When we are helping our dogs to lose weight or aiming to keep them at a healthy target it can be very difficult to cut out treats completely. It’s especially hard with a puppy or a new member of the canine family when we’re using food rewards to help to train good behaviours. But the good news is that you don’t need to eliminate treats/rewards altogether, you just need to be careful. Here are some suggestions for substituting those that aren’t so healthy, to some lower calorie, lower sodium or more nutritionally valuable alternatives.
There are lots of different brands of dental chews and sticks, but their efficiency can never be as good as brushing the teeth and the use of a special dog toothpaste. There are many products available to help promote good oral health that include specially designed toys, and powder that can be added to the food or water to minimise the accumulation of plaque. Chews and sticks are popular because dogs like them and they are therefore an easy option. They are however dense, and surprisingly calorific. Another disadvantage is that most contain unspecified meats and cereals meaning that they are generally very unsuitable for dogs with food allergies. Carrots are an economical and cheap alternative, as is chopped apple (pips removed). The reason these are good for the teeth is because of the antioxidant vitamins they contains.
Like dental sticks, there are plenty of brands to choose from, However they have the same disadvantages in that they are also calorific, often contain unspecified ingredients, and are not always as effective as the advertising would like you to believe. The best thing for a dog who is suffering from, or at risk of joint disease is to keep him slim and healthy; so a lower calorie joint supplement from a specialist manufacturer could be a better option. There are several on the market which are very palatable and accepted well as a treat even though they are more of a functional dietary addition.
Cereal based dog biscuits have been around for decades, and are still very popular. The main disadvantage of them is that they often include unspecified ingredients (usually wheat – which remains the most common ingredient responsible for adverse food reactions in dogs). This can defeat the objective of feeding a dog with dietary allergies or intolerance an expensive exclusion diet if he is still eating problematic ingredients in his treats simply because the owner does not know exactly what is in them. A good substitute would be a treat that includes only named ingredients so that you can carefully scrutinise the label and make sure there is nothing present that is unsuitable for your dog. Cereal based treats may also contain a very high proportion of carbohydrate and some include artificial additives, which many owners prefer to avoid. Look for a treat that includes a good level of meat or fish.
Lots of owners like to add left over gravy to their dogs’ dry food to make it more interesting, or simply to use it up. However home-made gravy can be very high in fat, and instant gravy may include thickeners, artificial additives, gluten and more salt than what is healthy. If you do need to enhance the flavour of the food, home-made meat or fish stock or even low salt commercial stock cubes could be used instead. If your dog’s big on gravy and he’s fed dry food, then why not try a spoonful of high quality wet food with a high meat content to improve the palatability as a tasty alternative.
Left-overs can contain a surprising amount of calories and it can be difficult to assess exactly how many. Some human foods are unsuitable for dogs if they contain ingredients such as onions or mushrooms. If you want to give your dog people food, then select carefully (lean white meat or fish and a small portion of well cooked vegetables are generally fine); and don’t forget to reduce the main diet by about 30g for every 100g of lean white meat or fish.
These hard coloured treats come in many shapes, sizes and indeed colours (usually lurid shades of red, green and yellow) and they may cause or contribute to flatulence or loose stools due to their generally poor nutritional value. They’re usually made of small pieces of rawhide (see below) and may contain other ingredients (usually unspecified). Some brands are better than others, but watch out for artificial colourings and preservatives especially if you have a sensitive dog. These treats are often found in pound shops for a reason – you get what you pay for! Venison skins are a great alternative to chew on.
Rawhide can also contribute to flatulence and loose stools. The reason for this is that it is comprised of largely indigestible protein and gives the dog’s digestion a lot of work to do for very little nutritional benefit. Rawhide is unsuitable for dogs with allergies since the incompletely digested food protein has the potential to incite an inflammatory response because of residual antigenic proteins and large polypeptide molecules. Dried fish skins offer something to chew on that does have nutritional value in that they are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. They are also low calorie.
Many dogs love to chew on a pig’s ear, but many dogs end up with loose stools afterwards because of the high fat content in some brands. Choose pigs’ ears that are packaged (the label should advise how the product has been prepared and preserved). You can easily tell which are fried because of the large amount of grease that is evident. Fried pigs’ ears are very unsuitable for dogs with a weight problem or those with pancreatic or liver dysfunction for this reason. Air dried pigs’ ears are lower in fat and although not especially nutritionally valuable, they do give the dog something to get their teeth into.
Cocktail sausages are a really popular training treat as dogs love them, they smell nice and are usually perceived by the dog as very “high value” meaning they’ll work well to get their reward. They are however generally high in fat and sodium. Hotdog sausages with their much higher moisture content are lower calorie and dogs will usually work equally well for them. Do bear in mind that all processed meat however is a high histamine food that can exacerbate an allergic response in a sensitive dog, and also high purine (unsuitable for dogs with, or with an inherited predisposition to urate crystals).
Cheese is another very high value training treat, and dogs usually work well for this reward. It is another high fat food, and unsuitable for dogs with lactose intolerance or dairy allergies. Zero fat cottage cheese with a low lactose content is a healthier option than regular full fat cheese, but it is not the kind of thing you can carry around easily in your pocket! For dogs who cannot eat cheese but need something special to administer medication for example, liver treats are a great option. They’re easy to make and there are many simple recipes online to follow. The great thing about making your own dog treats is that you know precisely what is in them and what’s not, and you can tailor them to your dog’s individual requirements (e.g. gluten free flour for dogs with wheat allergy, or lambs’ liver rather than cows’ for a dog with a beef allergy).