Features April 2003 Issue

Buying Treats for Your Dog - What to Look For

What to look for, and what to avoid, when buying treats for your dog.

By Nancy Kerns

Allow me to sum up this article in one sentence: When buying treats for your dog, read the ingredients panel first.

I know that sounds sooo basic. Longtime WDJ readers are already experienced readers of food labels; they know from reading our February dry dog food reviews and our October canned food reviews and our occasional frozen food reviews that they have to understand what is in the food their dog may potentially eat before they buy it.

Treats aren't frivolous; they're a powerful training tool. Used appropriately, they promote the dog’s enjoyment, confidence, and initiative.

But dog treats make fools of us all. Nowhere in all of the gigantic field of pet supply marketing are the packages so cute and the names of the products so amusing as in the dog treat category. Many of the biggest companies use every color in the rainbow to illustrate happy dogs on the packaging – in addition to their use of artificial food colors to make the treats resemble people food such as crispy bacon, tiny hamburgers, and adorable marrow-filled cross sections of bone.

The small, boutique-made treats lavish money and effort at marketing, too. Many of the smallest companies lovingly hand-make precious packages out of recycled paper, use winning photos of their own endearing dogs in their product literature, and sometimes even cut out their heart- or star-shaped cookies by hand.

All of these efforts are to get you to buy something you really don’t need; that’s why they go so far over the top. Treats are the one product that we feed our dogs that we may buy for all the wrong reasons.

A top-quality, species-appropriate diet is without a doubt the most important factor in a successful holistic healthcare program. It doesn’t make any sense at all to invest in a chemical-free, nutritious food for your dog, and then slip him a bunch of unhealthy additives and fillers for dessert. So, even though treats represent only a small portion of your dog’s daily diet, they should at best support his health, and at worst, not undermine it. As ever, we are here to remind you to read the label.

What’s on the label
We’ll briefly review for those of you who are new to WDJ. We read labels for several reasons. The first is to make sure the products don’t contain stuff that’s not good for dogs – such as artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. Those of us who are aware of our dogs’ food allergies or intolerances are also on the lookout for ingredients that may make our dogs break out, itch, or suffer painful gas or diarrhea.

We also check the list of ingredients for foods that are good for dogs – things like whole meats, grains, fruits, and vegetables. The more organic ingredients we see, the better.

We may or may not be concerned with the “guaranteed analysis” section on a product label. Those of us whose dogs are intolerant of high-fat or high-protein foods may find the fat or protein content of interest. But treats are not intended to be a sole source of a dog’s nutrition, so these nutrients don’t have to fall into a certain range. Nor do the treats have to be “complete and balanced,” although some manufacturers do formulate their products to conform to the AAFCO dog food standards.

However, a treat that is formulated just like dog food may be no more tempting and delicious than his dog food; he might be happy enough to get it, but it’s not going to make him turn cartwheels.

And turning cartwheels is really what feeding treats is all about. Experienced positive trainers suggest that you use “high-value” treats when training your dog – especially when teaching new behaviors. These are treats that are particularly odoriferous and delectable, treats that absolutely inspire a dog to think – think! – about what his handler wants him to do. While a few chowhounds out there will turn cartwheels for ordinary kibble, most dogs need a little more to really motivate them to work hard . . . and that might mean a little more fat, a little more smelly stuff, or a little more sweetener.

Don’t get too excited about the presence of sweeteners or even natural flavor enhancers in treats. While we feel strongly that a dog’s treats should not undermine the positive effects of a superior diet, it’s over-rigid to insist that a treat should display every characteristic of a great dog food. While a sweetener may be an undesirable trait in the 12 ounces of food that your dog eats every day, in the quarter-ounce of treats he gets, it’s not a huge deal – unless, of course, he’s diabetic, in which case you should be seeking a carbohydrate-free treat.

Treats for every dog
Speaking of which, when you think about it, it’s kind of amazing that we can refer you to carb-free treats, vegan cookies, or totally organic biscuits. The variety of products on the market today is truly staggering; there really is something out there for every dog, no matter what allergy or food intolerance he may have. We’ve highlighted a range of products (see chart at end of story) that should include at least one treat for any dog, no matter what his health status.

We must remind you that we don’t claim to examine every treat on the market; that’s impossible. Instead, we sought out examples of extraordinary products made by small, boutique-style companies, as well as a few of the better products made by large dog food companies. For comparison’s sake, we also listed a few of the most abominable commercial products we could find. That part was not difficult; they reside on the shelves of every major chain grocery store.

It used to be that you could find gourmet products only in regional markets; the Internet has changed that forever. All of the boutique products we reviewed can be ordered directly from the manufacturers via phone or their Web sites.

Other things we didn’t do
Besides failing to review every one of the thousands of dog treats on the market, we also did not conduct any sort of laboratory testing of products. We have heard all sorts of allegations that some food and treat manufacturers lie about the ingredients in their products, but lab testing to determine the true identity of the ingredients is beyond our scope. Besides, we think that this happens pretty rarely.

In the past, we’ve given out metaphorical bonus points for treats that are sold in especially cute or useful packages. We didn’t do that this time. Today, many treats come in plastic bags with Zip-Lock-like closures; that’s cool. Zip-Lock bags are the best containers for all treats.

We did not consider price in our selections. As ever, we implore you to remember that you get what you pay for. Inexpensive treats cannot contain good quality ingredients, because quality ingredients cost more. If the treats are cheap, they go on the heap!

Also, we did not rate or rank-order our selections. We grouped our selections into three categories: top-quality cookie-type treats containing at least some grains; top-quality meat-based treats that may contain grain; and NOT-recommended, chemical-filled bad-example treats. Our selections are grouped alphabetically by category.

Fresh food is always best
Finally, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention that you don’t have to buy commercial treats at all. Store-bought treats make the best gifts for your dog-loving friends, and they are novel, cute, convenient, and fun – but they are neither necessary for your dog’s health, nor the best training aid in the world.

Real, fresh food always has been and always will be the healthiest and most compelling treat for your dog. Bits of meat (or poultry or fish), crumbled cheese, pieces of fruit . . . did we mention bits of meat? These are the best treats around, and loaded with vital vitamins, minerals, and enzymes.


Also With This Article
Click here to view "What You Can Do."
Click here to view "A Pet Peeve: So-Called “Hypoallergenic” Foods and Treats."
Click here to view "A Little Bias: Smaller Is Better."
Click here to view "Why You Should Read the List of Ingredients."
Click here to view "WDJ’s Top “Cookie-type” Treats."
Click here to view "WDJ’s Top “Meat-based” Treats."
Click here to view "Not Recommended – Do Not Buy!!"

-Nancy Kerns is Editor of WDJ.

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