FEEDING OUR DOGS, IS PEOPLE FOOD OKAY, TOO?

Many higher end dog foods now tout their “whole food” ingredients, in part because of backlash against the subpar components that have historically been included in many popular dog food recipes. Pet parents want quality nutrition not only for themselves and their families but for their dogs as well, and companies have heeded that call by improving the ingredients in their recipes as well as offering more specific varieties, such as grain or gluten free offerings. On many dog food labels now, wet or dry, one can find meats, veggies, and grains listed, as simply as that. Rather than a list of chemicals and hard to pronounce words, pet parents can now pick up a can of dog food listing chicken, sweet potatoes, and rice as primary ingredients. But does that mean it is okay to feed our dogs “people food”? That is, if we are feeding our dogs the leftovers from our own meals, what effect will that have on their nutrition?

MAKE SURE TO MEET THEIR NEEDS

If a small business owner needs their books done, common advice is to find a subject matter expert. Hire an accountant or a bookkeeper, someone with the training and expertise to do it right the first time and ideally at a lower time investment. Similarly, when one needs to overhaul a website or tighten up marketing for their company, it is often advisable to outsource those activities to someone who does them on a regular basis. In theory, our dog’s nutrition is no different. We can do the research and feed our dogs from our own kitchens, but care must be taken to include all the elements of a balanced diet. High quality dog foods contain the right balance of fats, proteins, carbs, and other elements (vitamins, amino acids, etc.) that our dogs need, and even with careful research we may miss an important component of their diet. However, if pet parents are willing and able to dedicate the time to research and prep to feed their dogs via whole foods, it can be done! It is advisable to work with your vet and follow his or her recommendations to make sure all the important nutritional components are included. Also, keep in mind that buying, prepping, and portioning out whole meats, grains, and veggies is going to take a LOT of time!

CLARIFYING "PEOPLE FOOD"

When referring to “people food” or “table foods”, we are including whole foods. Processed foods such as pastas, crackers, and casseroles are not designed for our dogs! In fact, your dog may even be allergic to common table foods that include elements such as chocolate and raisins. Even though they may present you with the sweetest eyes ever under the dining room table, the reality is that supplementing their regular diet with leftovers and table scraps may introduce foods that are not beneficial to your dog’s health and may also up his intake beyond what it needs to be, leading to obesity and other health issues. That being said, with planning and structure you can treat your dog with what may be considered people food. For example, make sure to verify just how much of his dry food he needs, and you can offer special, high value treats as part of your training program, such as small chunks of chicken breast or slices of banana. Make sure your dog understands the difference between the “people food” you set aside for him as a reward and the food on your own plate, though, because many pet parents will tell you that once a dog learns he can beg successfully, that is a very hard habit to break! You want your dog to be healthy AND happy, and that means making sure he understands his limits and boundaries.

Images courtesy Rob and Sonny Abesamis

Positive Training Methods for Your Dog

A recent study by the University of Lincoln in Britain indicated that the use of shock collars may not provide training benefits that outweigh the potential negatives (including more observed tension, more yawning, and less interaction with their fellow dogs). Although shock collars are rather common and their positive versus negative benefits can still be debated, there are other training options available to work with our dogs that do not necessarily involve negative consequences.

POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT

Positive reinforcement is perhaps the most common of the “positive” training methods. This involves offering a treat or praise when your dog performs the desired behavior and teaches him that he receives the desired outcome (i.e. a scratch on the ear or a favorite treat) by meeting the standards you’ve set. Positive reinforcement has been shown to increase performance in working dogs such as farm dogs and the principles of positive reinforcement also carry over well into the home for the non-working dog. For example, the most successful trainers make their expectations clear by using concise commands, make sure to reward desired behaviors immediately, and are consistent in providing rewards for those behaviors. This method can be used for working dogs such as companion animals when teaching a dog how to help his master cross the street or can even be helpful in the home setting for rewarding desired behaviors such as stay or NOT jumping on guests when they enter.

SHAPE THE ENVIRONMENT

In addition to the cue/reward/consistency formula of positive reinforcement, positive training for your dog also involves his overall quality of life. A well exercised dog that has adequate shelter and nutrition, as well as a conscientious handler that strives to be in tune with his needs and behaviors, will generally respond best to reinforcement cues. Training a working dog or a family dog involves communication, patience, and love, and the best environment for a dog working on learning new skills or eliminating undesirable behaviors is one in which he feels comfortable and safe! If you are moving toward positive training cues with your dog, try to look at the big picture – is he not responding to a cue because the cue, timing, or reward are off? Or is he struggling because he has excess energy or is distracted by something in his environment? With the right adjustments and a healthy dose of patience, you can avoid using methods based on punishment or suffering and work together with your dog to encourage the behaviors that work best for you, for him, and for your overall environment, whether that be a working environment or that of your home.

Images courtesy of Joselito Tagorao and Taro the Shiba Inu  

CREATING DOG-FRIENDLY OUTDOOR SPACES

With summer winding down, our focus has likely shifted to the new school year and the tasks of fall: prepping for fall holidays, starting to appreciate the changing seasons, and even possibly anticipating the transition into the winter holidays. However, in most regions the great outdoors are temperate and our outdoor spaces still provide opportunities for grilling, relaxing, and enjoying time with family and friends. But what if we’ve made it through the summer without optimizing our outdoor spaces, whether we have a large, fenced yard, a small, concrete patio, or anything in between? What small changes can be made to make our shared areas as dog-friendly as possible for our canine best friends?

BIG OR SMALL – FOCUS ON SAFETY                                

First and foremost, a common area is more enjoyable for everyone if it is safe for all users! A Great Dane from Portland, Oregon recently made headlines with his gastrointestinal exploits: he was found with 43 ½ socks in his digestive system! The poor pup was understandably experiencing distress. Other commonly ingested items include corn cobs, strings and ropes, and even coins. Review your outdoor space with a critical eye to ensure that small items, garbage, and even shoes are out of reach and safe from consumption. And if your pup tends to get into certain types of items, such as paper products or leather items, exercise extra caution to make sure they’re not in your yard or on your patio! Certain plants can also prove poisonous to our dogs, so it is also important to do a quick check and make sure your plants, both blooming and non-blooming, are dog-safe and non-toxic. Another consideration for making your yard dog-friendly is containment; is your fence dig-proof? Or are your patio railings narrow enough to keep him contained, safe and sound? You and your dog will both be able to get much more enjoyment out of your outdoor space if you’re not constantly monitoring for safety hazards!

INTRODUCING APPEALING ELEMENTS

Perhaps the simplest way to keep your dog happy in the great outdoors is to give him the creature comforts he desires most: shade, shelter, and appealing textures. Shade can be introduced via canopies or shade trees, and your dog will appreciate having safe places that are set up just for him. For example, if your backyard has a covered patio area or a large expanse of grass, you might consider building a dog house for him to enjoy. Many pups also appreciate having their own soft space to lie down and relax, such as a dog bed. Remember our dogs love to be RIGHT with us, so putting a dog bed in a covered area where there is not human companionship may go unappreciated. If you do your best to set up a spot near where the action is (or even near the nice warm firepit as the weather cools!), she will likely greatly appreciate the gesture. Overall, when we are designing comfortable outdoor spaces for our pups, remember their primary concerns are typically limited to having a great place to nap, with maybe some room to run as well. And even if you don’t have the space to provide that room to run, they really just want to be close to their family, so and try keep their nesting places near where you will be relaxing as well!

Images courtesy Bruce Fingerhood and I Am Theo

FUN FACTS ABOUT DOGS AND THEIR PERSONALITY QUIRKS

Ask any pet parent about whether their dog has personality quirks and a certain level of individuality, and you will likely receive a resounding yes. Our dogs have an entire spectrum of traits and varying dispositions, much like humans. For example, some dogs are social butterflies while others are more shy or introverted. Some dogs need activity and constant action, while others prefer a quieter, more routine daily life. Some of these traits may be based on a dog’s breed or age, but often each dog’s individual personality plays a role. For example, a Labrador may be a loyal, family-friendly dog based on his genes, but his penchant for getting excited and a little worried when things get too hectic (around our house we refer to the barking pup that results from this scenario as “Safety Dog”) may be all personality! Keeping that in mind, let’s take a look at a few fun facts about dogs and their personalities that current research has uncovered.

DON’T BE JELLY, PUP!

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego have shown something many pet parents are already acutely aware of: our dogs get jealous. Whether it’s a new job, a new baby, or some other shiny new thing taking our attention off of our pups, they know when they’ve lost the spotlight, even a little bit! This behavior may be even more intense when that shiny object is another dog (aka an actual, canine rival – oh no!). The study illustrated the fact that when pet parents paid attention to a stuffed dog, a jack o’lantern pail, or a book, a higher percentage of the test dogs reacted to the stuffed dogs. That is, they knew when a rival for their attention was actually a rival. Test dogs exhibited a wide range of behaviors, from sniffing the rival to actively snapping at it or positioning themselves between their owner and the interloper.

DOGS AND THEIR PET PARENTS – MORE IN COMMON THAN WE THINK?

In a study published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, researchers compared the traits of owners and dogs in five categories (also known as the “big five” in psychology): extraversion, openness, neuroticism, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Because owners may be likely to project their own traits on to their pets, researchers also interviewed close family members to determine the perceived rankings of dogs and their owners in all categories. The findings? Owners and pets were typically quite similar in four out of the five categories, consistently! So although we don’t know if pet parents choose dogs that are similar to them or the dogs and owners adopt similar characteristics, it looks like you may be more like your pet than you realize!

THEY MATURE JUST LIKE US

In humans, some teens have a somewhat balanced disposition, but others are known for being a little more emotional and a little less responsible and more erratic on a regular basis. It turns out that young dogs may suffer the same fate! Researchers looked into the consistency of personality traits in dogs throughout various life stages, and found that traits such as submissiveness, fearfulness, responsiveness to training, activity, sociability, and aggressiveness were not consistent throughout dog’s lives, but rather consistency varied depending on how old a dog was when studied. That is, young dogs could have varying, inconsistent scores in various traits, while older dogs exhibited a more consistent score in the various categories. So a puppy initially perceived as aggressive may score lower in that area at another time, while an adult dog would be more likely to be consistently aggressive or non-aggressive based on his personality. The researchers posited that hormones may play a role in younger dogs’ variability…. That sounds familiar, yes? Overall, these studies are fun and interesting, but realistically are simply confirming what we as pet parents already know: our dogs truly are unique snowflakes, each and every one of them!

 

Images courtesy of Patch Attack and Jitze Couperus

WORKING DOGS: IMPROVING OUR QUALITY OF LIFE

In a previous post we talked about working dogs and the important roles they play in disaster and other emotionally charged situations, but in addition to the help working dogs provide us as search and rescue dogs, military dogs, and in their other high intensity roles, they also play an important role in improving our quality of life via our more routine, everyday activities.

READING ASSISTANCE

For many children, reading out loud can be a frightening prospect; making mistakes in front of their peers and the adults that they either look up to or maybe don’t even know can be quite intimidating and can hinder their progress. Reading in front of an audience, young students may feel anxious or stumble on their words. One solution that has 

proven quite viable is for readers to read to specially trained therapy dogs. These dogs provide a quiet (and snuggly!) audience for young readers and allow them to make mistakes without feeling the same level of intimidation or judgment that they feel when reading to fellow students. There are currently dog-assisted reading programs throughout the nation, including Michigan’s Reader Dog Program that is in its eleventh year.

NAVIGATING DAILY TASKS (SOMETIMES LITERALLY!)

Service dogs can be trained to help their companions with every aspect of daily life, including getting around walking, doing grocery shopping, and even carrying out household tasks. Service dogs can take on health related tasks such as carrying oxygen or other medications for their owners, can be trained to watch for (and smell for!) signs of low blood sugar in diabetics or blood changes that happen prior to seizures in epilepsy patients, and can help hearing-disabled companions with cues such as doorbells and pedestrian traffic signals. In fact, service dogs can even be trained to help their owners listen for babies and children that need assistance!

PROVIDING EMOTIONAL SUPPORT

Therapy dogs, another type of trained working dog, provide a comforting presence for their handlers. This service goes beyond the proven emotional support that dog ownership provides (dog owners have been shown to be both happier and healthier, although the direct cause of both of those effects has not been determined, i.e. more time outside, more affection, etc.) and allows those suffering from psychiatric disabilities to experience improved daily quality of life. For example, a dog trained to assist a patient suffering from PTSD may be taught to recognize the signs of anxiety and help to intervene before the situation escalates, or a dog trained to work for a handler that requires regular medication may be trained to remind him or her to take those meds. Overall, dogs are our best friends for a reason: they are kind, pure of intention, and can be an endless source of fulfillment and joy in our lives. It seems like a fitting extension that combining their compassionate nature and their intelligence with appropriate training can lead to such positive benefits for the humans around them!

Images courtesy of Andrew Gray and S Wong

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