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You are what you eat is as true of dogs as it is of us. If you eat Big Macs all day, you don’t only get fat, you’re also less healthy because of all the additives, colourants and preservatives in MacDonald’s food.  These chemicals can result in poor skin and hair, digestion problems, food intolerance, itchy skin and mood swings. An extreme response can be the kind of behaviour problems you see in some children who can’t tolerate additives. 


Dog food is exactly the same. Some foods give dogs poor, flaky and itchy skin. They can be prone to stomach upsets and some of them can have reactivity problems and hyperactivity because of the food they’re eating.

If your dog paces a lot, pants, barks in the house or fusses to be let out into the garden to bark, then it is very likely that her diet is having a bad effect on her. A happy, calm and relaxed dog should sleep on average 17 hours a day and should sleep through the night without disturbing you. If your dog is sleeping less than that, then I would be looking at her diet to see if changing it would improve her quality of life. 


Poor quality, cheap food isn’t the bargain it might seem to be. If it’s cheap, then it’s full of ‘fillers’ – cheap waste products like wheat, maize and other cereals that dogs’ stomachs aren’t designed to cope with. Some dogs will do ‘ok’ on feed with cereals and grains – but they won’t do the best they can. Dogs’ systems aren’t equipped to deal effectively with carbohydrates – feeding them grains is a relatively modern phenomenon. 

Carbohydrates break down into sugars and dogs find it difficult to break down these sugars and they are unable to regulate their energy, hormone and stress levels. This is why so many grain fed dogs have problems with over-excitement, anxiety and reactivity. They quite simply can’t control themselves because their brains and bodies are struggling to synthesise the chemical reactions from their food.. 

And it’s true that you get out what you put in: 

Good food = energy, concentration and healthiness

Bad food = hyperactivity, inability to concentrate and poor health



You also get another clear sign of whether or not a food is good quality: Poo. If a dog is pooing more than twice a day, producing large, smelly, poos that range from light brown to almost orange in colour, then she is eating poor quality food. And most of the money you have spent on that food is being pooed out as waste material.


Good quality food results in smaller, less smelly, harder poos. You feed less of the food, so a £50 bag of kibble lasts longer than a £10 bag of supermarket own brand food. You also spend less time at the vets, because your dog has fewer health problems. Our dogs very rarely visit the vet because they don’t need to – they don’t have problems with teeth, skin, or behaviour. All of them are rescues, and all of them came to me with physical problems as well as behavioural, but a good diet started to sort out the physical problems within months. Dogs fed a good diet that suits their metabolism don’t get ear infections or have that ‘doggy’ smell (meaning no visits to the groomers, if you have a short-haired dog). They are, in short, healthy.



There are several ‘complete’ foods on the market which come close to a raw diet. They can be fed either as a kibble (biscuits) or as a wet food (this isn’t the same as canned food. Canned meat is also very low in nutrients) 

  • Check the amount of protein in a food if you have an excitable or troubled dog. Protein sources have an effect on a dog’s behaviour. If the protein is pure, organic chicken, then the protein level in the food can be up to 38% and is easily metabolised by the body. If the protein source in your current dog food  is ‘mixed animal derivatives’ or ‘turkey meal’, or anything that sounds similar, then the protein is less easily synthesised and can affect digestion, skin and behaviour.

  • Avoid any food that contains molasses, or sugar – these are likely to make your dog hyperactive and aren't good for teeth.

  • Avoid any grains and cereals, such as wheat, maize, rice or oats. Some dogs can’t tolerate potato, either, so sweet potato can be a good alternative


Glucosamine is an additive to boost the development of healthy ligaments. Added natural herbs in high-end dog foods can also be good for digestion.


Kibble (biscuits) isn’t necessarily any better for your dog’s teeth than wet food, in fact there is a condition known familiarly to vets as ‘kibble tooth’. Dog saliva often doesn’t wash away the deposits of kibble that get left in your dog’s teeth, so wet food is possibly better for your dog’s teeth. Whatever you feed, natural chews (see below) are vital for good dental health. Using a tooth brush to clean your dog’s teeth several times a week is also important for dental health if chews don’t do enough to remove the build-up of plaque.

If you do feed kibble, I recommend soaking it in warm water (boiled, then allowed to cool) for half an hour before feeding it. This helps ‘fussy dogs’ because it smells really good when warm. 


We feed our dogs raw, and are finding that many of our customers are choosing a raw diet for their dogs. It’s the best food you can buy – raw meat and bones are what they were designed to eat. This gives them everything they need nutritionally, and gnawing on a raw bone is the best kind of toothbrush there is. 

A raw diet should be based on a range of minced red and white meat with added bone and offal. Only ever feed raw meat – cooked meat adds-on calories, changes the nutritional value, is often more difficult to digest, and cooked bones are potentially deadly to a dog. They can choke your dog, or perforate the gullet or gut. Raw bones are softer and will simply pass through the dog’s digestive system.

You can add salmon oil, natural yogurt, mackerel in oil, tuna and goat’s yogurt. Contrary to what the ‘anti-raw’ brigade like to believe, raw meat isn’t high in protein. The tests that have been done in research on protein in raw meat have been done with the moisture removed. As it is fed, raw meat has a 70% moisture content, which reduces the protein to between 12% and 17%. 

THE NASTIES            

The foods to avoid at all costs are foods heavy in cereals. If meat isn't the first listed ingredient, then the food is low quality.

Some of the popular cheap foods include some ingredients which are toxic in large amounts. Many of the ingredients are outlawed in Canada and Europe. Several of the reactivity cases I work with have been improved within a matter of days when the owners have taken their dogs off these low quality foods. 

Some dogs have a real intolerance to grains and cereals. Another surprising intolerance is to white potato, which can be a problem with complete kibbles that are Grain-Free. Sometimes it can be a case of experimenting to find which grain free food suits your dog over a period of several weeks or months.


Twice a day, morning and evening. Leave the bowl down for 10 minutes, and if your dog doesn’t finish her food, then pick it up. I would also be thinking of changing her diet if she doesn’t finish her food – it probably means she doesn’t like it. Saying that, if she is moving from a cheap food to a better quality one, you may find you need to add a quarter of a tin of sardines in oil  (or even just the oil) for a while. Fish oil is very good for dogs, and I add it daily to mine. It will help with the transition from addictive sugars (which is why they’re added – to make the food more tasty) to proper, healthy food. 

Leaving bowls down all day to allow your dog to ‘free feed’ doesn’t give the digestive tract a chance to rest. Dogs are like children, they’re not very good at self-regulating and their systems aren’t designed to ‘graze’.


If you feed twice a day, food becomes more important to your dog, rather than always available. This means that the dog that ‘won’t respond to treats’ suddenly becomes interested in them, because she can’t get food whenever she wants it. 


Bear in mind that manufacturer’s recommended amounts advised on the packet of food tend towards giving ‘more’ rather than ‘less’. They’re aimed at dogs getting quite a lot of exercise, and don’t consider the amount of treats that you will be giving your dog while on the Thinking-Dog Programme. When feeding your dog, reduce the amount suggested by between an eighth and a quarter.


  • EDEN CUISINE 80/20 - FISH CUISINE: has the highest level of pure fish meat and the lowest level of legume fillers, so is good for dogs or puppies with sensitive tummies

  • EDEN CUISINE 80/20 – ORIGINAL: good for puppies or dogs who don’t like fish. This has a low amount of legume fillers.

  • WOLFWORTHY – this has no fillers, and is based on real, whole meat and sweet potato. It’s a very good food although some puppies and dogs can find it a bit rich at first so be sure to change it over a 3 week period.

  • AKELE 80/20 – this is a mid-range grain free food which suits some dogs and puppies but has potato as an ingredient, which some can’t tolerate.

  • FISH 4 DOGS – FINEST SARDINE – this is a mid-range grain free food which has lower levels of fish and quite a high ratio of sweet potato.

  • PALEO RIDGE – an excellent ethical, UK company producing a very wide range of raw food for dogs

  • NATURE’S MENU RAW – FREE FLOW MINCE AND RAW BONES: an ethical, UK company producing a good range of raw food.





Chews can also have hidden nasties, in fact many of them contain sugars. The best chews are natural, with no added colours or cereals.

Lamb tails

Tripe sticks

Paddy wack (some dogs can find this to rich, so avoid if yours has a sensitive tummy) 

Stag bar (deer horn) 

Dried cow ears (less likely to upset tummies than pig ears)

Dried venison, chicken, liver (liver can be too rich for some dogs)

Dried lamb lung

I buy cow ears, dried sprats and lambs ears from eBay in bulk, which makes them more economical.



These need to be small, tasty and smelly. Commercial treats are often full of nasties, are expensive to buy, and too dry to really be that appealing when you’re working with your dog. The following are described as ‘high value’ treats (really yummy). Take a pouch of these with you when you go out on a walk with your dog: cheese, chicken, turkey, liver, liver cake, pilchard cake, veggie cake. Be aware of the salt content in cheese and ham. Some people use hot dog sausages, which are tasty but high in salt and cereal. 



© Fern Ember Dog Behaviour 2014 have assessed the safety of common ingredients in dog foods available in the UK and USA.

               A Guide to Safe (and Unsafe) Dog Food Ingredients



Dog food has become a controversial topic over the years due to many recalls and lack of industry regulations. Because of this, dog owners need to do their due diligence checking ingredients labels. The team at spent over 1,000 hours researching dog foods to determine which ingredients were not only safe, but also healthy for dogs. Here is an excerpt from their review:


Bad Ingredients, Poor Health


Just verifying all the ingredients in your food are “safe” doesn’t mean they are optimal or even healthy for your best friend. Dogs need the right combination of protein, fat, moisture, fiber, and nutrients to live healthy, happy lives. The wrong ingredients in the wrong combinations can lead to a host of health problems, both physical and mental.


Digestive problems, including bloat and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), are symptomatic of poor ingredients that don’t contain enough whole, unprocessed foods. Food allergies can also lead to digestive issues — many of the experts we reached out to have seen evidence that dogs are sensitive to wheat and corn, both popular fillers.


Obesity is on the rise in dogs. One main reason for this is overfeeding, but many of the experts we talked to were quick to point out that poor grain-based ingredients are also to blame.


Physical problems are only half of it. There was a unanimous consensus among trainers and behaviorists we talked to that poor diet causes mental health issues in dogs, including poor temperament and lack of focus. Marc Abraham elaborates: “Certain popular pet food brands on the market contain extra colorings, additives, and E numbers that, in my opinion, can affect behavior, leading to hyperactivity and difficulty with training.”


Good Ingredients and How They Relate to Your Dog


However, many ingredients can’t simply be divided into “good” or “bad.” Some are downright controversial. Beet pulp, for instance, is a common binding agent found in many dog foods, but many conscientious consumers avoid it over concerns of digestive health issues. There is no scientific research as of yet to back this up, but the experts we talked to unanimously agreed: It’s best to avoid it.


Not only do ingredients matter, but also having the right combinations and ratios of ingredients matters. There’s an oft-quoted statistic that claims good dog foods contain 30 percent protein and 18 percent fat, with enough side nutritional content — omega-3s, vitamins, and fiber — to round out your dog’s diet. The experts we talked to disagree. To them, it’s really what’s best for your individual dog. “Protein is very important for your dog, but there are instances, such as old age or liver issues, where your dog should be on a lower-protein diet,” says Dog Files creator Kenn Bell. “Make sure you have a conversation with your veterinarian.”


To see the rest of their research, check out their full guide:

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