As dog care professionals, we are well aware that there is a bit of an epidemic in pet-health, mirroring that seen in human health, concerning overweight and obese pets.
Overweight/obesity rates in dogs may be reported in as much as 20-40% of the population, although it is likely that this varies greatly in different geographical areas.
Calorie intake is essentially the root of the issue, but this is a multi-factorial problem with everything from owners’ health & socio-economic status to their likelihood to underestimate just how overweight their pet is, all playing a role.
Just being moderately overweight can lead to all sorts of problems for dogs, resulting in severe impacts on welfare. (Lawler et al, 2005)
Me + Food = Love
One of the accusations commonly leveled against ‘food-based’ trainers is our contribution to this epidemic. And although it’s easy to reel against such sweeping statements I think we need to be careful and accept that we are in a position of responsibility.
Work published this year in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, on cats and their owners, examined owners’ perception of their cats’ love for them during the implementation of a weigh-loss program. (Levine et al, 2016) (summary here)
Cat owners were concerned that not feeding their cats, that putting their cats on a diet and not responding to their cats’ requests/demands for food would affect their cats’ level of affection toward their owners.
This may also be reflected among dog owners, and our very own mantras may reinforce it.
We use food because it’s a quick and effective teaching tool, but we promote its use as a way of helping a dog develop more positive associations with things, places, occurrences, the behaviours we teach and owners themselves.
We might even dismiss or downplay its use in training as a contributor to a pet gaining extra weight.
We wield food rewards like magic wands and amaze pet owners with its power in our hands. But they may not be so skilled, they may not be so knowledgeable.
What’s a “food-trainer” to do?
Do as I do, and as I say
It’s not enough to talk-the-talk, we have to walk-the-walk too so our dogs, who are so often representatives for our training skill, need to be slim and trim.
We are models for our clients, and pet owners in general.
But we are also representatives for the type of training that we do; in a world of whisperers and alpha-rollers, whether it’s right or not, using reward-based training will be linked with food and treats, and weight-gain.
I know it’s not easy, I have owned an overweight dog. And getting weight off dogs is tough, with a capital T.
There are genetic components and everyday-life components and it’s just tough.
But turn your struggle with your pet’s weight into an educational series that you can promote via your business. Your insights will help pet owners develop a better understanding of managing their pets’ weight and the empathy you will experience makes you a better counselor.
Dogs are super efficient at burning calories
A weight management plan for your dog is difficult because dogs are so good at putting weight on and at maintaining weight.
Even though less than a kilo can be considered serious weight gain for a dog, it can be hard to stay motivated when your dog only loses (what seems like) teeny increments.
Staying in it for the long haul is difficult, especially when the big brown eyes are boring into your very soul with every mouthful you take.
Get help! Seek out advice from your veterinary team, look for a practice that holds weight clinics, hook up with other pet owners helping their pets, set goals and then task them out into day-by-day plans.
Make connections with veterinary hospitals so that you can refer pet owners there for help, and can communicate the best way to train with or without food rewards to veterinary staff.
Be empathetic to those with overweight pets – scolding or embarrassing them may turn them off, and cause them to become more reluctant to engage and participate.
Help pet owners calculate ideal calorie intake for their pets, check-in with them regularly and help keep their spirits up.
Have easy-to-use resources available in your training centre, or in your information packs so that their awareness is raised.
This is one of my favourites from University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center:
Getting pet owners when their dog is a puppy will also allow us to target the owners of dogs that may be genetically predisposed to weight-gain, like Labradors.
We are often present or involved in discussions about neutering, which is a risk factor in weight gain (Lund, et al, 2006). Helping pet owners prepare by carefully monitoring their dogs’ calorie intake and activity levels will help in preventing weight gain.
We are also in the unique position to be able to provide pet owners with meaningful education on canine behaviour. Having a better understanding of the needs of dogs, in terms of their behaviour health, may help to reduce some pet owners’ tendencies to ‘overhumanise’ their pets which may also be a risk factor for weight gain. (Kienzle et al, 1998)
Weight Gain & Behaviour
Weight gain contributes to all sorts of physiological conditions that can affect dog behaviour.
At the simplest level, extra weight may lead to normal behaviour being impeded or becoming more difficult, affecting behavioural welfare.
Weight gain may exacerbate conditions causing pain and discomfort which can have many implications for behaviour.
A dog who is intensely motivated by access to food or shows abnormal food-related behaviour e.g. pica, may be demonstrating behaviour that suggests underlying physical illness.
Helping reduce a dog’s stress may even help in reducing stress-induced or so-called emotional eating, thereby facilitating better weight control. (McMillan, 2013)
Exercise & Activity
Getting active will likely benefit both ends of the lead.
We can give pet owners skills and information so that they can enjoy getting out and about with their dogs.
Dogs who pull, have poor leash manners or are reactive are less likely to be brought out so we can help by suggesting alternative forms of exercise so as to maintain health and encourage bonding between pet and person.
If pet owners have fun with their dogs they are more likely to continue that activity, and form better bonds leading to more training success – win-win-win!
Training with food
Now, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater – training with food is pretty awesome, I do it everyday.
As the movies say: “with great power, comes great responsibility” and like any tool, food rewards can be used well or not so well.
Food Training Tips:
- emphasise the use of the dog’s regular food during training, and throughout the day
- make regular food more attractive for training without adding too many extra calories (here)
- raise pet owners’ awareness of adjustments that will be required should training treats be used
- make sure each training treat is teeny-tiny
- use healthy, low-calorie treats (calories generally make food more appealing so that can be difficult for some dogs)
- get dogs working for every piece of food – spreading out meals and making food a little harder to get can increase its value while making each meal feel bigger (a whole playlist of ideas here)
- teach pet owners how to play with their dogs so that play, toys and interaction become valuable rewards, increase activity and have fun
- progress training so that working for real-life rewards becomes the main reinforcement-strategy
- instead of feeding, provide pet owners with meaningful protocols in place to comfort and manage their dogs behaviour
Think of using food as a basic, mechanical skill that pet owners can be taught, in the same way we teach them other training skills.
There’s no problem with using food rewards in training, if it’s done well and responsibly.
There are a lot of overweight dogs out there – the majority of adolescent and adult dogs I see are carrying too much weight. I want those dogs and their people to have positive training experiences, be able to use food rewards appropriately and to improve training, and to live long, healthy, happy lives – that’s why we’re in this business.