive of the PFMA.

“As a guide, no more than 10 per cent of a pet’s calorie intake should come from treats and the remaining 90 from complete pet food. PFMA encourages owners to follow the feeding instructions provided on the pet food packet to help control calorie intake,” she explained.

Weight management resources can be found at www.pfma.org.uk/weight-management-tools.

Right treat, right time, right place… 

Not all treats are made equal; some have higher fat content or more calories than others, so it’s recommended you do a little research. There are usually variations on a theme; for example, dental chews are marketed as a way to reduce the build-up of tartar on a dog’s teeth. It is usually the shape or density of these treats that encourages the production of saliva through chewing, which aids dental health. The products themselves can help remove tartar deposits, but the pattern of chewing may not provide the consistency of a good teeth-cleaning regime.

The choice of treats may also be based on convenience. It is far easier to slip a small bag of treats into your pocket if there hasn’t been time to prepare a fresh alternative. But again, consideration should be given to the type selected.

If your dog is exercising vigorously and panting, then a powdery, freeze-dried treat, eaten quickly, could lead to coughing. A good alternative might be a moist or cold-pressed reward — big enough that it can be seen on the ground and requiring enough chewing to discourage it from being gulped down too quickly.

Also, consider the allure of smell. Dogs work with their noses so treats that smell strongly, such as fish-based products, can work well for recall training.

Di training with her dog Mimic.

Treat to suit your dog

Have you ever marvelled at the rapt attention dogs give to their handlers in competitive obedience events such as those at Crufts? 

Berkshire-based Di Martin is the founder of Click-2-Heel Dog Training and has trained her own dogs in competitive obedience for 30 years, winning Crufts in 2011. She advocates a mixed diet, and largely uses home-cooked meats — cubed pork, chicken, steak, or minced turkey — as an ideal training treat. 

“To be fair, it all depends on the individual dog and how food motivated they are,” she said. “A dog who is largely unmotivated by food may need chicken and sirloin steak, whereas for others who are highly aroused by food you may have to resort to using their normal kibble, so they don’t become over-excited and lose concentration.

“It also depends on what exercises you’re doing. If you’re doing something like lead work, the dog’s head is more likely to be elevated. So, if you have treats that they’re not going to chew, then it may result in them coughing. It does vary from dog to dog and you have to work out what’s right for yours.

“I think variation is important. I say to my clients: ‘Imagine kibble as the equivalent of a pound coin. In comparison, cooked chicken is comparable to a £50 note. If you want to have really good emotions connected to training, you may need to start with £50 notes. 

“However, if you keep using chicken all the time, you’re going to devalue it, so you’ve got to have new £50 notes coming in, and rotate those treats around a little bit. 

“There are some good raw and prepared treats on the market, and occasionally I will use them for convenience. JR Pet Products do a range of pates in a sausage, which are easy to break up. I also use Natures Menu and Platinum kibble because they are both moist and can be broken up for small dogs.

“In terms of value for money, I would always recommend cooking fresh meat, which you can freeze in small amounts and pop into a treat bag or pocket without it getting messy.”