I use food treats in training (because it's super motivating to a lot of dogs), so I get asked a lot about what treats I use or recommend. But, I always seem to struggle to come up with a good answer...
Most of the time with my own dog, Ruby, I use a variety of whatever happens to be in the fridge or pantry: hot dogs, sharp cheddar, carrots, blue berries, leftover chicken bits, turkey ham, peanut butter. I even took venison sausage with us to a group class once just because it's what I had (and, I swear, it was the best she'd ever been in class)! When we first started training, I even made some of my own dry treats (thank you, Pinterest, for the inspiration and recipes) that contained just a few simple ingredients.
I'm a dog trainer, though, so hot dog fingers come with the territory; I'm used to it at this point. But, I completely understand that not everyone wants to carry around hot dogs or cheese on walks and out in public or to group classes. And not everyone has the time (or the interest) to make their own treats.
After I accidentally left hot dogs in one of my treat pouches for a couple days - and for the second dang time (which is just not a good thing to do. I do not recommend.), I decided I would dig in and do some research to figure out what store-bought treats would be good options for me, for my clients, and for their SideKicks.
If you've ever ventured down the treat aisle at your local pet supplies store, you know that the quantity and variety of dog treats available on the market are...overwhelming - to say the least. So, to begin choosing and to narrow things down, I had a few guidelines for my research:
1) The treats must be small and only about pea-sized.
2) If not purchased pea-sized already, the treats needed to be easy to break into smaller bits (preferably without crumbs or bits flying everywhere).
3) The treats needed to be, overall, healthy.
4) Affordability is also a huge plus.
For the first two requirements about treat size, dry biscuit treats were pretty much out. I purchased and tried a couple different kinds/brands for testing purposes and, though Ruby enjoyed them as the official taste-tester, even the smallest biscuits were still too big for training treats and they were difficult to break up by hand. Additionally, I don't know that dry biscuit treats would hold a dog's interest outside the low-distraction environment of a quiet living room.
When it comes to choosing a healthy treat, there's a lot of debate out there about what is healthy dog food and what healthy treats are; the information and the discussion could span more than a few blog posts, I'm sure. But, for the purposes of this blog post - and for my own purpose of choosing dog treats - I defined "healthy" as treats that are human grade and that avoid the use of unnecessary and/or non-nutritive ingredients.
What is human grade? Human grade means that the ingredients used to make the treats can be eaten by you and me. This indicates that the ingredients and the resulting treats are high quality. When we took Ruby to puppy class, the class instructor provided a good rule of thumb for choosing dog food and treats: If you wouldn't eat any of the first 5 ingredients of your dog's food or treats, why give it to your dog?
What ingredients are unnecessary or non-nutritive? The following is a handy list of ingredients to avoid (and alternatives):
1) BHA/BHT, nitrites or nitrates (sodium nitrite), sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP): These ingredients are preservatives used to extend the shelf life of foods - and some have sketchy histories.
Choose natural preservatives, such as vitamin C (ascorbic acid), vitamin E (mixed tocopherols), and rosemary.
2) White flour, gluten, soy, cellulose, brewers rice, corn: These ingredients contain or are heavily refined, simple carbohydrates that digest quickly, leaving your SideKick hungry not long after eating and could cause health complications. Soy, cellulose, and corn, on the other hand (or paw?), are difficult to digest filler ingredients.
Choose whole grains (quinoa, oats, or brown rice), vegetable sources of carbohydrates (sweet potatoes, for instance), or choose a grain-free diet. Also select meat-based proteins that are easier to digest and more nutrient-rich.
3) Meat and meat meal, rendered fat, animal by-products, animal digest: These nondescript terms describe literal mystery meats, fats, and ingredients that are difficult to digest and nutritionally lacking.
Choose the names of actual meats and fat sources that you can identify, such as chicken, turkey, lamb, beef, etc., or meals of these meats. These will be much less processed and contain more nutrients.
4) Artificial colors: Simply put, there's no need for artificial colors; the only purpose for artificial coloring is to make food or treats more visually appealing.
Choose food and treats with natural coloring or no coloring at all. Good food doesn't need to look good to us!
5) Corn Syrup, xylitol and other sugar alcohols: These ingredients are used as additives for flavor enhancement (along with molasses, caramel, dextrose, fructose, glucose, cane molasses, and maple syrup) and cause spikes in blood sugar (in humans and dogs). There simply isn't a need for artificial sweeteners in your dog's food or treats. Choose food and treats with quality meat protein in it and no additional flavoring will be needed; and choose naturally-sweetened fruits and vegetables for delicious, healthy alternatives.
6) MSG: MSG is another flavor-enhancing ingredient and is nutritionally unnecessary. It can be hidden in your dog's food and treats as a variety of different things, so research any ingredients/terms you don't recognize. Choose named meat proteins for flavor - chicken, beef, pork, etc.
7) Salt: High levels of salt are harmful to your dog's health (just as it is for humans), but it is often added to foods and treats for flavor. Choose foods that contain real meat proteins and additional flavor is unnecessary.
More information about ingredients to avoid can be found at this website.
Finally, when it comes to cost, I shop around. Treats that meet the guidelines I've listed in this blog post may not be the absolute cheapest out there, but, once I've found a brand I like and can trust, I look online and in stores to find the best price (which often involves buying in bulk).
Aside from choosing treats that are a decent training size, that are healthy, and that don't break the bank, the absolute biggest piece of advice I give about treats is this: Use what your SideKick likes!