Treating your dog

September 2nd, 2013
Treating your dog

We all love treating our four-legged friends, but can treating your dog regularly spoil them? Tim Falk reports.

If there’s one thing every dog lover can agree upon, it’d have to be the pleasure we get from spoiling our pooches. Puppy-dog eyes light up, scruffy faces transform into looks of unadulterated joy and tails start rotating like windmills in a cyclone.

For a lot of dogs, there’s no better reward than a tasty treat, and for any dog lover, it can be hard not to give in to the overwhelming desire to spoil your pooch rotten. But can giving your dog too much of a good thing be a problem?

“What is a treat for your dog?” asks Dr Chris Godfrey, Veterinary Director at Greencross Vets Coogee. “Some owners use the term loosely to mean a regular, special food for their pets which they really like and is a ‘treat’. These days, however, a treat really should be used as a motivator and be kept in reserve for your dog’s outstanding success.”

Dr Godfrey points out that everything your dog eats should be considered part of his diet. “Thus, giving numerous liver treats during the day for no reason in particular will increase the total food intake and can contribute to obesity. We see many overweight dogs in our hospital and this is a big problem,” he says.

It’s therefore important to factor this additional calorie intake into your pet’s daily food intake.

When to treat

If you take the time to keep track of exactly how many treats your dog gets on a daily basis, you might be surprised at how many extra snacks your four-legged companion is getting. After all, it can be hard to say no to those pleading puppy-dog eyes.

But is it okay to treat simply whenever you feel like it, or should treats only be given to reward good behaviour? Katarina Behan, author of dog training blog, says that whenever you give your dog a treat you are increasing the chances of his offering the same behaviour.

“Often people do not reward good behaviour because when your dog is being good it is easy to ignore them. Ignoring bad behaviour is much more difficult so this is the behaviour that is often rewarded with attention,” she says.

“Reversing this by remembering to reward your dog when they are quiet and behaving will teach them that these behaviours get them the best rewards. Giving a treat when he is being good will help shape your dog’s behaviour in a more positive direction — it is a wonderful way to train your dog.”

Behan says it is also okay to give your dog a treat whenever you feel like it, as long as you remember to factor them in to your dog’s calorie intake. “If you feel like giving your dog a treat, chances are you are happy with his behaviour, otherwise you would not feel like giving him anything. Remember, whenever you reward your dog he is learning a new habit,” she says.

What to give

The ready-made treats available at pet shops are conveniently presented and packaged, so are very useful to have on hand. “There is a big range of these and the trick is to find out what your dog really likes and keep it ready. Dried liver is a common and effective example. Other examples are treats which have add-on benefits such as teeth cleaning,” Dr Godfrey says.

He also points out that there are many simple food treats readily available at home. “Dogs often love small amounts of human food because it is high-quality, tasty protein. Chicken or other high-quality meats are examples,” he says. “Raw bones are good but will take some time for the dog to eat, so save these for times you need to keep your dog occupied while you live your life.”

Behan explains that if your dog is on a special dried food diet you can use their daily allowance of food as treats for training rather than allowing them to eat their meals from a bowl. This is a great way to train dogs who are prone to obesity or who have sensitive stomachs and cannot tolerate too many changes in diet.

Not just food

Giving food is not the only way to treat your dog. Every dog values different things, which are called their “currency”, and for most dogs their currency will be food. “Food is the most commonly used reward because of its ability to sustain life,” Behan says. “Food can also be delivered quickly and repeatedly in a short space of time, therefore maximising training.

“Often, dogs will value a combination of rewards and if you use them together you will find you increase the value of each one of them. For example, food given with praise will increase the value of praise for your dog, and play paired with a toy will make the toy more valuable. The more things your dog values, the easier it will be to train them.”

Once you have found out what your dog’s currency is, training can become a much easier and much more rewarding process.

Cuddles vs treats

For some dogs, food sometimes seems to be the most important thing in the world. Honey, a two-year-old Beagle, could certainly be described as food-driven. “Honey does everything for food,” says her owner, Nicole Stirling. “She comes when called, sits and begs. She never would have learnt those without food as a motivator. She isn’t allowed off-leash at the park because she’ll follow the scent of food and won’t come when called.”

For Honey, dog treats can be anything from dry food and kangaroo bones to cow hooves and sheep ears. Whatever food it is, Honey wants to eat it, so her diet needs to be carefully monitored to top her stacking on the kilos.

But Stirling’s other dog, a nine-month-old German Shepherd-cross named Nike, prefers a cuddle over a treat. “Nike is often confused by treats,” Stirling says. “He’ll sit and wait his turn to receive a treat, but while Honey runs away to eat hers alone, Nike often won’t take it and sometimes he puts it down on the ground and looks extremely confused.

“On the other hand, he’ll ‘sit’, then ‘down’ and roll over for a rub on the belly, and he jumps up all the time for a pat and cuddle. If you stop patting him, he’ll jump up again to remind you that he’s still there and the attention shouldn’t be over. He’s a big attention-seeker. While Honey will do anything for you when food is involved, Nike won’t leave your side in case he misses a cuddle.”

Foods to avoid

There are some foods which should not be used as treats. “Chocolate is toxic for dogs if they eat too much; avoid it so they don’t get a taste for it,’ Dr Godfrey says. “Macadamia nuts can cause problems and onions can poison dogs.” Cooked bones should also be avoided.

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