What is “Biologically Appropriate” Feeding for Our Dogs?

Random thoughts this morning about how we feed our dogs and what is “biologically appropriate.” It has crossed my mind on many occasions how many different ways we still squeeze dogs into the “wolf” box, despite the growing scientific data to suggest otherwise. We usually think about this from a behavioral and social perspective. However, how might understanding the feeding and hunting habits of “wild” dogs, dingos, ferals, and pariah dogs change how we currently feed our pets?

To begin, we must review the current opinion. As a result of canine nutrition becoming a commercial market, we began measuring, controlling, and scheduling our dogs’ meals. Now, controlling the resource of food isn’t necessarily a bad thing from a behavior perspective. But, it resulted in the idea that we feed puppies three times per day because they are growing, but somehow adult dogs are only being fed once, maybe twice. This idea was supported by the evidence that wolves often gorge on the day’s kill, but may then go two to three days before their next meal. Since dogs were domesticated wolves, this made sense to most people, and we changed from feeding table scraps throughout the day to feeding a well portioned kibble once or twice.

So what’s the problem with this? Well, frankly, dogs aren’t wolves. It  is common to hear training and behavior professional say this. Yet, frequently, you hear today’s nutrition consultants talking about “biologically appropriate” feeding based upon the idea that dogs are wolves. This is despite research that dogs have an expanded gene for digesting starch (likely as the result of millenia of dumpster diving).

We also know that the group social structure of dogs and wolves are different. While wolves remain in family like packs, dogs may mingle when resources are abundant or during mating season, yet you will rarely see a nuclear structure like the wolves. Also, while wolves will scavenge when food is scarce, they prefer to hunt and kill fresh prey. Dogs may chase the occasional small game, but in most cases, they are much more likely to scavenge scraps, forage, and continuously eat while migrating between denning sites.

So what is the alternative? I honestly believe we are doing our dogs a disservice by reducing their feeding schedules, simply because they become adults. Much like their foraging, feral counter-parts, my dogs receive three small meals per day with plenty of opportunity to forage or earn supplemental feeding (treats). Many training and behavior professionals have already picked up on this missed opportunity to enrich our dogs lives, by adding puzzle or stuffable toys, foraging and scent games, or learn to earn programs to their clients’ training protocols. There’s a legitimate scientific basis for this trend, and it is one I hope to see continuing.

In addition, many vets who specialize in nutrition therapy will recommend feeding 2-3 smaller meals per day. There is biological reasoning for this. Many of our pets these days suffer from metabolic or immune problems. By feeding smaller meals, we support the endocrine system by avoiding a feast or famine response. This reduces stress on the metabolic and immune systems, particularly the liver, adrenal glands, thyroid, and kidneys. And reducing the stress load on these organs can improve medication response, reduce allergen responses, and balance endocrine responses in dogs with diabetes or cushings.

So what is my hypothesis? Simple, since dogs are not wolves, and since “wild” dogs do not have the same hunting or feeding behavior as wolves, it is not “biologically appropriate” to feed them as wolves. I’m not saying we should reduce protein levels or begin feeding our dogs “cereal” daily. Dogs are still carnivorous omnivores, and should be fed as such. What I’m saying is that for truly health companion dogs, we should begin to feed them as dogs. This means foraging and small, frequent meals. 

Shelly Volsche holds a certificate in Canine Nutrition and Fitness, including nutrition courses taught by Ava Frick, DVM. These courses can be found here: http://e-trainingfordogs.com/2011/05/fitness-and-nutrition-diploma/  This article is not intended as specific nutrition advice for any specific dog, and all nutrition concerns should be discussed with your veterinarian or a qualified nutrition consultant. For copies of sources mentioned in this article, please email shelly@volsche.com to request further information.

Canine Theory of Mind

Las Vegas-20111014-00078Can dogs think about what others are thinking? That is, do they have the ability to look at the world from someone else’s perspective?

Science used to say a resounding no. Then, a few cognition researchers said maybe. Dog owners insist an obvious yes. Where are we now?

While the jury is out on a definitive answer, an increasing pile of data is pointing to yes. To some extent. It began with behavioral experiments on dogs’ abilities to follow the human pointing gesture. In order to follow a pointing gesture, one needs to have a minimal understanding of the origin of the point.

But then, researchers turned their attention to dogs’ abilities to determine if they are being watched. In their study titled “Dogs Steal in the Dark,” Juliane Kaminski, Andrea Pitsch, and Mike Tomasello found that dogs are aware of whether they can be seen by the human…not whether or not they can see the human. In a series of experiments, they found dogs were more likely to steal if the human was lit (the dog could see them) but the food was not (the human could not see the dog steal). Likewise, Brian Hare and his team at the Duke Canine Cognition lab found that dogs behave differently if a human is watching them, or if that human’s vision is blocked either by blackout sunglasses or by turning their back to the dog.

Now, to add to the growing behavioral data, Gregory Berns’s new book, How Dogs Love Us, provides yet unpublished data to suggest that there is neurological evidence to further suggest dogs think about how we think. Neural activation believed to be mirror neurons, suggests dogs are trying to view the world from another’s point of view. He further states, “The evidence continues to accumulate that not only are dogs sensitive to where humans’ attention is directed, but dogs are also sensitive to the social context. They know when it is appropriate to attend to their human’s attention and when it is not. This means that dogs have more than a theory of behavior. They have a theory of mind” (Berns, pg. 173).

What does this mean for dogs, trainers, and owners? No longer can dog trainers and owners ignore that dogs are thinking, feeling, conscious beings. I’m far from making a call for some sort of person hood status. There is still much to be learned. However, as the aborigines once told Temple Grandin, “Dogs make us human.”

Continuing to ignore the data on non-human animal consciousness, especially dogs and other species who depend on us for security and care, highlights a growing lack of empathy. Have we really become so desensitized that we can justify abuse in the name of training? We must look in a mirror and consider how others, including our dogs, see us.


Kaminksi, J., Pitsch, A., & Tomasello, M. (2012). Dogs steal in the dark. Animal Cognition, doi: 10.1007/s10071-012-0579-6.

Berns, G.  (2013). How dogs love us. New Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; New York, New York.


Is “Ratting” in New York OK?

It’s true. I don’t get to post on this page as often as I’d like to. Ok, I admit it. I don’t make the time to post on this page as much as I’d like to. It’s a by-product of being in grad school, or so I’m told. That said, sometimes a piece of news so fantastic, comes to the surface that one must take the time to share it. This is what happened today, when the NY Times daily email came to my inbox.

There is quite a bit of debate surrounding the new practice of “ratting” in New York. Read the Times’ article

First, members of the Humane Society of the United States are concerned about the welfare of the rats. The claim is that these animals deserve a quick and painless death, as opposed to one of being hunted. I would argue these individuals have never seen the decisive, instantaneous kill of a Jack Russell or Patterdale terrier. Second, the veterinary community pushes that owners are putting their dogs at risk for diseases like leptospirosis and rabies that may enter the dog’s body via cuts and bites from the rats. While I agree, to some extent, I would suggest that many of these owners have healthy, well fed animals whose immune systems can handle most lacerations and bites. And that is in the rare cases that serious illness has the opportunity to enter. Most ratters are quite skilled at biting before being bitten.

So, what is the argument in favor of this activity? Just like EarthDogging and Scent Work, ratting is providing a natural outlet for an innate skill and drive these dogs possess. Over generations of selection, humans influenced the behavioral confirmation of these dogs, creating dogs with a specific need that must be fulfilled. The owners of dogs participating in the RATS program feel they are offering their dogs a legal outlet for breed specific mental stimulation. While I agree, there are substitutes for this behavior (a good session of tug or play with a flirt pole can be a valuable outlet for most terriers), one cannot deny there is something appealing about watching a dog thrive doing what it was bred to do.

Until humans are willing to forgo owning breeds with specific tendencies and traits, it will be forever important to acknowledge your dog’s natural talents and drives and provide opportunities to partake activities that allow them to expel energy related to those drives. Herding dogs need to herd. Terriers need to hunt. Scent hounds need to smell and track. I’m so glad to see a growing trend towards acknowledging who our dogs are, and providing them an opportunity to be that dog.


Dogs, MRIs and the Definition of “Person,” Oh, My!!!

It’s been a while since I posted (the perils of grad school, where does the time go?). Ironically, the last post I made was about the “black box,” and now, new research and a new book are taking a detailed look inside that box.

How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain, by Gregory Berns is set to hit bookstores on October 22. (Click here to preorder) In this book, Berns details the process of training dogs to voluntarily enter an MRI machine, holding still while Berns and his team take the first conscious images of the dog’s brain at work. Specifically, the caudate nucleus, a feature of the brain associated with learning, sensory perception, and construction of emotional associations, was found to “light up” in response to hand signals trained to indicate a hot dog treat is being delivered. I have it on preorder, and I can’t wait for it to ship.

From Patricia McConnell to Hal Herzog to Marc Bekoff, many of the top names in canine cognition, behavior, and anthrozoology are weighing in on the potential impact of this research. Are we embarking on proof that dogs deserve personhood? If so, what does personhood mean? Have we proven anything that wasn’t already known? I encourage you to google “MRIs and dogs” and read the multitude of opinions as they cascade over the internet in the days leading up to the book’s release.

So, are dogs “persons”? Well, that will depend upon your definition of a person. From a legal standpoint, a person is an animal (human or nonhuman) who is deserving of specific rights of autonomy and security. As more people adopt dogs as family members, I would argue that there is a strong pull towards personhood for dogs.

This does not mean we will consider them humans. That is a different “animal” altogether. But I don’t think it would hurt to provide emotional, physical, and social security to man’s best friend.


Looking Inside the “Black Box”

Behaviorism, a psychological and animal behavior model defined by the work of John  Watson and B.F. Skinner, sets forth that we can only define the world by cause and effect. That is, since we can never truly know what is going on inside another animal’s mind (this includes humans), we must assume that everything occurs as a result of reinforcers and punishers acting upon one’s behavior. The mind is a proverbial “black box” because it’s true secrets are locked away from the observer.

Ok, so that is a really condensed, watered down explanation of behaviorism. I admit it. But in the days of animal cognition research, biochemistry, and MRIs, it amazes me that many people still hold dear to the concept that we can’t possible know what an animal is thinking. On an almost daily basis these days, new research is released establishing the rich emotional and cognitive lives in all animals – from birds to bees to humans to, well, trees. Yes, even plants are now being studied as living beings who do math to determine growth paths and survival rates.

So why, then, are so many still afraid to discuss concepts like a dog’s love or elephants in mourning? Personally, I think it has to do with confronting one’s paradigms. It can be frightening to consider changing a long held belief…especially one that, until relatively recently, science said was correct. It’s funny, but I hear dog trainers regularly talk about how dogs are creatures of habit and routine…in my observation, humans inability to be flexible to change in the world around them rivals the most anxious of dogs.

I’m not saying that we go in the completely opposite direction, either. Anthropomorphism, the attribution of human characteristics to non-human animals, is also a real phenomenon. There is no research yet to suggest that a dog is capable of premeditating a crime and feeling guilt after the fact. And ravens, though quite the trickster, do not appear to feel they have done anything wrong in stealing your antenna ball, again.

No, what I’m suggesting is an open mind to understanding each species as its own, unique, living, breathing, thinking, feeling animal (or plant, but we’ll save that discussion for another time). When you look at your family dog or your neighbor’s cat, recognize that there is an animal with needs, desires, fears, and joys…just like you. These things may be different for each animal, and they are different for each human, as well. It is that uniqueness that makes this world such a beautiful place.