Dog trainers and pet retailers have several things in common. Both work with many of the same people and are trusted to offer educated advice about products, services and behavior. Nutrition can be a difficult topic for pet owners.
There is a tremendous and often bewildering amount of data about dog food. This causes dog owners and trainers to tune out a lot of the messaging. Owners often simply feed what the dog likes and/or project their own dietary likes/dislikes onto their pets. Is gluten free really better? What about grain free? What about raw?
In my 30-plus years’ experience, I usually found pet retailers to be better informed than both dog trainers and owners on the advantages and disadvantages of the various dog foods they sell. However, the one area where pet retailers are sometimes less clear is how nutrition can impact dog behavior. As with all my articles, the purpose is to supply pet retailers with information they can pass on to their customers. This helps you stand out and assists in building critical customer loyalty.
When owners bring a new puppy home, one of the first things they do is look to go shopping. There are all sorts of things to buy! A crate or exercise pen, odor neutralizer, food, collars, leash, toys etc. As a dog trainer, I frequently worked with dogs that were almost impossible to housetrain because they had the runs. In many cases this was caused by owners switching dog foods all at once. Please stress to all new dog owners that if they are going to change their pets’ diets, they do so gradually. I always suggested the owners take a minimum of two weeks to transition from old food to new. If that means the owners need to purchase both brands while making the switch, that’s better.
When a dog owner comes to you with a house soiling challenge, one of the very first questions you need to ask is whether the dogs’ stools are firm or loose. If the latter, suggest the owners take the dog to their veterinarian. If the dog has a clean bill of health from their veterinarian, then it is time to consider dietary analysis. This sounds more daunting than it is. A few simple questions should help you to guide clients in the right direction:
1) Are you feeding your dog any human food? You might be amazed how many dog owners with housetraining problems answer yes to this question. While the occasional piece of meat probably won’t matter, owners feeding their dogs foods with sauces, onions, grapes, raisins, dairy products etc., need to be aware not only of the health risks but that such items may also cause diarrhea and make house training challenging to say the least.
2) How long have you been feeding your dog their current dog food? About 15 percent of the time I asked this question the answer was less than 10 days. If they just changed their dog’s food, and the dog is having loose stools, this might be the problem. The solution in this case could be to blend the old food and the new and then slowly transition to the preferred diet over a few weeks. That combined with a proper housetraining program and a resolution is in the cards.
The bottom line is that housetraining is far easier to accomplish with a dog that isn’t having digestive challenges, which is why nutrition is an important detail when advising customers with housetraining questions.
Back in the early 1980’s when I first started training, about 20-30 percent of my clients, mainly older folks, were still feeding their dogs a canned food diet. This was significant in addressing chewing issues especially in puppies under the age of a year. I found that when these dogs were put on a hard, good quality kibble as their primary dietary source, this greatly assisted in curtailing chewing behavior. It is relevant to note that kibble didn’t stop these dogs from inappropriate chewing. This was simply one of the things I suggested. Proper diet combined with additional exercise and learning how to focus the dogs on appropriate chew toys is what helped lessen the chewing until the dogs outgrew the behavior. It is important to suggest all problem chewers are on a hard, premium kibble as part of any chewing solution.
Energy and Trainability
One of the other things trainers frequently see are overweight dogs. This can be a delicate topic to bring up. Some owners will welcome suggestions to help trim a dog down and others will take offense, especially if they believe it reflects badly on their care of the dog. I found the best way to address this was to simply suggest that more exercise was a great way to improve the dog’s health and cause them to be more alert and receptive to training. While the last part might have been a wee bit of a stretch, this seemed to have the desired effect in motivating owners. Weight loss is at the core a simple equation. The dog must expend more calories than he/she ingests. Exercise helps burn those calories and is a better weight control solution than strict diets that cause more problems than they solve. Owners putting their pets on very restrictive diets rather than feeding modest amounts and getting them out for walks more often found their pets had low energy, problem chewing, begging for food and general discomfort. Healthy weight formulas are an excellent tool provided they are suggested in conjunction with reasonable exercise. I found it was best to avoid encouraging owners to search for magic formulas. Feed your dog this and all the problems will go away! While retailers won’t do this, owners certainly search for it. This is why I always repeated the mantra. Exercise along with reasonable portion control and keeping treats to a minimum will help most dogs attain a healthy weight. Of course all dogs are different, and stress to owners that they need to check with their veterinarian before starting any serious exercise program with their dogs.