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Dog and Cat treats

Oh! I just love the upcoming holiday season. If you are anything like me, your mind is now racing with all the yummy foods of this time of year. With all the thoughts of food, I felt like now is a great time to discuss treats. Pet treats are like the chips, candy and desserts of the pet world. They taste great but are full of empty calories. Today’s blog is going to discuss treats and how to properly use them and great alternatives to “bad” treats.

Throughout my career with pets and pet owners, there have been 3 types of people. The ones who give their pets treats all the time. Ones who never give their pets treats. And the third group who doesn’t care either way about treats. Just like with everything else in life, appropriate treats can be okay if given in moderation. Table food is a big NO NO as a treat for your pet. You never want to feed your pet whatever you are eating. Many foods that people eat can be harmful to your pet. The American Humane Society has a list of toxic foods to pet. Our foods often are cooked with items that can be bad for your pet as well. People food tends to have higher sugar contents which pets do not need. Pancreatitis, obesity and diabetes are just a few health conditions that can occur from pets that eat people food. With that being said, not all people food is bad for your dog. Carrots, Green Beans and in moderation small caramel rice cakes can be a healthier alternative to commercial dog treats.

Many people will use treats as a behavior modifier. Using treats for housebreaking and for a learned behavior (sit, stay, etc.) can be a great resource. But remember training can develop both good and bad behaviors. For example: if your dog is jumping up on someone and you give them a treat to get down. For your dog, it is getting a treat for jumping up, not for getting down. So, he/she will continue to jump up on people because of the reward of treats.

Training can be essential, too, for safely giving treats to more than one dog at the time. Food can trigger fights between dogs that never otherwise fight, so if the necessary level of training has not yet been achieved or the dogs are not entirely compatible, separate the dogs before giving treats. When working with a puppy, condition the pup that you don’t release the treat until the puppy calms down and takes it nicely without nipping at your hand. This habit is easiest to form right from the start but you can teach it to your dog at any age. Here at Mountain View, when puppies are receiving their first series of vaccines, we like to make it as much of a positive experience as possible, so we use treats to keep them happy as they are getting their shots.

Prior to giving any food treat, praise your dog. Soon the dog learns that your praise leads to good things. The praise becomes a bridge to other rewards, which is especially important when you don’t have treats with you. Some dogs are just as happy to have a reward other than food. My girl at home gets just as excited by me “baby talking” to her and petting her when she does what I ask her to do. Remember, there are a few behaviors that are completely natural behaviors for a dog. Herding sheep, retrieving, finding a lost person, and interacting with strangers as a therapy dog are all behaviors that fit within the natural dog instincts and can become inherently rewarding without treats. For example, police dogs don’t use food as a reward to find suspects or drugs – they are rewarded with other things like a favorite toy. I’ve even seen a few police dogs that seem to get enjoyment from the task they are expected to do.

I’ve seen people who have used treats to reward their dog for getting on the scale and to get them to sit still on it. Now, in most occasions that is okay but they cannot have treats when are getting ready for surgery. On the day of surgery, we like to know what their exact weight is for anesthesia purposes and if the dog is only trained to behave on the scale for a treat, then we don’t have an ideal situation for the dog. What I have trained my large dogs to do, so that I don’t have to fight with them to get them on the scale, is to have them learn to step up onto a small platform with a mat. It all starts with them learning to sit on a mat first.

If the dog is on a special diet, the treats must fit that diet. Often you can simply use part of the dog’s daily ration of dog food at treat times. Remember that all calories count; reduce the meals to compensate for the calories used in treats.

If your pet is overweight, a good place to start with weight loss is by cutting down (or out) the treats. By knowing how many calories your pet needs versus how many they are getting, you will be able to adjust their caloric intake and help them to lose weight. The Association of Pet Obesity Prevention has great resources to help you and your pet. Daily caloric needs of indoor pets  and a list of popular dry dog food calories is a wonderful starting point. The dog food advisor has a calorie calculator.

If you are looking for a way to give your dog a treat but have it be beneficial to your pet’s health, supplements can be a great option. Dasquin soft chews, Nexgard and Heartgard are all examples. Of course, you only want to use the proper dosage for these medications and supplements.

A little warning about dogs and where the treats are kept: Dogs quickly learn where you keep the treats, and walking in that direction becomes another bridge between the behavior you are rewarding and the treat you give for the reward. Also, I know of two separate dogs that destroyed cabinets when their owners were not home because they wanted to eat some of their treats.

Remember these few simple rules:
1.      Reward your dog when the dog is doing behavior you want to see repeated right away. Don’t reward behavior you wish the dog to stop doing. Same thing can be said for cats.
2.      You wouldn’t feed your two-legged child 50 pieces of candy a day, and your pet doesn’t need that many treats.

With a little self-control, you and your pet can live a happy and healthy life together.

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