Dogs: Care and behaviour

See also:

Choosing a Dog

Bringing Up Your Puppy

Basic Training

Finding a Good Training Class

Behavioural Problems

Helping Sound Shy Dogs

Dogs and Diet

Animal care and behaviour: Dogs

Multi-dog households: Enjoying life with more than one dog

by Alison Lever and Wendy Hanson

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Sometimes multi-dog households work very well, other times they leave owners feeling fraught and frazzled. Wendy is a dog behaviour consultant and dog trainer, and has lived with three dogs, now two. Alison lives with three dogs, and has a long-term interest in multi-dog households which arose from a research project. We have looked both at what makes them work, and at preventing and dealing with problems. Here is a summary of our guidelines to help you to enjoy living with more than one dog.

Why have more than one dog? (And why it may not be sensible.)

Owners may have two or more dogs for a number of reasons, for example, they may have found a companion for their first dog, inherited a dog, found a rescue they just couldn't resist, or kept back a pup or two from a litter. Dogs tend to enjoy one another's company, and can communicate with each other in ways that we can't, so finding a companion for an 'only dog' is often a good idea. However, life takes on a new dimension when you have more than one dog, so this is a decision that needs some thought. One plus one can add up to three, because dogs tend to take their cues from one another. So if you have a dogthat is a little on the wild side, it is well worth waiting and investing at least six months in a serious effort to civilise your first dog so that he or she can set a good example to the newcomer. It is wonderful to watch a well-trained dog teach good manners to a newcomer. It is less wonderful to watch a newcomer learn bad habits!

Spacing dogs is important. It's not just that youngsters need a lot of effort invested in their training, at the other end of the dogs' lives you may find that your vet bills get higher, and it is hard to cope with the loss of two dogs, one shortly after the other. Ideally the first dog should be past the wilder years of adolescence. When this happens depends a lot on the dog. Some dogs are quite calm and adult by the time they get to two, while others take much longer to mature. Training, is of course important, especially if you have an energetic dog. Training allows you to channel the dog's energy, and have a nice, calm dog at times when you need one, such as when you have visitors. Bringing in a newcomer may also create problems if your dog is frail and elderly, and finds youngsters very difficult to cope with. If you bring in a pup under these circumstances, the oldster is going to need a lot of consideration and pup-free space and time, and it may be better to wait.

You may have chosen a first dog because of how he or she behaved with humans rather than other dogs. Many dogs get on very well with humans, but are quarrelsome with their own kind for various reasons. Some dogs just like fighting other dogs. If you regularly meet other dogs, you will know whether yours likes to pick fights, in which case bringing in a new dog is asking for trouble. Get your dog assessed to see if there is how far training can improve this behaviour, and whether the dog should really stay as an only dog. An honest assessment can save you a lot of grief. Some dogs don't get on with others of their own kind simply because they have spent a long time on their own, and have forgotten how to communicate with other dogs. It is worth making an effort to socialise such dogs, to see what sorts of dogs they might get on with, or whether they really just don't like other dogs at all. Dogs can be very picky about who they want to talk to, just like people. If you acquired your dog as a tiny pup, and live in an isolated area where you hardly ever meet other dogs, you will need to take it gently. With luck you can find people with calm, well-behaved dogs, who can remind your dog of how to talk to his own species. Training classes can also help with socialising dogs. Outdoor classes are generally best for dogs that have spent a long time away from their own kind.

How many dogs is too many?

The advice that owners most often gave was 'know your limits'. However appealing a potential newcomer may be, ask yourself whether the quality of life of your existing dogs might suffer. What do people you live with feel about another dog? Ask yourself how you are going to cope if you have 'flu, or a twisted ankle. You can ask a friend to walk one or two dogs for you as a favour, but walking three or more dogs is more difficult. Vet bills get higher the more dogs you have, and there's the cost of dog food. You need enough space, because dogs are more likely to fight if they live in crowded conditions. People with four or more dogs are likely to say 'the dogs come first'. Now that's fine if that is what you want, but think ahead, if you also want to have children, you may find that you suddenly have too many dogs.

Two groups of people are especially vulnerable to the temptation of taking on too many dogs. Breeders may keep back pups from a litter for one reason or another, while people involved in rescue may take on more dogs than they can handle, because they feel they are the dogs' last chance. If you have more dogs than is comfortable, it is sensible to make a determined effort to rehome one or more of them. For most people, two dogs are enough, but this very much depends on what the dogs are like, especially whether they are easy-going or have prickly personalities, and it also depends on how much time, energy and other resources you have. Humans are very good at kidding ourselves that a not-sensible decision is a good one, with 'it'll be OK' ... but if you have a small voice that tells you that you shouldn't take on another dog, listen to that voice!

Choosing a second and subsequent dog

Spacing dogs sensibly means that littermates are generally not a good idea. We both actually have littermates, and have been lucky in that they have got on well and have brought us a great deal of pleasure. However, when they were little, we were run ragged trying to keep up with their needs. For a start, toilet training can be more difficult, because if one littermate pees indoors, the other is likely to do the same. Other people with littermates report the same problem, that the first few years involve a lot of work.

Sometimes dog books tell you that littermates don't bond with the owner. This in fact has not been a problem for us, nor for most people we have asked who have littermates. The big problem is the time and effort needed when the dogs are young, when their training has to be intensive. Dog books may also tell you that littermates will fight. This very much depends on the dogs. Ours have always got on well. Even same-sex littermates can get on well if at least one is easy-going, but yes, there is a higher risk of fights between littermates, especially if they are of the same sex.

In general, the best combinations for two-dog households are dog-bitch, then dog-dog, then bitch-bitch. Dogs and bitches tend not to fight each other, fights between dogs tend to be brief affairs, but owners report that enmity between bitches can be very deep. This means that if you have three dogs, two dogs and a bitch is generally a safer combination than two bitches and a dog. However, this very much depends on the personalities of the dogs, and following this formula is no guarantee that your dogs will get on, nor, for that matter that two bitches can't live together amicably.

So, how do you pick easy-going dogs? In terms of breeds, one breed stands out as exceptionally easy-going, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. This is no guarantee that all individuals from the breed will be nice-natured, but many Cavvie owners have commented on how their dogs like to sleep in a heap, and get on exceptionally well with each other. Most popular breeds, like Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds and Cocker Spaniels have large gene pools, and a great variety in terms of individual personalities. There can be a big differences in the temperaments of individuals from these breeds, even if they are littermates. If you can find a pup with four grandparents with easy-going temperaments, that pup will probably also be easy-going. An alternative is to take on an easy-going adult rescue dog, which is, in some ways, safer, because it's not always possible to tell how pups will turn out, whereas adults have already developed their personalities.

If you are picking a second dog, it's also worth looking hard at your first dog, to work out the best type of companion. How well behaved is your dog on walks? If he or she gets involved in fights, is there a pattern? Sometimes small dogs find big dogs hard to cope with, and long-legged dogs might find small terriers that run under them a bit scary. Any patterns you see give you clues as to what type of newcomer to shortlist. Then it is well worth taking your dog to meet the possible candidates, preferably on neutral territory. If you choose a rescue adult, a key question is 'what effect would a newcomer have on my dog's behaviour?' Your dog may adore one potential candidate because they enjoy mad races together. However, do you want two dogs racing around your garden, or would you prefer a new dog that has a more calming influence on your first dog? Watch how your dog interacts with possible candidates, draw up your dog's shortlist and compare it with your own, and remember you will be living with the twosome. The newcomer should be a dog that your first dog gets on with, but sometimes it is wiser to go with your dog's second choice!

Introducing newcomers

There are people who argue that dogs don't get jealous. Maybe dogs don't get jealous in the same way as humans, but they can fight for the attention of owners, and can react badly if they suddenly see their owner with a new dog. The gentlest way to introduce a newcomer is for the dogs to meet on neutral territory, preferably out of doors, with a helper handling the new dog. Dogs tend to bond together if they are walked together, so a short, on-leash walk will help the dogs get to know each other. Once the dogs are relaxed, they can be allowed off leash together, and the owner and helper can later swap leads.

Some resident dogs instantly get on with newcomers, other times there may be some friction. You can ease the situation by letting your first dog know that his or her place is safe, for example, if you treat the dogs, treat the first dog first, and give the first dog some continued alone-time with you. New adult dogs are generally on their best behaviour for the first few weeks, and are more likely to start to take liberties once they have sized you up. If you initially make the newcomer earn all privileges, you have more room for manoeuvre than if you start out giving the newcomer lots of privileges and having to take them away. Once the dogs are on the same diet, they will start to smell the same, and that helps with bonding, as does walking the dogs together. In the short term, while everyone is getting to know each other, the newcomer is in second place. In the long term the best behaved dog can be rewarded first, and if you have trained your first dog well, your first dog is likely to get the first reward.

Dogs can react very differently to the arrival of a new pup. They may act like an ideal substitute parent, giving gentle corrections that are understood by the pup, or become irritable and tetchy, or flee the new pup, or want to play all day, like the pup's favourite fun uncle. It's the owner's decision to bring a new pup into the house. It's quite natural that some dogs say with their body language that they would rather have nothing to do with a pup until the owner has civilised the little brat! The older dog may not have the energy to keep up, or may not have spent time with young pups for a long time. Think of how you might feel if if somebody suddenly left a lively small child in your house without asking your opinion. Even if you enjoy the company of small children, you may want some peace and quiet now and then.

Watch the dog and pup together, and take your cue from them. If the dog finds the pup too much, or just wants to play wild games with the little one, that is your cue to find other adult dogs who can help teach your pup good manners. If you walk regularly with people who have well-mannered, calm, older dogs, ask if you can walk with them. Few people can refuse such a request, in fact pups tend to arouse a lot of interest in dog walking circles. It's also worthwhile finding playmates for the pup among people you meet on dog walks, so the little one can run off some energy, and learn how to socialise with other youngsters.

Older dogs do need to be able to escape the pup's attentions should they want to. This is true however well the two get on, and especially true if you have a very pushy youngster and an older dog who simply doesn't want to know. It's not just unfair on the older dog to trap him or her with the pup, it's teaching the pup to be rude to adults, which puts the pup at risk when you go out on walks. It also helps to give the pup nap time in a separate room. This both gives the older dog some alone-time with you, and helps the pup learn to spend time alone.

Whether the newcomer is an adult or a youngster, feeding the dogs together will initially involve giving each a lot of space, and ensuring that each dog respects the rule 'all dogs have a right to eat their dinner in peace'. This means supervision, and a firm reprimand if any dog breaks the rule. The lessons learnt in the early days tend to stick in the newcomer's mind, and help the dogs to feel safe and happy in each other's company.

Walking the dogs together is also important, initially with a helper walking the newcomer if there is any friction between the two dogs. It may be because it's a natural 'pack activity' for whatever reason, it works. After just ten minutes walking together, dogs seem to tune into each other, and work more as a group. Your first dog will know the walks better, and this will boost his or her confidence. You can ask both dogs to sit and stay, or do a downstay, and reward the first to comply. This gets them focusing on you, and doing the same thing. So long as your first dog is well trained, you are telling the newcomer 'look, if you are good like your companion, you get something nice'.


The effort you put into training your first dog pays enormous dividends when you bring in newcomers. Newcomers tend to defer to older dogs who are already in residence when they arrive, and they tend to follow their example. If your first dog comes when called, behaves well on walks, and greets visitors politely, this sets a good example for newcomers. It means that you have to put less effort into later training, because your first dog is doing a lot of the work for you. However, if you find that your first dog is teaching the newcomer some bad habits, that means number one dog needs some remedial education!

Training dogs that live together means both individual sessions and sessions together as a group. Each dog benefits from alone time with you, so you can focus on strengths and weaknesses, and from group sessions where they learn to co-operate together. When you have two or more dogs in the same place, they need to know whether commands are meant for just one dog, or for all the dogs. Some owners preface individual commands with the dog's name. The name means that you get the dog's attention, then you can give the command. If you use food rewards, the dog to reward first is the best behaved dog.

Training is basically getting dogs to understand and obey the rules they need to learn for life together to be enjoyable. So if they mob visitors, but are fine on walks, the first priority is individual and group training in greeting people politely. It helps both to look at specific situations, like walking alongside roads with heavy traffic, and at the training needs of each particular dog. A youngster newcomer may be pushy, and try to shove senior dogs out of the way to get to you, or get to the door when it is time to go out. Such a youngster will benefit from learning to wait until you give a signal for a cuddle or to have a lead put
on. Sits and stays can be built into 'sit and stay until it is your turn'. Alternatively, your first dog may be a bit wild, and you may have a diffident newcomer who is happy to wait his or her turn. In that case the first dog needs to learn some self control through sits and stays. If they are both a bit crazy, then surprise quicksits and downstays on walks can help them to focus on you.

Manners training is very important, but dogs also benefit from doing fun activities together, and even from just watching another dog have fun. You can play retrieve or tug and drop games with one dog as an observer, and a helper holding the spectator. You can also play 'find the titbit, lining the dogs up in a stay while you hide titbits which they find on a 'sniff' command. The more they can play together, the more likely they are to enjoy one another's company.

Preventing and dealing with fights.

What owners see as fights between dogs may be just play, simple reprimands, spats, or very serious fights. Playfights are generally not a problem so long as they don't get out of hand, in fact if your dogs can playfight, and through playing learn how to control their aggression and take turns, they are more likely to get on. You can tell the difference between playfights and real fights, because of the dogs' body language. There are playbows, and usually chases and even boxing. Sometimes one dog leads, sometimes the other, and each dog goes back for more fun. If one dog is trying to get away, rather than coming back for more, it's not play, but bullying!

Dogs can be like small children when they playfight, in that they can get overtired and start to fight seriously, so you need to stop them at the first sign this is happening, and preferably know them well enough to stop them well before they get to this stage. However involved they are in their play, they should take notice of you immediately, and if they don't, then rationing playfights is a good idea. It's also safer to have a 'no playfighting indoors' rule, especially if you have three or more dogs. There's less intensity to outdoor playfights, they allow the dogs to run off more energy, and playfights out of doors are less likely to escalate.

A simple reprimand usually happens when a young, socially inept dog breaks the rules, and is told off by a senior dog. There may be noise and flashing teeth, but no harm is done. The offender accepts the reprimand, and minds his manners. This is healthy. Socially inept means for example, a younger dog mounting an older one. If the youngster does not accept the reprimand, this is your cue to step in and scold the youngster, so that both dogs look to you for leadership, and the older dog does not feel obliged to fight to prove his point. There are people who claim that non-mating mounting is always a sign of dominance, but in fact it is often a sign of immaturity, bad manners and overexcitement. Dogs may also reprimand pups who take liberties with them. If you are worried that reprimands may be too harsh, have someone more experienced come and watch the dogs interact, and advise you.

The main way to prevent real fights is to choose your dogs carefully, picking easy-going dogs, rather than grumpy, cantankerous individuals! The more dogs you have, the greater the risk that fights can become serious, especially if they have too little space. You have less time to train each dog, and if they get involved in a group fight, it becomes more difficult to break up. Training gives you far more control, for example allowing you to deter a dog you see eyeing up another by calling the troublemaker to you. You also need a vet check if a dog is unusually irritable, otherwise this may escalate into serious attacks due to an undiagnosed medical problem.

Spats are common between males, and are usually brief and noisy. They are often over before you have a chance to work out what is going on. The dogs must understand that Fighting Is Not Allowed, so this is your cue to give any dog involved a severe scolding. It's a case of 'I don't care who started it', because dogs can injure each other, even in brief spats, and they can injure any human whose hands, feet, or even face get in the way, with serious consequences.

This leads to the vexed question of canine hierarchies, about which a lot has been written by people who see, or don't see dogs in a multi-dog household as forming a 'pack'. Some people argue that owners should respect hierarchies that the dogs themselves form. They argue that this reduces conflict, because it means that one dog knows it should defer to another. Bruce Fogle, in his very popular 'The Dog's Mind', even argues that if a bully attacks a 'submissive' dog, owners should not support the 'submissive' dog, because it can increase conflict, but should instead pet a 'dominant' dog first. He gives an example of this having 'worked'.

Now this view goes against the 'Fighting is Not Allowed' rule, in that it appears to condone an attack by a bully. Any sane owner wants a peaceful household, so if one dog threatens or attacks another, that dog should be reprimanded, and have some extra training in self-control.

Fogle also raises a lot of questions. Firstly, is a dog that threatens or attacks another 'dominant'? In our experience, no, the attacker isn't usually the 'top dog'. Furthermore, favouring a dog threatening or attacking, in our experience, has always increased conflict. Fogle wrote his book some twenty years ago. Today, the generally accepted view is that the wannabe is more likely to instigate an attack than is the top dog. It's also clear that owners can create 'brattish' dogs which pick fights, simply by favouring one dog over the rest, for example a small dog allowed to sleep in a bedroom, while other dogs are excluded. Dogs can feel bolder if they get special attention from owners, and become more obnoxious because they feel they have back-up. Dogs do have a sense of fairness, and the excluded dogs may feel disgruntled. So if you strongly favour one dog over the rest, you are making fights more likely.

Rewarding a bully effectively means rewarding bad behaviour, which is not really sensible. The most sensible rule is simply 'Fighting is Not Allowed', which means that any dog that attacks another is scolded. This rule may leave you with an obedient 'top dog' who refuses to respond to provocations, and a bully to whom you need to teach some manners. It is much, much easier for you to do this, through extra training than to leave the dogs to fight it out. Letting dogs work out their own hierarchy through fights means abdicating control. If you have a top dog who stands back and lets you sort out the brat who won't accept a reprimand, that gives you control.

What emerges from surveying owners is that not all groups of dogs show a clear hierarchy. Some dogs are happy to share resources, rather than saying " 'smine, you can't have it". Other dogs may be happy to give way to one another. When you bring together dogs with different personalities, they may each value different resources. One may especially like chew toys, for example, while another especially likes being near you. The dog that especially likes chew toys will tend to get the chews, with the others, not so bothered saying 'OK, if you really want it, have it'.

It's true, there are people who see their dogs as forming a pack with a clear hierarchy which helps reduce conflict. If this is how you view your dogs, and it is backed by observation, fine, if it works, don't fix it! But that doesn't mean that every group of dogs that owners choose to put together will get on in this way. People who see hierarchies as important for promoting peace tend to advise against keeping littermates, on the grounds that they that they are more likely to fight because neither is clearly dominant. Yes, it is true that littermates may squabble because each wants they same thing and neither wants to back down. However, in both our cases, our littermates have different personalities, so the problem has not arisen.

Dogs vary a lot in terms of how peaceful or quarrelsome they are. Some owners say that their dogs are peaceful with no clear hierarchy, while others say they tend to squabble despite having a clear hierarchy, and this means that owners have to intervene more to prevent fights. In general, the more quarrelsome your dogs, the more care you will need to prevent fights. A key difference between the dogs we choose to live with and dogs in a wolf pack is that our dogs haven't chosen one another's company and have less chance to escape from one another. That can make conflict potentially more serious if owners abdicate control.

The most common triggers for fighting are access to food, chew toys, the owner, and the front door when it is time to go out for a walk. Dogs need enough space to eat in peace. How much space they need depends on the dogs. Some dogs can eat happily around three feet away from each other, while others need to be in separate rooms. Mealtimes should always be supervised if dogs eat in the same room, because otherwise a fast eater may try to muscle in and scoff another dog's dinner. If you offer titbits, it needs to be clear to the dogs who gets what, or you can trigger squabbles. Rawhide chews are often triggers for fighting. Dogs seem to especially value ones that are freshly chewed and slimy! Peaceful, give-and-take dogs can share such chews, other dogs can't. Some owners simply don't give their dogs these chews, while other owners give the dogs chews in separate rooms.

Fights over access to the owner are common between 'velcro' dogs, dogs that like to be on the owner's lap, or by his or her feet. Training is the best way to keep order, for example, putting the dogs in a downstay if they tend to mob you in an overexcited way when you come through the door. You also have more control if you only allow dogs on your lap, or beside you on the sofa with permission. You may find that a 'velcro dog' growls at companions only when on your lap, in which case the solution is clear, ejection! Sometimes dogs squabble when they are about to go out, especially if one is left behind. Training helps, putting the dogs in a sit before you open the front door. It can also help to put any dog that has to be left behind in a separate room first, with a chew, or some other compensation for being excluded from the walk.

Dogs can get seriously overexcited if they are all barking at a strange dog. This can lead to one dog attacking another simply 'because', not because they dislike one another, but because they are too keyed up. This is more likely to happen if you have little or no front garden, and your dogs see strange dogs passing close by in the street, or if they don't get on with the dogs next door. Training again helps, as can arranging the furniture so your dogs don't have easy access to the window. (See the article 'Designing and Using a Dog Garden' for tips on garden design to prevent this.)

Your dogs are more likely to sleep peacefully if you give them a good run before you leave them, rather than just walking them round the block. Dogs used to a routine tend to sleep until it is time for their owner to come back, when they start to get restless, so a routine helps to give you a peaceful household.

While most fights seem to happen when owners are present, dogs do sometimes fight when they are left alone, especially if they get wound up seeing strange dogs close by, so block their view if they can see dogs from the street, and supervise them in the garden. Space is important. Each dog needs to be able to have his or her own space, whether on a chair or in a basket, and if you have small rooms, it may be better to leave them in separate rooms. Some owners always leave their dogs in the same room because otherwise they fret, while others always put the dogs in separate rooms. Which is better depends on the dogs. If you feel there is any risk that they may fight if left alone together, then go by your feeling - it's better to be safe than sorry. It's also important to listen to whoever sold or gave you the dogs. If they advise separating the dogs in your absence, then that is wise. There are a few dogs who get on fine with the owner present but who can get involved in serious fights if left unattended.

So what can you do if your dogs do fight? Take care not to put your hands, arms, or feet where they are likely to be bitten, and use whatever you can to bring the dogs to their senses. Outdoors, a hose trained on dogs can work fast, or a bucket of water. Indoors, you can pour a saucepan of water on the dogs, or use a squeegee bottle with water. Yes, you'll have to mop it up afterwards, but the shock effect of water tends to work better than shouting, which tends not to get through once a fight has started. Often fights are over before you can react, but sometimes a dog will get a grip on another and not want to let go. One owner mentioned using a kitchen wooden spoon pushed into the side of the mouth to persuade the dog to open up, and another mentioned squirting shaving cream into the mouth. In general, think of your own safety, and use whatever you can that doesn't put you at risk.

Once the dogs are calm, tell them immediately after a fight that you are very, very annoyed with them, so they think twice about making you cross again. A verbal scolding can be very effective. In the longer term, think hard about why the fight happened. A vet check is usually a good idea, just in case one of the dogs has a serious medical problem that affects control of aggression. Another possibility is that you may simply have two dogs that just don't get on, despite your best efforts. In that case it may be wiser to rehome one of them, perhaps with the help of breed rescue, if the dog is a pure-bred or a cross-bred that strongly resembles one of the breeds.

Most owners who choose their dogs wisely, train them well, and give them enough exercise enjoy peaceful households, with just very occasional spats, or none at all. Prevention is always better than cure, and this is especially true if you want to enjoy a peaceful household with more than one dog.

Saying goodbye

There comes a time when we have to say goodbye to canine companions. Knowing that your dog's time with you is limited can be very hard, but most dogs appreciate sweet talk and compliments, even when they are very frail.

Goodbyes can affect both humans and dogs in different ways. It is easier to accept the passing of a companion who has lived a full life and just faded away, and species can pine when we lose a companion in the fullness of life, a friend we have been actively involved with. Dogs may show no apparent reaction to the loss of a companion, or they may become subdued, and go off their food. It can help to go walking in places you have never been before, to explore new territory together. Dogs that are reluctant to eat may be more willing if you take kibble on walks.

Dogs' lives are short compared to ours, but they give us a great deal. In some ways a group of dogs living together with their owner can be more magical than a wild wolf pack.The dogs are free to play together and co-operate. Harmony is easier to achieve because they don't have to compete for food or a mate. You are the one who makes this magic possible, by bringing together the right dogs, and helping them learn to form a team with you as their leader.


Very many thanks to all the people who answered the questionnaires, and who have helped with this study in other ways. Special thanks to the Australian Cattle Dog owners, Berit Aherne, Sue Axtell, Diane Blackman, Janet Boss, John Burchard, Melanie Chang, Shelly Couvrette, Dorothy Dunning, Margie English, Sally Hennessey, George Hobson, Heather Houlahan, Bob Maida, Donald McCaig, Barry McDonald, Melinda Shore and Jenn Standring.

The ideas and suggestions here do not necessarily reflect their views, but we are very grateful for their help and insights.

© copyright Alison Lever and Wendy Hanson 2011

Animal care and behaviour: Dogs

Designing and using a dog garden

dog garden


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It is much more fun for your dog to have access to a garden then be cooped up indoors. Dogs tend to be calmer and better behaved if they can keep in touch with the outside world, checking out sounds and smells. Even apartment dogs like to watch the world from balconies. Here are some ideas of how to plan and make best use of a dog garden, whatever its size.


Some dogs live happily and safely with little or no fencing, while others escape from what might seem quite secure gardens, and get into trouble. There are no hard and fast rules about fencing, it depends how far you can trust your dog to stay within the boundaries of your garden, and how safe the world is beyond your garden. Dogs vary enormously in their desire and ability to escape. Puppies, bitches in season, and individuals from independent breeds that tend to roam, such as huskies, need secure gardens. What is also very important is how often the dog is walked. Dogs walked at least twice a day are more likely to stay in their gardens, even when they have the opportunity to escape, while dogs that are rarely walked are more likely to take themselves off for walks. But, however well-behaved a dog is, fencing is necessary near busy roads and in densely populated urban areas.

The safest fencing is a brick or stone wall with foundations so the dog cannot dig underneath, and high enough so the dog cannot scale it. How high depends on the dog. It's safer to add a couple of feet to the height you think your dog can scale, because dogs can be very athletic in pursuit of a cat or a squirrel. You can top a solid wall with see-through fencing that lets in light, for extra security. Remember that dogs use anything you provide by way of ladders, such as jutting out stones in stone walls, and the tops of brick walls where they meet wire fencing.

Sometimes it is too expensive to build brick walls. Solid wooden fences are another option. Their weak spot tends to be at ground level. You need to check the base of a wooden fence for rot, and install below-ground barriers using materials that do not rot, in order to deter digging dogs.

See-through fencing can work well for very large gardens, especially in rural areas, so long as the gaps are too small to allow pups and skinny dogs to pass through. If you use see-through or wooden fencing, it is especially useful to plant tough shrubs alongside the fence, to increase the buffer zone between your dog and the outside world.

Invisible fence (IF) devices are marketed in the US. They are not a good idea, whatever the salesmen tell you. They work by shocking the dog when it reaches a boundary. Firstly, owners often forget to switch them on. Secondly, they tend not to deter dogs crossing them in pursuit of squirrels or other prey, but do deter them from going back home. Rescue people say they often find dogs wandering around with their IF collars still in place. If regulations don't allow you to put up a fence, then there is no option supervision backed by training.

Solid fencing is especially useful in smaller urban and suburban gardens, partly because it creates a more peaceful environment. Dogs can get very wound up in small enclosed spaces with a lot going on around them, like heavy traffic, children running and shouting, and other dogs approaching their territory. It all adds up to sensory overload. Solid fences help cut down noise, as well as visual stimuli, especially if they have shrubs planted in front of them. Shrubs are also useful for creating a calmer environment if you have to use see-through fences.

It is said that good fences make good neighbours, and this is especially true for people with dogs. Lucky owners have dog-loving neighbours, and neighbouring dogs that get on with theirs. Solid fencing, and shrubs in front of fences help to keep the peace if you are less lucky. However, training your dog to get on with neighbours is also very important. Greeting your neighbour in a friendly way sends the right messages to your dog, ie 'I have seen this person you think is an intruder, and it is a friend'. Calling your dog to you at the first sign of a hostile move towards the fence helps to nip trouble in the bud, and reassures your neighbour.

Fence fighting can be very dangerous, especially if you have children, or more than one dog. Dogs can get so wound up barking at dogs and even humans behind a fence that they bite any human or dog next to them. A child can be injured trying to pull back a fence fighter, and weaker dogs can be attacked just because they are there. There is no animosity, the dogs just get so wound up that their aggression spills over onto whatever or whoever is next to them.

Solid brick and stone walls, and dense shrubbery alongside fences can greatly reduce the risk of fence fighting, but remedial training also helps enormously. You can take the dog into the garden and go through obedience routines using a long line to reinforce recall. Friendly neighbours can help by providing different levels of temptation, until your dog is well-trained enough to tolerate the neighbour or their dog right by the fence, and pay attention to you rather than to their old 'enemy'. Dogs can also learn to tolerate one another if they are walked together on leash away from their home territory, and may get on perfectly well after a few tantrums. Long-line training can also help you control your dog's predatory interest in your neighbour's livestock - even adult dogs can learn that some animals are 'not prey'.

Solid fences are important if you have a nippy dog which could bite fingers poked through see-through fencing. Children sometimes delight in winding up dogs. Of course, they shouldn't, but it is in the nature of children to do this, and solid fencing both helps protect children from your dog, and protects the dog from children. Solid fencing also helps to protect your dog from opportunistic thieves. Small, friendly pedigree dogs in particular look like money on four legs to some people.

Access to the garden is sometimes a weak spot. Gates have to be lockable from the inside to deter wandering children, delivery people, and anyone who might leave the gate open. Gates are also safer if they are solid rather than see-through, though you can improvise with wrought iron gates, and just cover them with board on the dog side.  Working out what you need in the way of fencing, then, depends on your dog and your circumstances. It involves using common sense, and thinking ahead, and the same applies to protecting dogs from plants.

Protecting dogs from plants

It is easy to find online lists of plants that are poisonous to dogs. When I checked these out, I disocovered that my dogs, and those of friends and gardening clients had been happily existing with poisonous plants for decades. Furthermore, many poisonous plants grow in the wild places where we let our dogs off the leash. So, while it makes sense to avoid choosing garden plants which are highly toxic, it is also worth thinking about when and why dogs might ingest toxic botanicals.

Puppies will try eating virtually any greenery. With luck they sick it up before it does them any harm. The first rule of safety is to ensure that pups only eat plants that you know are safe. This either means close supervision of all garden outings, or building a puppy run which only gives access to grass.

Adult dogs are generally more discriminating, and prefer grass, except when they are out of sorts and need an emetic. Then they will eat anything to hand, including geraniums, asparagus fern, whatever. Though they usually sick it up fast, there is some risk to the dog, and you may want your favourite plants unchomped. So a good safety precaution is to ensure that your dog has access to longish grass. This 'dog grass' preferably includes a clump near the back door, because desperate dogs may chomp on the first bit of greenery they encounter. Fortunately, it is very easy to grow grass in a pot, and if the area outside your back door is paved and decorated with plants in pots, it's easy to have a couple of pots of 'dog grass' among them.

Serious recreational chewers are also at risk. If your dog chews TV remote controls, socks, and other household items, there is more of a risk of indiscrimating plant-eating in the garden. Toxic berries may be a particular temptation, as are the woody stems of shrubs, which may contain toxic sap. It's safer to avoid plants with highly toxic berries, and to clear away prunings, just in case. Non-rotting chewing items, like nylabones can be left in the garden for chewers to have access to a safe alternative. Dogs vary in terms of how sensitive they are to certain toxins,  so checking out lists of what might be risky in your garden certainly helps, as well as knowing your dog and his or her habits.

Protecting plants from dogs

Many dogs are keen gardeners, and love to dig up your freshly planted bulbs, or carry out a little landscaping with their front paws. Raised beds are very attractive to certain dogs which like to lie on a high point and observe the world, sometimes after having dug themselves a nice, comfy lying-down place first. Dogs also like to dig to hide special treasures, or to unearth small rodents, or to explore under fences. So how can you protect plants from digging dogs?

Fencing off sensitive areas, such as raised beds, is one solution. It is also possible to train dogs that, just as indoors there are no-go areas, like table tops, so too there are places in the garden that you want them to steer clear of. The younger the dog, and the more time you have to supervise, the better chance you have of getting this message across. You can also build features just for the dog, such as a sandpit for canine digging, and a high vantage point where they are allowed to lie. Some breeds are particularly fond of digging shallow depressions to lie in, and this often does no harm. Again, dogs can be trained that a bed in one place is OK, while another is not, a message that you can reinforce by leaving attractions like bones in permitted areas, and by obstacles blocking no-lie areas.

Freshly moved earth is very attractive to most dogs, and many dogs will imitate you if they see you digging' Leaving a dog outside with freshly planted bulbs may be just too much temptation, and a little supervision may be needed.

Young, active dogs love to create racetracks round gardens. It can be great fun to watch two dogs playing a game of chase, though not if treasured plants are battered. Here, raised beds can help, as can barriers using canes and wire, to steer the racetrack away from tender plants. Canine-designed racetracks often take the form of figures of eight, and incorporating garden features in their design, so it's best if items in the middle of the garden are solid and dog-proof, like large shrubs, and very big pots. Shrubs, and tough plants like lavender, are generally quite dog-proof, and big pots are always a better bet than small pots, because they are more stable and are too high to be peed into. Young dogs preferably need off-leash exercise outside the garden. A good run every day helps to take pressure off your garden.

Preventing lawns from becoming barren patches, or mud baths!

Lawns can rapidly become muddy, rutted eyesores, especially in small gardens in winter. You can put together a moveable wooden frame topped with wire netting, to cover and so protect parts of the lawn in winter. This especially helps if you want to protect a lawn repair - usually best done with turf so it takes less time to be ready for use. It also helps to have a quite wide path, or paved area for retrieve games in winter - dogs tend to create ruts when they skid to a halt, or do neat about-turns. Yellow areas often appear in dog lawns during dry spells, especially if you have a bitch. Dog urine is a fertiliser, but lawns can have too much of a good thing! Rain dilutes urine, and in dry spells, you can use rain water collected in a container from the roof. The best way to protect small gardens, though, is frequent walks. Many frequently walked dogs refuse to pee in small gardens, apparently seeing them as an extension of the house, their 'den'.

Greenhouses, sheds and other potential hazards

Sheds, greenhouses and garages can contain many potential hazards, especially if your dog likes chewing. Many toxic chemicals come in nice, chewy containers, so high shelves are essential, to keep dangerous items out of harm's way. Dogs can raid shelves when they are bored, so the shelves do have to be high, and you may want to play even safer by using lockable cupboards.

Some sorts of mulch, such as cocoa mulch, can be toxic for dogs, especially when they are first put down. Dogs may also chew fence posts and other wood items impregnated with toxic preservatives, so it is safer to ensure they do not have access to them. 

Recreational features

Even small gardens can be turned into interesting recreational areas for dogs. Sandpits for digging, and high vantage points for watching the world, are appreciated by many dogs. Shrubs planted round the edges of gardens offer shade in summer, and somewhere for you to hide items, for games of find and retrieve.

You can fit part of an improvised agility course into a small garden. Weaving poles, or a jump take up little room. Dogs can also learn better balance by using a small see-saw, or by walking along a plank set on boxes. You need a big garden for a whole agility course, but can do a lot through improvising in a small garden. Agility can make a dog a better escape-artist, but dogs have less desire to escape if they are doing interesting things with their owners, and agility also gives your dog the confidence to negotiate obstacles like fences on walks.

Many dogs like paddling or lying in ponds in summer, and they relish drinking pond water. Shallow dog ponds can offer a lot of enjoyment, if you have the time and energy to build one. They need to be kept clean - check especially for mosquito larvae in summer, and remove dead leaves in the autumn so the pond does not become stagnant. Dog ponds may be used by hibernating frogs in winter, and breeding frogs in spring, during which times you can protect the frogs with wire netting.

Dogs and wildlife in your garden

Many of the strategies that you can use to make your garden safe and pleasant for dogs, such as using toxic chemicals sparingly, or not at all, can also help to make your garden safe and attractive for wildlife. Slug traps can be as efficient as poison. Keeping vulnerable plants, like hostas, in raised pots helps to protect them from snails. In any case, you can decimate your garden's snail population by collecting them on wet nights. An artist's paint brush is a handy tool for removing aphids from rose buds. Both dogs and wildlife prefer plants to concrete and gravel, and both like the shelter provided by large shrubs and trees. Dogs also like to watch other living creatures in the garden. Luckily, dogs are compatible with most forms of wildlife you are likely to want in your garden. Dogs do tend to deter rats, which can spread disease, and rabbits, which can damage young plants. Dogs are less of a threat to tree-dwelling wildlife, like birds and  squirrels, which are more at risk from cats. Likewise, cats are more likely to catch and kill amphibians and fish, which dogs tend to leave alone.

Hedgehogs are creatures that many gardeners are fond of, because they are entertaining, and provide natural pest control. They are also under threat from pesticides, and habitat destruction, and numbers of wild hedgehogs in the UK have been falling. Untrained dogs can injure and even kill young hedgehogs, but it is quite easy to train dogs that hedgehogs are not prey. Use every encounter with a hedgehog as a training opportunity, and keep the dog on a leash at first. Let your dog know that you don't want him or her to get too close to the hog by saying 'leave', or 'chsst', or 'tssk', and then you can give the dog something more interesting to do. Hog training is also a good way of 'proofing' stays - in other words, making sure your dog will hold a stay despite a temptation that makes him or her want to move. It helps to let the dog know that you are aware of the hog, or the response to a 'stay' command may be 'but you can't see that the strange creature  is uncurling and walking away'.

Helping disabled dogs in the garden

Some dogs have mobility problems, from traffic accidents, or the aches and pains of old age. The same sorts of measures that help humans can also improve the mobility of wobbly-legged dogs, for example, a dog ramp can help a dog negotiate steep steps.

Other dogs may have little sight, especially older dogs. Dogs which cannot see well get to know their gardens, and like the feeling of familiarity, of knowing where landmarks and obstacles are, so be careful of introducing changes. If you have to change the location of furniture, such as a garden bench, take the dog to the bench and let him or her investigate. Even so, an elderly blind dog may forget the bench is there, on the next outing, and it is kinder to keep the layout of a garden as stable as possible if your dog is blind.

Fencing is critical for deaf dogs, which cannot hear traffic. They also have to rely on their eyesight much more than most dogs, so an open field of vision within the garden, ie keeping internal fences and vegetation low, can help you to communicate with deaf dogs by using visual signals.

Dogs that need to wee frequently benefit from having the back door open in summer, and from dog doors which allow them access to the garden without having to ask you to open a door for them. There are electronic doors which allow your dog to come back in, but not neighbouring cats or human intruders. Some people build a roofed dog run from the back door, so the dog can go out for a wee at night in a safe area.

Protection for outdoor dogs

Outdoor dogs need shade in summer, and somewhere dry and well-insulated in winter, as well as access to water. Kennels can heat up fast if exposed to the sun in hot climates, while floors can get damp fast when the ground is soggy underneath, so kennel design has to take local weather into account. There are dogs which are specially designed for cold weather, such as huskies, but even they can suffer if suddenly moved from a centrally heated home to an unheated kennel in winter. If your dog has to move from indoors to outdoors, this is best done before it gets cold, so the dog has a chance to get used to the new conditions. 

Outdoor dogs are common in the US, and southern Europe. Dogs generally sleep indoors in most of the UK, partly because it is densely populated and outdoor dogs bark more at night, annoying neighbours. However, many Brits have moved to Spain, taking their dogs with them, or acquiring new dogs. There are good reasons for keeping your dog indoors at night in Spain, even during hot summers. Dog theft also very common in Spain, one reason for keeping your dog in at night. Furthermore, an incurable disease, leishmaniasis, is endemic in many parts of Spain. This is not an illness to take lightly, and it can affect humans too.  It is carried by nocturnal sand flies, which pass the infection on by biting dogs. The most vulnerable dogs seem to be thin-coated breeds, like greyhounds. Spanish hunting greyhounds are often left out at night with no more protection than a piece of corrugated iron leaning on a tree or a wall. At the very least, dogs in endemic areas need to be put to bed at dusk in a shed with a door. If the windows are left open, they should be covered with mosquito netting impregnated with insecticide. The same applies to dogs living in areas where heartworm is endemic. Heartworm is a serious problem in the US, especially in the south, and is spread by mosquitoes. 

As if this weren't enough to worry about, another parasite, lungworm can be picked up by dogs in the UK, usually if they eat snails when chomping on grass, or experimentally as pups. Good hygiene helps to prevent this disease, eg washing dog toys left outside, and keeping outside water bowls clean.  

Dog sheds and kennels have to be kept free of fleas and ticks, especially in areas where Lyme disease is common, true of some parts of the UK. It pays to check dogs for ticks after walks, as well as checking sleeping areas, and using preventive treatments. From observation, long-haired dogs collect ticks more than short-haired breeds, and need checks on and round their ears, eyes, and under their 'armpits'. Cleaning and disinfecting sheds is easier if they have concrete, rather than earth floors. Good hygiene and parasite control are critical for both canine and human health, and of course, clean dog quarters smell much nicer. 

Keeping outdoor dogs on chains is, thankfully, less common in the UK than in the US and southern Europe. It is unhygienic, because the dog has to eliminate near where it sleeps, dangerous for humans, because a chained dog cannot escape, so is more likely to attack any human approaching, there is a risk of strangulation or collar sores, and chained dogs often go mad, developing stereotypic behaviour, such as repeatedly yanking at the chain in an attemopt to get free. Think fencing, with deep foundations and a roof if the dog is an escape artist, rather than chains.

English people often think it wrong to keep dogs outdoors, while people in southern Europe often think it wrong to coop them up indoors. Dogs are very versatile, and can happily live indoors or outdoors, so long as some thought is given to the their health, comfort and sanity.

Walks and time with you are still important

Even dogs which are exercised by their owners in large, beautifully designed gardens still love to go on walks. Dogs may have space to run off steam in the garden, but they do like to explore the outside world. Yes, physical exercise is important, and so too is contact with the outside world, which gives dogs mental stimulation, even if it's just a sedate daily walk on a leash.

Dogs were also designed to be with humans. A dog can be happier in a small garden with regular games, like 'find the object', than in a large garden, always left to its own devices. What really counts for most dogs is to be able to share activities with their owners.

 Alison Lever
Thank you to Sue Axtell for her comments on this article

Further Reading

Bush, Karen (2012) Dog-friendly Gardening: Creating a safe haven for you and your dog, Hubble and Hattie (A basic guide to setting up a garden that you can enjoy with your dog)

Smith, Cheryl (2008) Dog Friendly Gardens, Garden Friendly Dogs, First Stone This book is most helpful before you set up the garden. There's help with design, choosing plants, maintenance, and teaching your dog how to respect the garden)

Botanicals on stamps:


Do you want your pet dog to have puppies?

Biscuit, much loved'. But loving your dog isn't a good enough reason to breed from him or her. With German shepherds in particular, you need to carry out health tests on potential parents to make sure you don't create pups with health problems.'

Many owners love their pet dogs so much they would like them to have puppies. You may want to keep back a pup, and find good homes for the rest of the litter. Pups are cute, little roly-poly balls of fur, who can resist them? ...but before you get too sentimental, please do a little research.

Breeding for a good temperament

First, ask yourself 'What is so special about my dog'? We all think our own dogs are really special, but that doesn't mean they are all good breeding material. Little behavioural quirks that you can tolerate because you love your dog may get passed on, and whoever owns the pups may not be so tolerant. They may end up at the shelter, unwanted, when they are 18-months-old. So first get an honest assessment of your dog's temperament from someone who has a lot of experience of dogs, like a trainer. If your dog is a pedigree dog, find someone familiar with the breed to check him or her out.

Temperament is especially important if you plan the pups to be pets. People usually want pet dogs that are easy to house train, are tolerant of children and don't snap at them or nip them, are easy to take to the vets, will put up with being examined, and that come back when called. So if your dog is a bit deficient in any of these areas, think again about breeding from him or her. Yes, dogs can learn bad habits because they haven't been trained properly, but temperament is also partly inherited. A tendency to bark a lot is one characteristic that can be inherited. Most people want pet dogs that don't bark a lot, though some owners who live in the countryside may want a barky dog, to act as a watchdog.

Breeding healthy pups

People also want dogs that don't cost an arm and a leg in vets' bills. Has your dog always been healthy? Do you know anything about your dog's parents and grandparents? Have they always had good health until old age? How long did the grandparents live, if they are no longer alive? If you can't answer these questions, think again about breeding from your dog. There are many life-threatening and disabling inherited conditions that your dog could pass on, even if he or she looks healthy. Breed clubs can provide information on common inherited conditions like heart disease, deafness and canine hip dysplasia, that certain pedigree breeds are prone to. They can also tell you about health testing. You need to be very careful with breeds like King Charles Cavaliers that are especially prone to inherited problems. A knowledge of basic genetics is also essential if you want to match dogs well to produce healthy pups. 'Control of Canine Genetic Diseases' by George Padgett is well worth a read if you are thinking of breeding from your dog. Padgett explains genetics in a clear way, and gives help with analysing pedigrees.

But my dog's parents were champions...

That doesn't mean they were healthy dogs with nice temperaments. Dogs may win prizes because they look good, but still be quite horrible to live with, and develop crippling illnesses in middle age, after they were awarded their rosettes. Breeding dogs for looks alone will tend to mean that health and temperament are neglected. It's far more important for most owners that their pet is healthy and nice-natured than that he stands perfectly for a judge and looks like a book illustration of what the breed is meant to look like. Even if, and perhaps especially if your dog's parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were champion good lookers, check out how healthy his or her ancestors were, how long they lived, and what diseases they may have suffered from. And meet your dog's parents if you can, to see if they have nice natures.

You may want the pups to grow into dogs that have special abilities, like sheep herding, or agility. Breeders and others who specialise in the field you are interested in can advise you on what to look for in a breeding pair. Just getting a champion pedigree dog isn't enough if you want a litter of herders, and the championship has been awarded for standing on a table and looking cute!

But my dog is healthy because he is a mongrel...

Mongrels do tend to suffer less from inherited diseases, it's true, but they can still inherit health problems from either parent, or both. Some conditions can be found in different breeds, and if you are unlucky, your crossbreed or mongrel could have the same health problem passed on from both parents. Other conditions can be passed on if just one parent suffers from them. So you need to do the same sorts of checks with a mongrel as with a pedigree dog - find out what you can about the health of your dog's ancestors. And if you don't know who they were, it's safer not to take risks.

Breeding involves risks

There's a risk to the dam, the bitch who gives birth. She may fall ill and even die as a result of having pups. The pups could be still-born, and could turn out to have problems despite your very best efforts, so it's only worth taking the risk if you think your dog has very special genes that ought to be passed on.

And it takes time and effort

Pups need to be socialized. They need one-to-one attention, to get them used to being with people. They also have a better start in life if you can get them used to common household sights and sounds, children, and other pets. All this takes time. Can you afford to take time off work for a litter of pups? Will there be anyone to care for them if you can't?

Finding owners for the pups: think ahead

Pups need homes quickly. Big litters of six-month-old pups can take up a lot of space! So it helps to have prospective owners ready to take on your pups even before they are conceived. Breed clubs and training clubs are two useful routes for contacting would-be owners. Find out the average size of litter for the breed, and see if you can find more would-be owners than the average litter size. You can let the hopefuls know that they are on a waiting list, rather than making definite promises.

How would you feel if you heard that one of 'your' pups had come to a sad end because the owners didn't know what they were taking on, or just didn't care? Or because the pup developed a health problem which the owner couldn't cope with, but which you could handle? If you want your pups to go to good homes, don't be afraid to ask questions to see if the would-be owner has enough commitment to your pup. Emphasise that they are very special pups. You have put a lot of effort into trying to make sure they are healthy and friendly, and you want to make sure they are going to people who deserve them. It's worth coming to an agreement about what should happen if things go wrong. A contract is a good way to safeguard the pup's future. You can stipulate that the owners should contact you if the pup develops problems. Responsible breeders will take back pups that owners can't handle. They will also take back pups with inherited health problems and give a refund, or provide a replacement pup instead of a refund. Owners may not want to give up pups with health problems, and breeders may agree to give them a healthy pup and let the owner keep the problem pup as well, provided the problem pup is neutered to protect the breed.

Rules, regulations and responsibilities

There are, then a lot of issues to think about even if you just want to breed from your own pet dog, and produce a litter of nice pets. Pet owners who have just one or two dogs may be exempt from many of the rules and regulations that govern dog breeding, but it can save you a lot of heartache if you are aware of the. responsibilities involved that affect anyone whose dogs has pups.

If you still long to hold little puppies

And you decide that breeding involves too many potential problems, then spay any bitches you own so you don’t end up with accidental litters! Spayed bitches will also live longer, and are easier to manage. Then go to your local shelter. Look at the pups there in need of a home. Ask the shelter staff about what sort of inheritance the pups may have, and the sorts of 'challenges' they may present to owners. Think about whether they would fit into your home with your existing dog(s). And see if you can become part of the solution.

The three articles below deal with the problem of inherited disorders in dogs in general, with some mentions of inherited problems in specific breeds. If you're thinking of breeding from a pedigree dog, it's also well worthwhile joining an online breed forum for more information. Experienced and conscientious breeders can tell you about inherited disorders common in that particular breed, as well as what can be done to reduce the risks, for example, what health tests potential breeders should undertake.

Further Reading

Asher L, Diesel G, Summers JF, McGreevy PD, Collins LM. (2009). Inherited defects in pedigree dogs. Part 1: disorders related to breed standards. Vet J. 2009 Dec;182(3):402-11.

Lindsay L Farrell*, Jeffrey J Schoenebeck, Pamela Wiener, Dylan N Clements and Kim M Summers The Challenges of Pedigree Dog Health: approaches to combating inherited disease, Canine Genetics and Epidemiology 2015, 2:3

Summers JF1, Diesel G, Asher L, McGreevy PD, Collins LM. Inherited defects in pedigree dogs. Part 2: Disorders that are not related to breed standards. Vet J. 2010 Jan;183(1):39-45. doi: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2009.11.002. Epub 2009 Dec 5.

Dogs and diet

Diet is important

Diet is very important because it affects dogs' health and behaviour. It's also a vast area of study, with many fierce debates, such as what owners should look for in commercial foods, and whether home-prepared or processed foods are better. We offer some answers to common queries here, with suggestions for further reading, which will be especially helpful if you want to use home-cooked food - see References at the end of this article.

It's worth checking with your vet before making alterations to your dog's diet, especially if you want to give supplements, or if your dog has particular breed-related dietary needs, or special needs due to illness. You need to get the dosage right if you give supplements or you run the risk of giving your dog an overdose of some minerals or vitamins. Dogs may also have more than one medical condition, and you may need help to work out which takes precedence when making decisions on diet. Vets may not know a great deal about canine nutrition, unless they have developed a particular interest in the topic, but they do know about the common diet-related complaints that they see at their surgeries. The best vets are prepared to say when they can't answer your questions immediately, and will check out topics for owners, since they are better able to understand the relevant literature than non-specialist owners.

Sudden major changes in dogs' diets can cause digestive upsets, so make radical changes gradually, mixing some of the old food with the new. It's especially important to introduce new foods to puppies gradually. Pups can develop allergies if their diets change suddenly, so it's safer to try one food at a time and a little at a time.

What one should look for in a commercial dog food: Nutrients, ingredients and pet food labels

You're faced with an array of dog foods at the store. How can you decide what to feed your dog? First, check the labels and see what they tell you. You should find a list of both nutrients and ingredients, together with recommended servings. This won't tell you all you need to know, but it's a start!

Dogs need to have the right balance of nutrients, ie proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals in line with ‘good practice’ in canine nutrition. However, the nutrients also have to be accessible to the dog. Dogs aren’t able to digest some foods well, for example, grain is not the best source of protein for dogs, and does not provide all the amino acids they need. Many dogs react to specific foods like maize and chicken, and of course they will be unable to benefit from nutrients in these foods if the foods make the dogs sick or squitty. So, the nutrients levels listed on pack and can labels don't tell you much on their own, you also need to check the ingredients.

Meat is a good source of protein for dogs, and it's a good idea to choose foods that have meat or fish as the main ingredient, which is listed first on pack and can labels. Other ingredients, such as cereals and vegetable derivatives may, however, add up to more than the meat and/or fish content, even if meat or fish head the list, and it's worth checking the actual proportions with manufacturers.

Is everything described as 'meat' in pet foods good for dogs? The ingredients lists on can and pack labels can be very vague, and may just describe meat as 'meat and animal derivatives', without saying which animal the meat came from. This can be a problem if your dog is allergic to certain types of meat. Other labels may give information on which animals or birds the meat comes from, but don't specify which body parts of animals are used. This could be, for example, beaks and feathers, or smooth intestine. The important issue should be what is good for dogs, rather than whether the source of food revolts you as a human. Wolves eat rabbits, skin, bone, stomach contents and all, and that is what they are designed to do, however revolting humans might find it. However, some things owners should worry about include drug residues in slaughtered animals used for pet food, or toxins resulting from E coli infections from long-dead animals. One concern about
 commercial foods is that pet owners have little way of knowing about the quality of ingredients used.

Fish is also a good source of protein for dogs, and there is some evidence that oily fish provides protection against cancer, heart disease, arthritis, and skin disease. However, again labels give little information on what types of fish, and parts of the fish are used in dog foods containing fish.

Pet food labels may give information on vitamins and minerals, but do not always say what form they are in, which is important because some forms are more bioavailable - accessible to the dog - than others. There are disagreements on what constitutes the correct levels of vitamins and minerals, but canine nutritionists agree that it is possible to give dogs an overdose. The ratios may also be important, eg ratios of calcium to phosphorous, or essential fatty acids to vitamin E, and these may be difficult to calculate from information given on labels.


Owners may also want to subject their dogs to as little in the way of preservatives, colourings, flavour enhancers and other 'additives' as possible. Additives aren't always bad, and ‘natural’ does not necessarily mean ‘good’. Deadly nightshade is ‘natural’ and can kill humans, but many preservatives and colourings have not been around for long, so their long-term effects are unknown. There are also additives which humans can tolerate but which dogs cannot, so it's not necessarily safe to feed dogs with human food scraps that contain additives, like bits of bacon, just because you can eat them and they don't seem to harm you.

Common sense says it's best to avoid highly coloured food. Your dog doesn't care what colour his food is, and is quite happy if it is sludge brown. Smell, taste and texture are more important for dogs, and colourings are put there for humans. Avoiding highly coloured food means that you don't expose your dog to unnecessary risk. Flavour enhancers should also be avoided, not only because they may be harmful in themselves, but they may also incline dogs towards obesity.

Preservatives tend to be used in dry rather than canned commercial food, since canning is itself a way of preserving food. Once canned food has been opened it should be used on the same day, and any food left over from one meal should be stored in a cool place or in the fridge with a cover. There is some disagreement on whether dog-owners should avoid preservatives. Some preservatives, such as BHA may be carcinogenic, but evidence is mixed. Foods without such preservatives may be safer, however, dry commercial food without preservatives will deteriorate fast, so if you use a 'preservative free' dry food, you need to take special care to store it properly, sealed and in a cool, dry place, and use it before the ‘consume by’ date. Some foods have vitamin E added as a preservative, and this may be safer than BHA, but is also less effective as a preservative, so you still need to be very careful about using the food before its 'consume by' date. Food with
 preservatives like BHA lasts longer - you have longer before the 'consume by' date expires - but you still need to be careful not to use the pack past this date, and check that the food you buy has some time to go before its 'consume by' date expires. Owners often buy in bulk, to save money, but it's no saving if you end up paying vet bills to deal with skin problems and other conditions from feeding your dog on dry food that has lost nutritional value.

Pet food manufacturers themselves may refrain from using additives, but it is unclear whether the ingredients they use already contain additives. The resulting product may thus contain additives, though none has been added in the final manufacturing process. A claim that a product is 'additive free' is then no guarantee of quality, and some additives may be harmless, or even beneficial, but it's a start, since it's more likely that there are no unnecessary colourings and the like. There may also be links between skin allergies and behavioural problems and certain additives, which is one reason why home-cooked foods can be superior.

Dry or wet food?

Dry food is cheaper and more convenient. However, it may also contain more grain and preservatives, because grain is easier to store dry than meat, and canning is a way of preserving food.

Dogs need to drink more water if they are fed dry food, and are more at risk from dehydration if they are fed dried food and do not have access to water. This is important since some pet owners remove water when they are out of the house or at night, in the belief that this will help with house training. Dogs are more likely to develop kidney and bladder problems if they are fed dried food and deprived of water. If you have to leave your dog very long periods, he will need water and someone to come in and let him out for a wee. If you can't get help with dog care, then at least give him access to water and a place where he can wee, eg a secure dog run with a roof, that he can get to through a dog door, and can't dig his way out of.

Some owners believe that crunching on dry food is better for dogs' teeth, but most dogs fed canned foods are also fed a crunchy mixer. There are better ways of protecting dogs teeth, such as giving them bones to chew on - see 'Does diet affect dogs' teeth and gums?' below.

What about extruded food?

Some dried extruded foods will swell up like a sponge if put in water - test your dog's food to see if it does this. Some owners fear that this type of food can cause problems by swelling up inside the dog. Diabetic dogs should not be fed extruded food, which may contain too high levels of simple carbohydrates.

Comparing pet foods: maths is important

You need to be able to do some basic maths if you are comparing wet and dry foods, to be able to compare like with like. First you need to remove moisture from the equation. You can do this by subtracting the moisture content from 100, which, for example, gives 25 for a food that is 75% moisture. Then divide the crude nutrient levels by 25 and multiply by 100 to give the dry-matter content percentage. So a food that has 8% protein levels and 75% moisture has a protein level of 32%, excluding moisture. It's also important to assess amounts per serving - a food may appear to have more of a vitamin if compared by dry weight, but if the servings are smaller, then the amount of the vitamin per serving will be reduced.

Obtaining information from pet food companies

Clearly, people whose dogs have special needs don't have enough information on pack and can labels on which to base an informed decision about which brand to buy. Even people whose dogs seem to thrive on just about any food may be worried about the lack of information on packs and cans. UK packs may, for example, may state that preservatives are used, but not specify which preservatives. It is worth asking the companies for more information. They may not answer your phone calls, letters and emails, but they will know that owners do care about what goes into their dogs' food. You will also be able to sort out which companies care about their reputations from the responses, or lack of responses you get. Some owners believe that expensive foods are better foods, but this is not necessarily the case. The cost of pet foods may just reflect the marketing budget, rather than the quality of ingredients, and the research carried out into selecting ingredients.
 However, company that takes the trouble to answer your queries will care more about consumers that those which ignore you. One question to ask is whether ingredients vary according to what is cheapest on the market, or whether the same ingredients are always used. This is especially important for dogs which cannot tolerate certain foods - you need to make sure that manufacturers can guarantee that their products will not contain those foods. You can also ask about feeding trials, and the breeds of dogs used, their ages, how long the trials took, and whether companies have information on the long-term effects of using their products.

Rotating pet foods

There is a strong case for feeding adult dogs without special needs a small range of commercial foods by rotation, rather than feeding any one commercial food exclusively throughout a dog's life. New discoveries are regularly being made about canine nutrition, and it is possible that a food may be complete according to current accepted wisdom, but still lack important nutrients. If you vary the commercial foods you feed your dog, there is more chance that the dog will be able to find whatever may be lacking elsewhere. Dogs are also creatures of habit, and may dislike novel foods, so if they only eat one brand, owners may have problems if that brand becomes unavailable. Puppies need to have new foods introduced gradually, but once they have got used to a food this can be included in the weekly menu.

Is home-cooked food best?

There's no simple answer to this question. Extreme supporters of pet food companies argue that only they are able to provide balanced diets for pets, and they stress risks of overdosing pets on supplements, or feeding dogs inappropriate human foods. Yet parents manage to feed children adequate diets, even though children's needs differ from those of adults. Children's diets may be varied throughout the week, so that any imbalance in one meal can be compensated for in the next meal. Dog owners can also vary their dog's diets, for similar reasons. Dog owners have an easier job than parents, since dogs are generally less fussy about food than children, and are less likely to demand food that they have seen on TV. Studies on homecooked food vs commercial food can be flawed if they group all homecooked food together. There's a world of difference between leftovers, given to a dog because they are cheap, and nutritionally balanced homecooked canine meals. The worst homecooked food may be worse than most processed food, which is at least designed for dogs, but the best homecooked food can be better because the food can be prepared freshly for each meal. You also have more control over what ingredients go into meals, which is especially important for dogs with food allergies and diabetes, and you have more control over the quality of the ingredients.

Extreme supporters of home-prepared foods argue that widespread usage of commercial food has led to a massive increase in a number of conditions, such as allergies and cancers. However, cancers may be more common these days simply because dogs live longer, or because people are more likely to keep pedigree breeds, and some breeds have particular vulnerabilities to cancer. Commercial foods also vary a great deal in terms of quality, and it's as unscientific to lump them all together as it is to lump all 'home-prepared' food together. The main difference between commercial and home prepared foods is that commercial foods are prepared in bulk to be stored and sold, whereas home-prepared foods are made in smaller amounts and tend to be eaten fresh. Many dog owners don't have a lot of choice, and have to use commercial foods due to lack of time. It's difficult to read up on dog nutrition and prepare tasty, well-balanced recipes if you also work full-time.

It's worthwhile doing some research on pet foods before making your choice of one or more brands, and sending emails to a few companies asking about their products doesn't take long. You do need to read widely on this topic if you want to feed your dog nothing but home-cooked food, so that you're aware of accepted practice and the debates in canine nutrition. You may not be able to do this, and may prefer to rely on commercial food for much of the time, and you can still prepare the occasional meal yourself without worrying about whether it is perfectly balanced in all aspects. There's nothing wrong with scraps so long as they fit into the dog's diet, eg large amounts of very fatty or salty food should be avoided, and meat alone does not provide enough calcium for dogs. Strombeck recommends microwaving and crushing eggshells, the amount depending on the size of the dog. Check out dog recipe books for ideas on how to use your scraps, and make sure you avoid foods known to be harmful to dogs.

What foods should dogs always avoid?

Dogs shouldn't eat all human foods, though being scavengers, they will often try to. There are some human foods that dogs' innards can't cope with, and others that are actually poisonous to dogs, though not to humans. Corn cobs can kill dogs. It's safer not to eat corn on the cob if you have dogs, unless you can be absolutely certain that everyone disposes of the cob where a dog cannot get at it. Chocolate designed for humans can overstimulate and even kill dogs. Grapes and raisins can also poison dogs, as can avocados, macadamia nuts, and castor oil seedcake or seed. Other foods to avoid include all products containing sugar, garlic, onions, tofu (which tends to produce gas), and anything with a lot of salt, including pub snacks designed for humans. This means that dogs shouldn't eat leftover human meals with a lot of onions, garlic, salt, or sugar.

Pub goers often like to settle their dog in a corner with his own bag of snacks. Bagged pub snacks often have a high salt content, may contain sugar, often include colouring or flavour enhancers, and stick to the teeth. All this is very bad for dogs' teeth, and is not much good for their health in general. Pub snacks probably don't do humans much good, but we have a choice. Dogs have less choice about what they eat, they are scavengers, designed to gobble whatever is offered them. Pub snacks should not be given to dogs, no matter how pleading their eyes are when they watch you eat. You can take a little bag of dog snacks to the pub, even a handful of complete dry dog food, rather than buying human snacks. You may find that well-meaning people want to give your dog treats in the pub. It's good for dogs to socialise with pub people, but give these well-wishers your own dog treats to feed your dog.

What foods should dogs only eat in moderation?

Any food with a high fat content, such as fat meat, may be gobbled very greedily, but can then lead to a bad case of the squits, or worse. Fatty meat has to be rationed, and continual feeding of fatty meat is likely to cause nutritional imbalance and can cause serious illness.

Likewise, continually feeding dogs on salted meat does not do them any good, though the occasional scrap of bacon is unlikely to do harm. Dogs with heart trouble are often prescribed low sodium diets. There is some debate as to how effective this is, but it's certainly best to avoid giving anything high in salt to a dog with heart problems, and best not to add salt to dog recipes, even for healthy dogs. Dogs with kidney trouble may benefit from diets low in phosphorous, though the calcium-phosphous ratio may be important rather than actual levels of phosphorous. Diabetic dogs should not be fed high levels of fat and simple carbohydrates - which are found in some commercial dog treats. You need to check with your vet which dried complete foods are safe for diabetic dogs.

There is some evidence that dogs that eat a lot of red meat, including beef and pork, are more likely to suffer from cancer, and possibly behavioural problems such as compulsive licking. Chicken is cheap, as are some oily fish, so it is quite easy to vary protein sources.

Dog treats may have a high fat content and a lot of colouring - check the ingredients. They are not designed for more than occasional use, so if you use titbits a lot, for example, for training, try replacing treats with dry complete food. You can also make your own treats, if you have the time - dog nutrition books provide treat recipes.

So what food is 'safe'?

Dogs can develop allergies to just about any food. You can feed the same diet to two dogs and find it leaves one with constipation and the other with loose bowels, so what to feed your dog on depends a lot on your dog. However, most dogs can thrive on a variety of foods, and it is good to vary their diet, because if they just eat one particular food, like tripe, for instance, and nothing else, this will leave them with a nutritional deficiency. Introduce new foods gradually, yes, but make sure they have a range of foods over the week. You could draw up a chart to make it easier to plan meals, with tripe twice a week, and oily fish at least once a week, for example. Offal, such as heart and liver, is also suitable ingredients for canine meals. Dogs do need calcium, and you can grind bones in a mincer, or buy packs of frozen minced meat and bones designed for pets. If you feed supermarket mince, your can add ground eggshells, using a coffee bean grinder to
 grind them. Minced meats are a useful standby, though they don't have teeth cleaning benefits of bones.

Dogs do benefit from vegetables added to their diet, and many vegetables from the marrow family are appreciated by dogs, like squashes and pumpkins, as well as root vegetables such as swede. Dogs often enjoy chomping on raw carrots, though they can also eat them cooked. Vegetables can be steamed lightly, then mashed in a food processor. Vegetables can  provide fibre, which helps to prevent constipation. A little olive oil also helps if you have a dog that cannot 'go'.

Should home-prepared dog food be raw or cooked?

Many people believe that dogs should only eat raw food. Whether to feed raw or cooked is an area of fierce debate, not least because the pet food industry is very strong in developed countries!  Dogs are natural scavengers, and can thrive on a wide range of foodstuffs. This perhaps not so much an 'either cooked or raw' question, as when it is advisable to cook, and when meat and other food is best served raw. Sometimes your dog will tell you what to do with certain foods, for example by refusing to eat liver unless it is cooked.

Some of the commonsense precautions we take with our own food are relevant here. Cooking supermarket meat is advisable, if you plan on keeping it longer than 24 hours and cannot freeze it. Intensive farming methods mean that meat is more likely to be contaminated by bacteria that could produce toxins, and harm both humans and dogs. Cooking won't get rid of the toxins, but it can kill the bacteria before they get a chance to multiply and create large amounts of toxin.

The same sorts of hygiene precautions that help keep you safe are relevant when you feed your dog. It's true that some dogs appear to have iron-clad stomachs, and eat rotten carcasses they find when on walks, then happily get rid of them by vomiting if the meal proves to be disagreeable. You still want your dog to keep down the meals that you lovingly prepare for him, and the fact that dogs will often vomit 'found' meat shows that rotten meat can harm them.

Your best bet if you want to feed raw meat is to make friends with a local butcher who cares about quality, buy meat there for yourself, and ask for scraps for your dog. Then both you and your dog benefit. A lot that is discarded by butchers is in fact fit for human consumption, but we have become more fussy, and often want no-waste meat, like steaks. Luckily, dogs benefit from eating our leftovers. A dog fed just on steaks may suffer both malnutrition and constipation. Raw cartilage, gristle and sinew provide bulk for the dog's intestine to work properly, and food that the dog does not digest provides a protective wrap round bones.

Wolves eat the skin and bones of rabbits, which give additional nutrients and fibre. Many rabbiting dogs will consume their catch raw, but not all dogs are designed as well as wolves for chewing up and digesting rabbits. Your dog may have a small jaw and small teeth, or have lost some teeth. Some owners mince raw food for older dogs with problem teeth, so the dog at least gets the benefits of nutrients that might otherwise be lost in cooking.

A great advantage of giving dogs raw bones to chew on is that it strengthens their teeth. This is the biggest obvious benefit reported by owners who have switched to raw feeding. It's also more convenient if you don't have to cook, and cheap, if you have a friendly butcher.

There are two possible behavioural downsides to raw feeding. One is that dogs often value raw bones very highly, and may try to defend them more strongly than they would a boring bowl of kibble. People with more than one dog need give each dog enough space to chew in peace, and make sure no 'ownerless' bones lie around to provoke squabbles.

Dogs can suffer from calcium and other deficiencies from eating meat alone. Calcium deficiency from meat-based diets has been linked to a higher risk of fracture in greyhounds. However, if you try giving your dog calcium tablets without expert advice, you could acidentally give your dog an overdose - excessive calcium supplementation has been linked to hip dysplasia. It's safer to grind bones in a mincer if your dog´s teeth mean that tackling bones is difficult, or you can buy packs of frozen minced meat and bones.

Owners who want to go the home-prepared route need to do some research on nutrition, whether or not they cook home-prepared food or serve it raw. Raw feeding has become very popular, and there are internet groups that you can join to learn more. There is also a reference list for further reading at the end of this article.

It's worth being cautious when you are deciding whether to feed raw food to pups or very old dogs, and being extra careful about hygiene. Dogs with optimum immune function are unlikely to suffer from germs like salmonella which can contaminate raw meat. Neosporosis cranium is another risk, though it is rare. It is a nasty disease which generally only affects puppies and is usually passed to the pups from their mother. Raw food can be a source of this infection, but it is destroyed by both cooking and freezing. Freezing and then thawing raw meat is one way to ensure that it is not contaminated (and as with human food, the food should be consumed or junked once it has been thawed, and should not be refrozen). The same need for caution applies to bones. Dogs that have been too aesthetically altered from the original blueprint (like Pekes, for example) may not be able to consume bones, especially if the dogs are elderly. If you feed bones, it's important  they are suitable bones and it's also important that they are raw, because cooked bones are dangerous. Please ask your vet for advice if you are unsure. 

Can dogs eat cat food?

Cats and dogs have different nutritional needs, so it's not a good idea to feed cat food to dogs. Dogs living with cats may steal the cat's food. Try putting the cat food where the dog can't reach it, or supervise feeding sessions and remove the bowls when the animals have stopped eating.

Should puppies be given cow's milk?

Some pups and dogs are intolerant of cows' milk, which can give them diarrhoea. If this happens stop feeding cow's milk. There are special formulations which you can buy for hand rearing pups, or for helping out their mum if she has a lot of pups and is showing signs of wear and tear. These formulations can be very expensive when bought from a vet in Britain, so try buying them online.

What about grass?

Grass is a natural emetic, and you may have noticed your dog eating grass to be sick. This is normal, though give your dog a chance to vomit outside if he eats a lot of grass, so he's not sick indoors. Some dogs seem to be especially fond of grass, and you may need to put your houseplants out of reach, because they are tempting if no grass is available. It's not fully understood why dogs eat grass, though one reason could be a need for roughage. If you can, keep a safe patch of longish 'dog grass' in your garden, so your dog doesn't resort to your precious plants. Some garden and house plants can also poison dogs, such as euphorbias and plants from the lily family. Growing ´dog grass´ also allows your dogs to eat grass that hasn't been sprayed with pesticides or urinated on by other dogs.

Are any foods good for sick dogs?

Yes, but it's worth checking with your vet before changing to your dog's diet. Boiled egg and rice is a classic remedy for squitty dogs. Let the dog fast for a while, then feed him small meals of egg and rice. Some dogs also tolerate boiled chicken and rice when they are squitty. These are not good permanent diets, since they are not nutritionally complete. Roughage is important for dogs with anal gland problems, because it helps them empty their anal sacs. This is one reason why meat with sinew, cartilage and other indigestible materials is better than steaks alone, though small amounts of bran or brown rice may do the trick. Roughage and having several small meals a day may also help dogs with diabetes. Complex carbohydrates are also better for diabetic dogs than simple carbohydrates.

Fish oil appears to be beneficial for dogs with a number of conditions, such as cancer, heart disease, arthritis, skin problems and wound inflammations. Dogs with food allergies may benefit from a move to a diet based on lamb, rabbit, chicken and rice, which they are less likely to be allergic to, excluding beef, cow's milk and cereal, which they are more likely to be allergic to. Elimination diets are often used to assess whether certain foods might be causing problems. Dogs are started off on a small range of foods which are seen as least likely to trigger allergies, with more suspect foods gradually added, one by one, to see whether they trigger the complaint. You may need to change your dog's diet for as long as 10 weeks to see an improvement, though usually there's some improvement after six weeks or so.

Does diet affect dogs' teeth and gums?

Yes, a lot. Sugar is of course bad for teeth, both for humans' teeth, and for dogs'. Calcium deficiency, eg from an all-meat diet, weakens teeth and bones in general. Hard and chewy foods are better for gums and teeth. Dogs are less prone to tartar, stained teeth and gum disease if they have chews, though many owners prefer raw bones to keep their dogs' teeth clean. Dogs have been known to swallow chews, both of the hide and knotted type, which can cause serious problems.

Some foods, including special dog titbits, contain colourings that can stain teeth. Dogs constantly fed on titbits are more likely to have dirty mouths that bacteria can thrive in, so it you use titbits for training, try not to feed them throughout the day. Inflammation can be triggered by dogs having dirty mouths, but is also affected by stress and diet in general. Vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids may help control gum disease by reducing inflammation. Tooth brushing also helps to keep teeth clean. However, it is more efficient to prevent dental problems by providing bones to chew on, giving the dog a balanced diet, restricting titbits, and not feeding human foods like sweet biscuits or pub snacks that stick to dogs' teeth. 

Will low-protein foods make my dog behave better?

The short answer is probably no, and certainly not on their own. Ten minutes formal training a day, and a good long walk, are likely to be beneficial whatever changes you make to your dog's diet. A bored dog who is rarely walked is likely to be difficult to handle whatever he eats.

One study suggests that low-protein diets do not affect 'dominance aggression', or 'hyperactivity', but can reduce territorial aggression linked to fear. Later research suggested that the effect of reducing protein levels might be be greater if tryptophan supplements were also used. However, putting a lot of effort into socialising your dog may be a better way of reducing territorial aggression. There are also risks involved in cutting back on protein. Pups need higher protein levels than adult dogs. Low protein diets have been cited as a risk factor for hip dysplasia. They have also been linked to anaemia in the case of working sled dogs, which need stamina for covering large distances, and which do better on a high protein diet, so check with your vet before making changes.

There are other aspects of diet that may affect behaviour, for example, the protein source may be important, rather than actual levels of protein. Certain colourants have also been linked to behavioural problems.

How much food should I feed my dog?

Again, there is no simple answer to this question. Dogs vary a lot in terms of how fast they burn up food. Very active dogs such as working dogs, need to eat more, as do pregnant and lactating bitches. Lactating bitches may need two to four times as much food as usual - this depends a lot on how many hungry pups they have to feed and on the breed. Young dogs may go through growth spurts and dormant phases, so their needs and appetites can vary a lot over a month. Older dogs need fewer calories, but more of some minerals and vitamins, which is why some manufacturers offer them special formulations. Sled dogs, which spend a long time in vigorous exercise, do well on high-fat, high protein diets, whereas greyhounds, which just run for short periods, do better on high-fat and moderate protein diets. Sled dogs eat more than sedentary dogs, and may need fewer vitamins and minerals per unit of energy intake (joule). Unfortunately, dog food packs and cans tend not to give information on calories per serving or per unit of weight.

Dog nutrition books provide tables for dogs of different weights and lifestyles, as well as recipes for homecooked meals. Go by manufacturers' recommendations, if you use processed foods, and try to select a formulation for your dog's type, age and lifestyle. The amounts recommended are just guidelines, though, not rigid rules, and anecdotal evidence suggests that they may be too generous for the average dog. The dog may also be fed titbits for training purposes, and these need to be included in calculations.

Adjust amounts if your dog leaves food in his bowl, or appears to be getting too skinny or too fat. Your dog should have a waist, and you should be able to feel the ribs. If not, the dog is probably too fat. If the backbone feels very bony and knobbly, the dog is probably underweight. Fur affects how dogs appear - dogs with thick underfur tend to appear fatter than they are. Owners should not worry greatly about dogs that are not eating, or are not eating as much as usual, so long as the dog is not underweight and seems otherwise fit. Gravy made from boiling a few bones with nothing else added, can help to stimulate a poor appetite, but owners should beware of creating a very finicky dog by trying to cook all sorts of tempting meals for dogs that just aren’t hungry because it is too hot, or they fancy the bitch down the road. A missed meal or two will not harm a healthy dog, and may even be beneficial.

Obesity is generally a more serious problem in Britain than underfed dogs. Obesity is linked to many health problems, like diabetes, arthritis, mammary cancer in unspayed bitches, and incontinence in bitches which were obese prior to being spayed. Rapid growth in giant dogs is linked to bone problems. Obese dogs suffer more wear and tear on their joints if they are arthritic. Obese dogs are often fed no more at mealtimes than normal dogs, but they also get lots of titbits. So, if your dog is a bit on the podgy side, give him or her ball games, cuddles, or anything else he or she likes that isn't food, as a reward, and of course more exercise. Spayed bitches can pile on the kilos, so go by the look of your dog, rather than worrying about how little she eats, and get a vet to check her if you worry she may be too fat.

How often should my dog eat?

Puppies need to eat several times a day, while adult dogs may eat once or twice a day. Some dogs seem happy on one meal a day, but twice a day is safer, especially in the cases of active and/or large-bred dogs. Dogs only fed once a day may be more at risk from digestive problems if they run around madly chasing balls shortly after their meal. GDV is a particular problem with large breeds, and can be fatal. Give your dog at least an hour to digest his food before taking him out for a run. Most dogs should have their main meal after exercise, rather than before, and should have some time to relax after they come in from exercise, rather than being fed as soon as they come in. Diabetic dogs may, however, benefit from exercise after a meal, and they need several short walks rather than one longer bout of exercise.

You can replace a meal with complete dry food, and use this as titbits for training a young dog out on walks, for example to reward him for coming back. If you do this, make it a small meal, so as not to overload his stomach while he's running about. Free-feeding is not a good idea for multi-dog households. It can encourage fights, and makes it difficult to assess how much individual dogs are eating. It's best to try to feed dogs at set times, which is especially important when you are trying to housetrain puppies.

Can I give my dog a vegetarian diet?

This is not advisable. Though it can be beneficial for dogs to eat some vegetables, they have more need for meat and fish than humans do, and it is very difficult to feed them properly without giving them at least fish and eggs. Working dogs on low protein vegetarian diets may be more vulnerable to anaemia than if they are fed animal-based low protein diets.

What can research on dogs and diet tell us?

It's very difficult to 'prove' anything in science. Research can tell us about possible links, say between red meat and cancer, but results can be affected by several factors. One is the sample size (eg how many dogs were involved, since small groups may be atypical), another is the categories used (eg if all 'home cooked' meals are lumped together this can be misleading, since they vary so much), a third is the amount given (some ingredients may be poisonous in excess, but necessary in small amounts), and a fourth is the length of time the study took (some effects may only become apparent after a very long time). There may also be variables you have not thought of that have affected the study, for example, it's difficult to separate the effect of diet on behaviour from other factors, like how owners treat and perceive their dogs. The breed may also be significant in studies of nutrition and health, since some breeds are more prone to certain illnesses
than others. Do talk to your vet about any research you have read, because you may gain some insights that weren't immediately apparent when you read the article. Your vet can also advise you on amounts, eg of roughage, or fish oil supplements.

Pet food companies fund research on canine nuturition. Check out some of the articles written by researchers in the industry and see for yourself. Pet food companies are trying to work out what to put in their products, and you can use their findings for your home-cooked recipes. Obviously pet food companies will tend to fund what's in their interests to research, for example they may not look at the long-term effects of feeding a particular foodstuff, just whether or not dogs seem OK with it for a few weeks or months. Use your common sense, and check out all claims, including those we make here!


Thank you to Diana Attwood, Shelly Couvrette, Amy Dahl and Wendy Hanson for informative discussions on dogs and diet, and to Diana for contributions to this article.

See 'Books on Animals: Dogs: Health and nutrition' for books on raw feeding and other aspects of dogs and diet.

Further Reading


Case, Linda P. (1999) The Dog: Its Behavior, Nutrition and Health, Iowa State University Press

Case, Linda P. Leighann Daristotle DVM PhD, Michael G. Hayek PhD, Melody Foess Raasch DVM  (2010) Canine and Feline Nutrition: A Resource for Companion Animal Professionals, 3rd edition, Mosby

Everest, Elaine (2010) Cuisine: How to Cook Tasty Meals and Treats That Your Dog Will Enjoy, How To Books Ltd 

Fogle, Bruce (1999) Natural Dog Care, Dorling Kindersley

Lonsdale, Tom (2005) Work Wonders: Feed Your Dog Raw Meaty Bones, Rivetco Pty Ltd

Martin, Ann New (2008) Food Pets Die For: Shocking Facts About Pet Food 3rd edition, Sage Press

Olson, Lew (2010) Raw & Natural Nutrition for Dogs: The Definitive Guide to Homemade Meals, North Atlantic Books,U.S. 

Strombeck, Donald R. (1999) Home Prepared Dog and Cat Diets, Iowa State University Press


Dodman, N.H. et al 'Effect of dietary protein content on behavior in dogs' Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 1996 Feb 1;208(3): 376-379

DeNapoli JS et al 'Effects of dietary protein content and tryptophan supplementation on dominance aggression, territorial aggression, and hyperactivity in dogs.' Journal of the American Veterinary Association 2000 Aug 15; 217(4): 504-508

Freeman LM. 'Beneficial effects of omega-3 fatty acids in cardiovascular disease.'
J Small Anim Pract. 2010 Sep;51(9):462-70. doi: 10.1111/j.1748-5827.2010.00968.x. Epub 2010 Jul 29.

Freeman LM, Rush JE, Markwell PJ.
Effects of dietary modification in dogs with early chronic valvular disease. Journal of Vet Intern Med. 2006 Sep-Oct;20(5):1116-26.

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