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 guidelines as to how to stop those treats tipping the balance between what’s just right and what’s too much.
1. Use treats in moderation only (e.g. as a reward for good behaviour and for training, not just because). Dogs and puppies like to work for their rewards and it helps to stimulate their brains. Psychological exercise is just as important to our canine friends as physiological exercise. Valuable food rewards can be a really important aid to training, but make sure you use them for that and not just because you think a little bit of extra food is going to appease your dog and keep them happy if they are under stimulated in other ways.
2. It can be difficult to assess just how many calories treats contribute to your dog’s daily intake. In fact, most of us don’t even know what the “normal” calorie intake should be. It can be hard to determine due to the life stage, activity level and individual differences between dogs. However, if you are feeding commercial dry food; a very easy guide to not overdoing the treats is to simply weigh the amount of dry treats you would give on an average day and deduct this amount from the manufacturer’s allowance of the main diet. If any of those treats have a significantly higher fat (or oil) content listed than the diet you normally feed, then reduce the allowance a little more (or consider a treat that has a comparable or lower fat content).
3. Break bigger treats into smaller pieces to make them go further. Many commercial treats can be snapped easily. One big treat can quite easily go a lot further! Why use two treats when one can be quite sufficient?
4. Most vet surgeries run free weight clinics so why not take advantage? When you know how many calories your dog should be eating, you can then find out the calorific value of your regular pet food plus that of any treats and ensure the recommended calorie intake is not exceeded. This is the most accurate way to help keep your dog’s weight in check. (Dogs who are already overweight will need significantly less calories than those who need to maintain their weight).
5. A dieting dog can still eat treats (in moderation) so long as these are factored in and the calories they provide deducted from the calories the main diet supplies. Choose light/low fat options. One gram of pure fat provides more than twice as many calories as one gram of pure protein or carbohydrate.
6. If you want to give an extra treat for a special occasion such as a birthday, then why not take your dog out for a longer walk or play an extra game to burn off some more calories.
7. Commercial dental chews and treats can contribute more calories than you might initially think. Perhaps consider feeding a smaller dental treat or giving them a little less often than usual. In a small breed, this type of chew/supplement can supply a remarkable amount of additional calories and break many an otherwise very good diet. There are often lower calorie and more nutritionally valuable options available.
8. Adding healthy fresh food to a commercial diet can be a very good way to add interest and volume for the dog with a larger appetite. As a simple guide, if you like to add some of your own food to your dog’s menu, then choose low fat options like grated or steamed courgette/apple/carrot with white fish or lean white meat, and reduce the amount of any commercial dry food by 30g for every 100g of fresh food given. Fresh (or wet commercial) food will always be lower calorie than commercial dry food because of its much higher moisture content so it’s a good way to add more to the bowl without exceeding your dog’s recommended energy intake so long as the regular diet is reduced accordingly. Cheese is a really popular high value training reward, but it’s very high in fat and also contains lactose (which dogs can become intolerant to). Choose meat or fish based rewards instead (or for filling toys – zero fat cottage cheese is a better option, and lower in lactose than regular soft cheese).
9. Calories aren’t equal. Calories from nutritionally valuable foods (e.g. those that are rich in digestible protein) are more valuable to your dog than those which are not particularly utilisable (e.g. the type of indigestible protein in raw hide or treats high in simple sugars). Try to find treats for your dog that will be easily digested and utilised and provide benefits to the body rather than treats that simply appeal to us humans in terms of attractive packaging or clever marketing.
10.Consider using toys and games to dispense treats (and the main diet too if your dog is a fast eater). There are many different types available to suit different ages and sizes of dog. A simple hollow toy that can be stuffed with treats or food can keep a dog occupied for longer than if dispensed in a regular feeding bowl or simply given by hand in the case of a treat. These devices can help to slow down rapid ingestion if used carefully.
Finally, it can be very hard to implement all of your good intentions if there are other people in the household that aren’t on board. If this is the case, then it’s a good idea to keep the daily treat allowance in an easily accessible tub that’s clearly marked. Make sure your family / house mates know that when the tub is empty, other treats are not allowed. If you suspect fellow carers are not going to feel this is enough, then reduce some of your dog’s main food allowance (if fed commercial dry food) and add this to the treat tub to allow for a little more flexibility.
A slim and fit dog is a healthy dog!