You Are What You Eat

Cali, a golden retriever, licks her lips in anticipation of a treat.
Feed me!

The latest pet-food scare (as if the concern over grain-free foods isn’t enough) is that several brands of dry dog food have been recalled for toxic levels of vitamin D.

The FDA first alerted dog owners in early December, and it recently updated the list of recalled foods. You know what I am going to say next: If you’ve chosen your dog’s food from the Whole Dog Journal’s list of approved dog foods, you have nothing to worry about. They do the legwork, checking out the companies’ manufacturing process, documentation of the nutritional completeness of the food, quality control, and ingredient sourcing so you can confidently purchase any food on the list. The list includes foods in a huge range of prices and formulas, and many are very easy to find at pet supply stores, feed stores, Ace-hardware-type stores, and the like. You do not have to spend a fortune at an exclusive pet boutique to get quality dog food; in fact, many of the exotic boutique foods are of poor nutritional quality.

Vitamin D is a vital nutrient for dogs (and humans). It helps maintain the proper level of calcium and the balance of calcium and phosphorus, according to PetMD. (Read the full PetMD article, Vitamin D Poisoning in Dogs, for more details.) Too much vitamin D, though can cause vomiting, weakness, lethargy, excessive thirst, urination, and drooling — and kidney failure and death.

A Whole Dog Journal article (available only to subscribers) says that in most commercial dog foods, the problem is likely to be too little vitamin D, not too much. In addition, dogs in the same household eating the same diet can have very different levels, due to differences in how their bodies absorb the vitamin. Over time, a vitamin D deficiency can cause bone disorders, gastrointestinal issues, and some researchers are studying a possible link to immune system disorders. A blood test can measure your dog’s vitamin D levels.

The best approach is to feed a high-quality meat-based food. Suggestions from the Whole Dog Journal article include adding probiotics or apple cider vinegar to the dog’s meals; avoiding alkalizing foods like corn, wheat, soy, rice, white potatoes, tapioca, and peas; and supplementing with coconut oil. It’s hard to recommend a specific combination of supplements, though, because each dog’s diet and needs are different.

The key takeaway is that what you feed your dog matters.

It matters what you feed yourself and your family, too. But each member of the family makes dozens of choices daily about what to eat and, one hopes, over the course of a day or a week, eats a range of foods that cover her or his nutritional needs. The dog does not get to make those choices, though. He eats what you give him. The dog also probably eats the same thing every day. Some dogs eat the same food for weeks, months, even years. If that food doesn’t have what the dog needs to be healthy, there’s not much chance he’ll get it some other way. So choose your dog’s food carefully — and give him some variety by changing it up every so often.

 

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Is Your Dog Famous?

Cali, wearing a cowboy hat, smiles broadly

Is your dog an internet star? Does she want to be?

Perhaps she needs to sign on with The Dog Agency (home to the most influential animals in the world).

It seems that dogs can no longer become viral sensations without an agent. Loni Edwards, the founder and CEO, is quoted in Fast Company as saying, ““We help them think about how to grow their brands.” I think she means the humans who are associated with the celebrity pooches.

She’ll advise clients (and their humans) on how to get ads, book personal (or doginal) appearances, get book deals … all the elements in becoming and remaining a pet influencer.

Not just any dog can sign on, though. She’ll only take clients who already have at least 50,000 followers on Instagram. The human also has to have what it takes.

The top influencers bring in thousands of dollars per post — not to mention the income from all those other deals.

Cali’s out of luck. I don’t even have an Instagram account (though who knows; Cali might …). Maybe we should check it out. Rugged, athletic cowdog types might be in demand. Being supported by my dog would be a nice change …

Update: Is Grain-Free Dog Food Risky?

Koala, a black Lab, eyes a bowl of dog biscuits.
Despite what your dog might tell you, an all-cookie diet is not recommended.

A few months have passed since the FDA scared dog-owners who feed grain-free dog foods, so the I decided that Thinking Dog blog needed to run an update.

I am grateful to veterinarian and researcher Lisa Freeman, who has written extensively on this issue. Based on some of her work, including this Dec. 1 JAVMA article, “Diet-associated dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs: what do we know?” here is what I have learned:

  • Grain-free diets are not the problem. What Freeman calls “BEG” diets — foods from boutique producers that are based on exotic ingredients and are grain-free — appear to be a common factor in many of the cases of DCM. (DCM is dilated cardiomyopathy; see the earlier post, Should Your Dog Go Grain-Free? for more info.)
  • Most dogs do not need to eat boutique foods with exotic ingredients.
  • Some of the companies producing these foods have not done thorough nutritional research and testing, and the foods are not nutritionally sound. Or their quality control might not be as good as some more conventional dog food producers, so the foods may be less consistent.
  • The problem is not only about taurine levels, either. Freeman writes that most of the dogs she’s seen (in the practice at Tufts University) with DCM have normal taurine levels. Furthermore, many improve with a diet switch (away from a BEG food), even though their taurine levels were and remain normal.
  • Owners who have moved to home-prepared diets should be extremely cautious and consult with a veterinary nutritionist to ensure that the homemade diet meets the dog’s needs.

The problem does appear to be linked to nutritional deficiencies. Exactly what, though, is still unclear.

What should a concerned owner do?

  • Feed a high-quality food from a responsible manufacturer. You may be tired of hearing this, but: The best food for your dog is not necessarily the best food for my dog. Each dog’s needs are different. Your budget and what’s available in your area differs from what I can get easily. So, I am not going to recommend specific foods. I strongly urge you to choose a food from the Whole Dog Journal’s list. Their 2018 list is available; I will post a link to the 2019 list when they publish it.

Dry dog foods

Canned dog foods

  • For advice on raw foods, check out the Dog Food Advisor recommendations.
  • If your dog gets lots of ear infections, is itchy, or has hot spots or other issues that could indicate food sensitivities, consult with a vet and a nutritionist (some vets have lots of training and knowledge about canine nutrition but many do not; ask for credentials).
  • I do not recommend “prescription” diets. Many vets will recommend these. Why? They make a lot of money selling them. They tend to use low-quality ingredients and be very, very expensive. You can get a higher-quality commercial food for less money that addresses the same issue. Whether your dog needs a lower-fat or lower-protein diet, should avoid particular ingredients, whatever the issue, there are likely to be several foods in your (high quality) pet store that will work.

Fifteen Dogs

Fifteen Dogs, by Andre Alexis, is an interesting read for philosophically inclined readers or people who think about what separates humans from animals. But it’s a terrible book. I do not recommend it.

Even so, it’s worth a blog post. It is a story of, you guessed it, fifteen dogs. These dogs are given “human consciousness,” as part of a bet between Hermes and Apollo. Well, they’re given human consciousness if by that you mean human language. I view consciousness differently from the author. I also believe that dogs have many of the elements of consciousness already, with no need for intervention by mythical gods.

The dogs are boarders at a kennel when they are given these abilities; they form a pack and escape.

One troubling aspect of the book is how rapidly most of the 15 dogs are dispatched to pretty unpleasant deaths. Several are killed by their packmates, which raises another philosophical question: Why is it that at the center of the human-like dogs’ behavior is cruelty, cliquishness, and a propensity to murder their friends? The situations and means of the dogs’ deaths at their colleagues’ paws are easily imaginable among humans, but are very undoglike behavior.

The other aspect of “human consciousness” that the author obsesses over is language. All of the dogs develop an uncanny (!) ability to understand some phrases and words in English after repeated exposure, much like, oh, every other dog in the world. They also develop their own language, with elements of English and elements of Dog. One becomes a poet (in the new language), which really annoys several of the others. A couple learn to speak weirdly accented English that some humans can understand.

The focus on language reinforces a conceit that is common among people who study animals with the goal of proving how and why humans are superior. Many argue that only humans have language. Only humans have human language, but many species use language: A communication system with rules (“grammar” or rules of syntax) that is widely understood by members of the speakers’ culture. Some nonhuman species go one better: Their language is understood by all members of the species, regardless of culture or geography. Humans aren’t there yet.

The crux of the bet is that if even one of these human-like dogs dies happy, Hermes wins the bet; if they are as miserable as humans, Apollo wins. Since most of the dogs die in terrible ways, Apollo takes an early lead. But even that is absurd: Anyone can live a mostly happy life but at the moment of her death be scared or sad or surprised or in terrible pain — and not necessarily happy. Does that cancel out her entire life?

I’m not sure that the ability to speak English would make most dogs happier. Or more miserable. And I am not sure that dog happiness is much like human happiness. But above all, I really don’t think dogs need divine intervention to either understand humans or be happy.  Cali has done both quite well since the day we met.

Cali races across a lawn with a frisbee
Dog joy

 

The Magic Harness

Cali, aged about 4 months, shows off her new red Sense-ation harness.
Cali got her first Sense-ation harness when she was only a few months old.

Lots of dogs have poor leash manners. This is partly the fault of their humans (not enough training or the wrong kind of training). But it’s also partly just how dogs are.

They are eager to explore. To check out interesting smells. To meet fascinating people. To chase smaller animals. Also they lead pretty dull lives, mostly inside, often alone. Going for a walk is stimulating and fun. So they pull.

There are a couple of problems with this. One is that it’s annoying for the human and makes walks with the dog a chore, rather than a pleasure. If you don’t think that walking your dog is one of life’s greatest pleasures, a) I feel very sorry for you and b) please read Dog Walks Man.

The other problem is that, since most dogs’ leashes are attached to a collar, when the dog pulls, she puts a lot of pressure on her throat. Some dogs have thick, muscular necks and don’t really feel it. But for many dogs, the pressure could cause damage.

Luckily, there is an easy solution. It’s not 100 percent guaranteed to work, but with many dogs, the results are close to miraculous.

What is this magical cure? A chest-fastening harness.

A standard harness with the leash hooking into a ring on the dog’s back will not help. It will actually enable the dog to pull harder (no throat pressure).

But something about a chest-fastening harness inhibits most dogs from pulling. I tried it with a friend’s 6-month-old puppy just this week, and the change was instantaneous.

Several brands are available, and they all fit a little differently. Some are a little complicated to put on, at least initially. The best thing to do is go to a large pet store and try a few on the dog.

Note: Don’t confuse chest-fastening harnesses with the halter-type deals that go over a dog’s nose. Dogs hate those. And if either the dog or the human pulls or jerks too hard, the dog can seriously injure her back or neck. I do not recommend those at all.

That’s not always possible. I’ve had great luck with the Balance harness (also rated #1 by the Whole Dog Journal) and the Sense-ation harness, which is easier to find. I dislike the Easy Walk because even if I’ve adjusted it correctly, it loosens up and slips around on the dog. I either haven’t tried or I’m neutral on several other brands.

What are you waiting for? You could be enjoying a walk with your dog!

Are you talking to me?

Cali, a golden retriever, looks quizzically at the camera.
Are you talking to me?

Be careful what you say; little ears are listening. And I don’t mean your children. It turns out that dogs do listen to what we say, as well as our tone of voice And they can often tell when we’re talking to them — or about something that matters to them.

A recent study, ‘Who’s a good boy?!’ Dogs prefer naturalistic dog‑directed speech looked at what they called “dog-directed speech,” which resembles baby talk. Their canine test subjects were all adult dog guests of a boarding kennel whose humans gave permission for their participation.

An earlier study on this topic had played recorded voices to dogs who were alone in a room. The dogs didn’t pay much attention. To me, that shows their intelligence. Would you respond to a disembodied voice telling you that you were a “good boy” or to “come here”? I hope not!

The newer study is far more respectful of canine intelligence. They also used recorded speech, but an actual human, matching the gender of the voice, was in the room.

Dogs were more likely to look at, approach, and interact with the researcher who was present when dog-directed speech — high-pitched dog talk — than boring human talk in a normal pitch and register.

The researchers also investigated whether dogs had a preference for content of speech.

The dogs showed the most interest in high-pitched, emotional speech directed to them, with relevant content. Dull content in an interesting tone was no more appealing to them than interesting content said in a dull tone.

What does this tell us? Perhaps that:

  • Dogs learn to associate meanings with particular words and phrases, as well as a particular tone of voice.
  • People tend to use a higher-pitched, more excited tone when talking to dogs, so dogs learn that what is said in these exaggerated tones is meaningful.
  • Dogs learn that people might say interesting things in a dull tone and then nothing fun for dogs happens, so they learn to ignore even favored words (“walk” or “cookie”) when it’s clear that the human isn’t addressing them.

Additional layers develop as a specific human builds a relationship with a specific dog.

I’ve always talked fairly conversationally to my dogs, and they do respond to relevant phrases and questions, even when I say them in a “normal” tone. I believe that dogs learn to read their humans and are able to tell — with a familiar person, though not necessarily with a researcher — which speech is relevant to them, regardless of tone.

I also think that it’s about time more people studied communication with dogs!

Drug Dogs Forced into Early Retirement

Hundreds of drug-detection dogs are taking early retirement, their jobs disappearing as marijuana legalization makes their skill set obsolete. It’s not the dogs’ fault; the blame lies with human myopia.

A police dog wears a star-shaped badge.

Dogs can be taught to identify pretty much any scent, even scents that humans cannot detect. The dogs who sniff out cancer or flag diabetics whose blood sugar is dropping, for example, are responding to scents that humans cannot smell.

Dogs can also be taught to reliably distinguish scents and alert to more than one scent. And they can of course be taught to respond to each scent with a unique behavior — a bark, sitting, lying down, spinning in a circle. It really doesn’t matter what; the dog can learn it.

But the humans. Oh, the humans.

There are the trainers who take the “easy” path of teaching their canine pupils to give the same alert to any contraband. Easier to teach. Easier for the handler to remember. But it makes the dog’s skills useless when you no longer want her to alert to marijuana.

There are the humans — trainers, handlers, lawyers, judges — who do not believe that dogs can discriminate the scent of meth from the scent of marijuana. Or who do not believe that dogs can reliably signal which one they’ve detected.

For these reasons, many drug-detection dogs who’ve served faithfully and honorably are being pushed out of their jobs. In places where marijuana is now legal, basing an arrest on the dog’s say-so is too risky. Defendants can argue that the dog alerted to a legal substance.

Many detection-dog trainers are have already stated training dogs on other forms of contraband but not marijuana. And new recruits,  who’ve graduated with this newfangled curriculum, are stepping up to take the retiring dogs’ jobs. Even so, there are sure to be younger dogs caught unprepared as the job market shifts, new grads whose skills are outdated before they’ve had a chance to shine. The thousands of humans forced to adjust when their jobs vanished will understand how tough this can be.

The retirees’ future is not bleak, however. Most of these dogs are headed into a cushier retirement than many people can look forward to. Many of them have years of experience under their vests and deserve to enjoy their golden years. And who knows? Some may pivot to new careers. I hear there’s growing demand for conservation dogs