Visit any dog supply shop, and you’ll be inundated with dozens of varieties of dog treats: chewy treats, soft treats, crunchy treats, treats made from fancy cuts of meat and custom-created doggie cakes. The options can be overwhelming!
Dog treats are big business. Americans are estimated to have spent 38.4 billion dollars on pet food and treats in 2021, according to the American Pet Products Association. The increased spending on treats is driven by dog lovers’ awareness and demand for higher quality ingredients and attention to what ingredients are included in the treats, where ingredients are sourced from and how they are processed.
Debbie Phillips-Donaldson, editor-in-chief of Petfood Industry and Petfood Forum explains that basically all the trends you see in pet food these days also apply to treats, often spilling over from human food. Trends like high protein, limited ingredients and natural (or organic) foods, as well as addressing specific pet health conditions, like gut health, joint and bone health, and skin and coat. You’ll also see the trends in newer, less traditional formats, such as freeze-dried, baked, etc.
Debbie says that these “are growing, just as they are in pet food. And yes, trends or concerns like sustainability, sourcing, animal welfare and the like, are also at play in treats as they are in pet food.”
Essentially the current trends in dog treats are mirroring the same trends we see when it comes to the snacks people buy for themselves. We all want our dogs to have the best, healthiest, highest quality and yet the most enjoyable snacks possible.
Break down the size
Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? Dr. Ernie Ward, author of The Clean Pet Food Revolution advises dog parents to be thoughtful consumers when it comes to treats.
“The savvy, health-conscious pet parent of today has to wade through a lot of marketing and claims and attributes. If it looks good or they have an inviting message or the dog just devoured it and if they love it, I’m going to give more and more.” Dr. Ward explains that the emotional response of guardians wanting to give their dogs more of what they like is understandable but can lead to health-related complications like obesity, which is the most common preventable disease with American dogs. Unfortunately, as much as our dogs love treats, and as much as we enjoy giving them, the treats we give our dogs can quickly pack on the pounds.
The quality of the treats you give is important, but just as important to consider is the serving size. Dr. Ward notes that “dogs don’t do division,” meaning that dog treats might come in one size, but you don’t need to give an entire treat to your dog — you can break it in half, thirds or even smaller.
I train a lot with treats in day-to-day life, as well as sports with my dog. Even though she’s a giant breed, I break all treats up into very small pieces to use with training.
Become a calorie counter
Do you know how many calories your dog should eat per day? Most dog parents don’t! Dr. Ward says to talk with your veterinarian to find out about how many calories your dog needs in a day. According to Dr. Ward, your dog’s treats “should not exceed 10% of your dog’s daily calories per day.”
Do some math based on the calories listed on your dog’s favorite treats. However, Dr. Ward explains that treat manufactures are not required to include calorie counts on their packaging, but that higher quality and generally healthier treat companies tend to be transparent about calorie information. He considers it a red flag if calorie information isn’t included.
When picking healthy treats, you’ll see that calories can really start to add up when treats involve carbohydrates and proteins. Dr. Ward actively encourages health-conscious dog guardians to look for treats that are single ingredient because “we can be a little more assured that there aren’t as many opportunities for contamination.” In addition, these treats tend to be easier for dogs to digest, and limited-ingredient treats tend to have lower calorie counts.
When calculating the percentage of your dog’s daily calories that are going to treats, don’t forget to factor in all the treats you give during the day, including peanut butter you might use for stuffing in chew toys or the chews you give your dog when you leave the house.
Use veggies for treats
If your dog is aging, has pancreatitis, diabetes or other health issues, it can be tricky to find a treat that won’t aggravate his pre-existing conditions. Dr. Ward explains that he is a big fan of giving dogs vegetables as treats.
“The majority of dogs love baby carrots, they love celery, they love sliced zucchini, and many dogs find them just as satisfying and appetizing as commercial treats.” These are the only treats that he gives his own dogs on a daily basis.
Dr. Ward encourages dog guardians to talk to their vet about what functional treats exist that could support your dog with an ongoing health condition, such as joint supplements to help with arthritis, instead of giving your dog a treat without health-building components.
Treats are important
Talk to any good positive-reinforcement trainer and they will tell you to have lots of treats ready. We spoke to a member of The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), who explains that “use of treats in training” falls under the very broad concept of positive-reinforcement training if applied correctly. IAABC promotes and adheres to a standard known as LIMA (Least Intrusive Minimally Aversive interventions for behavior modification).
Jenny Efimova, a Karen Pryor Academy certified training partner and owner of Dogminded, explains, “We train with food because it’s an effective, versatile and portable reinforcer. It’s usually not something we have to work to make valuable for the dog, and there’s a large variety and options we can find for every dog. Another important benefit of training with food and positive reinforcement is that dogs will develop positive associations and emotions with us, the training and the training environment. How dogs feel while learning is just as important as what they learn, since it will impact their overall behavior and well-being.”
One of the questions I’m asked most frequently as a trainer is “When can I stop using treats?” I like to counter by asking, “When was the last time you went to work without getting paid?” Dogs deserve reinforcement just the way we do. This idea was echoed by Jenny, who notes that when incorporated into your training, “food is reinforcement, not a bribe. No living organism does things just because. What drives behavior is reinforcement. Using food as reinforcement allows us to teach new behaviors and give our dogs clear information about what works.”
If you’re concerned about how many treats your dog gets during your training sessions, use some or all of your dog’s meal as part of your training. Instead of putting all of his meal into the bowl, put some into a training pouch to use as rewards while you work with him during the day. This makes mealtimes more enriching and keeps your dog from adding on extra calories from treats.
Won’t eat treat?
Just like people, some dogs are picky eaters. If you have a dog who’s uninterested or ambivalent about treats, it’s likely he just hasn’t had the right kind yet.
For picky pups, try several treats with a variety of textures and flavors to see what your dog likes best. You may also need to experiment with different kinds of proteins: chicken, pork, beef or fish — even crickets might be what gets your dog’s attention. For very picky eaters, sticky or extra smelly treats can be particularly appealing.