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Ask the Trainer: Does it really matter what I feed my dog?

Q: Our 1.5-year-old lab mix is hyper and driving us nuts. He chases and nips at the kids and can’t seem to settle down. EVER. We exercise him twice a day — a 30-minute jog AND a 45-minute walk in the evening.

We’ve had a couple sessions with a trainer, and he suggested we look at his diet as a possible contributor to his crazy behavior. I’m skeptical. Does it really matter what kind of dog food we feed him? We use a popular brand from the pet store, medium price range. And NO table scraps or people food.

A: Great question! Quick answer: I believe, YES, it matters what food your dog eats.

We trainers are excited about the relatively new research taking place in the realm of canine nutrition. I recently attended a seminar by a well-known vet and behaviorist whose research over the last 25 years revealed some fascinating — and somewhat alarming — information. I won’t engage in a discussion about big-brand dog food companies and their relationships with veterinary schools, but it’s absolutely appropriate and factual to say that the standards governing the dietary requirements of dog food are based on incomplete and extremely outdated research.

The good news is that as we humans get smarter about our own nutrition and its relationship to our overall health and how we feel, we’re starting to ask, "Hey, what about the dog?"

Canine professionals, like the one you’re working with, are also asking questions about the relationship, if any, between diet and behavior, much like human nutritionists wonder about the link between preservatives and certain foods to behaviors associated with ADD and ADHD in children.

Veterinarians are counseling clients to experiment with foods in an effort to determine the source for the puzzling increase in what appears to be allergic reactions, seen in itchy skin conditions in dogs.

All these questions have prompted dog food manufacturers to up their game, which is apparent in the dizzying array of higher-quality dog foods found on pet store shelves. Key word: dizzying. It can be a challenge to navigate the dog food aisles and walk away with any more understanding about dog nutrition than when you walked in.

So what does this mean for your dog? I can only share my experience through training dogs and talking with veterinarians. I AM NEITHER A DOCTOR NOR NUTRITIONIST, but if you were my training client, here’s what I would recommend and what I do with my own dogs:

1. Select a dry kibble that contains protein (meat or fish) as first ingredients and contains no grain OR a whole grain (except corn, which some nutritionists believe can cause inflammation and some trainers believe is like sugar in a dog’s bloodstream). Avoid super high-protein diets designed for working dogs, unless your dog truly is working most of the day (not the case for the majority of our pet dogs).

2. Use kibble for half a dog’s diet, and rotate kibbles every couple of bags, varying protein sources based on what your dog can tolerate (beef is the No. 1 source of food allergy in dogs, so take note how your dog responds to different proteins). Ask your vet how to transition your dog to new foods. It’s not complicated, and most of the time you can avoid stomach upset if done properly.

3. Use whole food for the other half of the diet, such as non-seasoned meats and fish (raw or cooked, depends on who you ask) and vegetables (whole, juiced, slightly cooked, raw, the options are many). Lots of this comes from my dinner table, just not the leftover pizza crust or anything processed, like breads or pasta.

4. Peruse the Internet for lists of whole foods that are good for your dog. Even with a million opinions out there, you’ll see some common ones from traditional and holistic veterinarians and nutritionists.

5. Find a pet supply store you like, take your dog for a visit, and ask questions.

6. More expensive doesn’t always mean better, but stay away from the super cheap foods found at general retailers.

If your vet has ruled out anything medical for your dog’s "hyper" behavior (e.g. hyperthyroidism, although rare in dogs), and your trainer thinks you’re giving your dog enough exercise, you have nothing to lose in experimenting with your dog’s diet.

I would love to hear from readers any interesting diets you’ve tried with your dog! I’m still working on a diet that cuts down on bulldog gas.

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