What Kind of Food?

There are as many answers to “what should dogs eat” as there are people who have dogs. And most of those answers are fine. This isn’t a book on canine nutrition; folks should make their own decisions about what to feed their dogs.

I will say, one of the saddest things I ever hear as a dog trainer is “Oh, I don’t feed my dog people food.” Before dog food was invented, there was no difference between “people food” and “dog food.” There was just food, and what the people didn’t finish the dogs got. If you had a pampered city pooch you might make a trip to the butcher for your dog’s dinner; if you had a ranch with working dogs, they got a stew of whatever was leftover, lying around, and not spoiled yet.

Plus, people food is delicious.

Dog food is an invention that’s barely a hundred years old. Commercial dog food was invented in the early 20th century as a way to get rid of extra horseflesh. It’s a thoroughly modern convenience, and while there are plenty of nutritionally-balanced kibbles out there, I think of it this way: nutritionists warn us to seriously limit the highly-processed food in our diets. So why is it better for my dogs to eat exclusively highly-processed dog food? At the very least, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with feeding your dog some cooked meat and vegetables, if you’re conservative.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t feed your dog food from the pet store. There are tons of high-quality products out there, from the insanely expensive to the reasonably-priced, from kibble to wet food to prepared raw diets and every state of being in between. Experiment. Rotate through different foods. Try things. Eating the exact same thing every day for the rest of your life doesn’t sound very appealing. It’s probably not your dog’s favorite option, either. What’s more, eating the same diet every day can actually make your dog more sensitive to other foods. It’s like if you’d survived until now on dry whole wheat toast for every meal and one day you suddenly switched to green curry, two stars, tofu. Your stomach would probably rebel.

If you feed wet or raw food already—stuff that’s kind of goopy—you can modify a lot of the methods in this book. Try freezing gushy food in spoonfuls on a cookie sheet, or separate the meal into small portions in dog-safe containers for the dog to clean out.

While most of the methods, games and ideas in this book can be done with kibble, I strongly suggest that you step out of the routine. Try new flavors, pick up some cans of wet food, get your dog a tub of yogurt, make a pot of meat-and-veggie stew, give your pooch a bite of your banana, and in general offer your dogs the sort of diversity of diet they’d get if they were the omnivorous foragers that their cousins still are.

What dogs can’t eat

Read the Do Not Feed List. It includes things that people eat with some frequency that dogs cannot have, ever, at all, and some things that should be limited in their diet. Sometimes these ingredients even show up in dog food or treats—garlic powder is a common culprit—so it might be helpful to double-check the ingredients of your dog treats if your pup seems to have an upset stomach.

Many dogs also have personal sensitivities to things like gluten, specific fruits and vegetables, or certain meats. Puppies and young dogs especially seem to go through phases where certain foods make them sick; they may or may not tolerate these foods as they’re older. Still other dogs just have sensitive tummies and will occasionally get a little bit yaky from one food or another. Keep track of what your dog’s stomach is telling you—they’re the ones who know!

If your dog is an occasional barf-er, make note of that and try to track what’s made their stomach upset. Note that, with dogs that eat raw game, bones, and foraged goodies, it’s not uncommon to throw up bits of undigestible bone, or foods that upset their stomachs. The occasional barf can be normal. Sometimes it’s not even vomit, but a bit of regurgitated something-or-other that the dog has decided, at this very late moment, to eschew. However, we don’t want to make our dogs miserable on purpose, so keep track of what your dog doesn’t tolerate well.

If your dog usually has an iron stomach and is suddenly acting ill or vomiting, pay attention. They are telling you something important. Use your best discretion and see a veterinarian if you suspect your dog is having a serious issue. Dogs have better faculties for dealing with things like food poisoning, but they can absolutely still get it. It’s just as not-fun for them as it is for us. Always make sure you’re offering you dog fresh, quality food and handle it as if you were preparing the food for humans.

Remember to supervise your dog with food toys and novel foods, as well as with all chew toys. Yes, always! Dogs are like toddlers in the bodies of Olympic athletes. Would you leave that guy unsupervised in your kitchen?

See Bloat & Choking for extremely important information on two common and terrible things that can happen to any dog, unexpectedly, regardless of what they’re eating.

What dogs can eat

So… what can you feed your dog? Below is a list of some of the foods my own dogs enjoy on a regular basis. It’s certainly not exhaustive, nor is it any kind of guide to how you should feed your dog. It’s just one picture of what’s possible:

  • Raw carrot sticks
  • Baked sweet potato
  • Roasted root vegetables
  • Cherry tomatoes (they’re expert cherry tomato catchers)
  • Cooked greens like kale and chard
  • Apple slices
  • Banana
  • The ends of the loaf of whole wheat bread
  • Eggs, raw or cooked
  • Plain yogurt
  • Meat of all kinds, cooked or not
  • Commercial ground raw dog food with bone and organs
  • Commercial freeze-dried raw foods, reconstituted with broth or yogurt or canned pumpkin
  • Raw bones, to chew (they eat some of these bones; others splinter and need to be taken away if they look sharp or dangerous to ingest. Never, ever give your dog cooked bones, which are brittle and therefore dangerous)
  • Raw turkey necks (nature’s toothbrush!)
  • Anchovies