We all love to treat our dogs for one reason or another. Every dog is different, so finding the best treat for your unique dog is important. However, with so many dog treat options available, it can be hard to know if you are making the best choice for your pet.
In this guide, we will dig deep to provide all the information you need to find the best treats for your dog. By the end, you will feel much more confident about whether or not you are giving your dog the best treats for the right purpose.
There are a lot of factors to consider when it comes to your pet's health, and we don't often realize how much of an impact our treat choices can have.
In this guide, we will help you decide how to choose the best dog treats for your dog by breaking down the purpose and quality of treats that you can feed.
We will explain:
- How Do We Treat Our Dogs?
- Why are Quality Treats Important?
- Types of Treats and When to Use Them
- Treating for Health Conditions
- Tips for Choosing Treats
Overfeeding is the biggest hurdle, and we need to be cautious of what ingredients are in treats, especially if we are treating more often than usual (for example, if you are training).
Treats are meant to be exciting and desirable, but you should still try to find treats that are healthy and free of unwanted ingredients like by-products and corn.
Before we get into our treat options, we have to consider how and why we are treating. Different treats may be more appropriate for different types of rewarding, and if we can understand the purpose of our treating habits, then we can ensure that we are not treating excessively or inappropriately.
How Do We Treat Our Dogs?
Treats for Training
The most obvious reason for treating our pets is to train them. Training can encompass many different types of techniques, methods and philosophies. Positive reinforcement training is the best way to train, and treats make this type of training much more enjoyable for your dog.
Try some of the treats from our blog, The Best Training Treats for Dogs. Rewarding good behaviour and using treat association to teach commands will have your dog actively anticipating your direction.
Treat training is not without its shortcomings, though. For most pet parents, a large part of their pet's training process is focused on their puppy years. As our pets age, we find it harder to find appropriate ways to reward our pets, and the value of treat training can diminish.
Throughout their lives, we should be maintaining our treat routines by offering fresh and exciting treat options in a variety of ways. You can teach an old dog new tricks, or simply continue to reinforce the ones that they already know.
As long as you are making them work, focus or exercise for the reward, then it's recommended to continue treating into their senior years, although the type of treat may change.
This method of training can also be challenging for dogs that struggle with allergies, weight problems or other illnesses that can limit what you are able to treat with and how often. Treats must be chosen very carefully, and variety may be limited, but if possible, you should still try to find an option that works for your pet's needs.
Extremely food motivated dogs can present some hurdles when treat training as well. Dogs can become dependent on a reward to behave appropriately or take direction, and it can be difficult to wean them off.
Use treats for specific purposes, and try to incorporate other positive reinforcement techniques, like clicker training or vocal praise. For more information about clicker training check out this super helpful blog from Whole Dog Journal, Clicker Training 101.
Treating for Boredom
Another very common reason for treating is to help ward off boredom and destructive behaviours.
When our dogs are home alone, we want the peace of mind in knowing that they aren't destroying the house. When we are home, we need to give them something to keep them occupied while we go about our daily chores and routines.
Treats provide a safe and completely edible tool to keep your dog busy. Dogs don't express boredom in traditional ways, so it's important to be able to recognize the symptoms. Chewing, digging, excessive barking, and even self harm can all be a symptom of boredom.
Destructive behaviours are very common among bored pets, especially when they are home alone. Combat these habits by providing a distraction that is both exciting, healthy and long-lasting.
- Puzzle Toys - these are excellent solutions for keeping your dog's mind engaged while they have to work for their treats. These interactive toys are great for high energy dogs and for slowing down how many treats your dog consumes.
- Natural Chews - chews are the best option for dogs that eat or chew everything. Bully sticks, tendons, raw bones or yak chews are all great options to give your pup a good jaw exercise. Natural chews should be appropriately sized and can have a choking risk if your dog is a gulper, so only choose options that you know your dog can't break down into large chunks that are tempting to try and swallow whole.
For more ways to keep your dog entertained, check out Dog Boredom: Symptoms & Solutions for Dogs.
Advancements in holistic healing have created new opportunities in the pet industry by introducing naturopathic and homeopathic remedies to common ailments that used to require a pricey vet visit. Pet owners are more educated than ever, largely because the information is more widely available to us, and being able to make a healthy decision for our pets is easier than it was 20 years ago.
As DIY and home remedies become more popular, a call arose for a simpler way to administer medications and supplements, like the treat format. Solution-based dog treats are a palatable format for delivering solutions and improving your dog's health, like the treats from our list of Calming Treats for Dog.
Keep in mind that not all solution treats are as effective as the packaging may lead you to believe. Navigating the industry is complicated, and as pet owners, it's important that we are mindful of marketing tactics.
The effectiveness of a supplement can be altered depending on the cooking process, and some supplements aren't as potent when sourced from synthetic ingredients. Ask your vet or a pet care specialist if you are unsure of the quality of your supplements.
Over supplementing can be harmful and a huge waste of money, so make sure that the supplements you are feeding are useful and appropriate for your pet.
Pets that suffer from food sensitivities may be left out, due to a lack of variety in ingredients. Solution treats are a niche product, and aren't often available in a plethora of flavours and formats. This may mean that dogs with food allergies or common diseases aren't able to eat the treats due to the non-active ingredients.
In these cases, using a pure supplement in either a liquid or powdered form may be the better option. Always read the full ingredient list in any solution-based treat. The treat will be counter-productive if it fixes one problem, just to create another.
An often overlooked method of treating is to use treats to add extra nutrition to a dogs diet. Underweight, recovering, and high energy dogs may need a few extra calories to maintain activity levels and muscle mass. Using treats to buffer protein or calories is a great choice when feeding larger meals are not be a viable option.
When training a new puppy, treat training can help your puppies transition through a growth spurt or finish bulking in the later adolescent months. Try some of the treats that we think are the best treats for puppy training.
With this method, you should be routinely monitoring your pets weight and muscle mass. Putting on weight should be done gradually to avoid unhealthy weight gain. Not sure how to tell if your pet is a healthy weight? Check out our blog, Is My Dog Fat?. The quality of nutrition-enhancing treats should be high, so don't try using any old treat for this purpose.
Many types of treats can be used as meal toppers too. Feeding a picky pet can be stressful, but adding a small amount of crushed up treats into their food may invigorate their desire to chow down. Always use this method in moderation because making your pet dependent on the treat additive just to eat their dinner, is counter-productive.
Not every treat is of high enough quality to be used as a meal topper either, so choose your treats carefully. It's important that you aren't disrupting the health or nutrition of your pet just to get them to eat. Table scraps should be carefully chosen, and in most cases avoided.
Instead, experiment with different flavours and textures until you find something that appeals to your pet.
To Show Affection or Appreciation
Treats are a part of our pet's routines. They anticipate getting them as much as we anticipate giving them, and not every treat needs to be a reward for a specific action or command. Sometimes we use treats just to show them we love them.
Most of us are guilty of wrapping a birthday cookie for our pets or giving them a new toy for a special occasion. They are members of our family, and we want them to participate in our festive routines, whether they understand them or not.
There is joy in sharing joy, especially with our dogs because their love is unconditional. Well, except for food. Food may be the condition, but they appreciate us nonetheless.
Why are Quality Treats Important?
Regardless of why you are treating, the choices you make can have an effect on your dog's long-term health. For frequent treating, try to avoid "junk" ingredients like corn, soy, by-products or any of the others on our list of ingredients that you should avoid feeding your pet.
Take a look at the guaranteed analysis and the ingredient panel to make sure you know what you are about to put into your dog's body.
Some treats that are marketed as meat, may actually contain a large quantity of starches or grains. Check for protein sources too. Just like food, lots of treats that are called beef may contain chicken or other animal products that you may be trying to avoid.
Treats should have healthy whole food ingredients, not bits and pieces of what may have once been food. Things like wheat gluten compared to whole wheat or oat bran instead of steel-cut oats can make a huge difference in the nutrient content of your dogs treats.
Sometimes food and treat companies use these parts of the grain as fillers or a fibre boost that is void of any real nutrients. This often leads to less nutritious and more sugar-packed treats that can contribute to weight gain, or digestive and dental issues.
Types of Treats and How to Use Them
There are many different types of dog treats on the market, each with pros and cons. Understanding what they are and how they are intended to be used can help you make the right choice for your dog. Let's dive into the options.
Biscuits are the classic dog treat. We use the nickname cookies because to us, cookies are a delicious, indulgent treat.
Try looking for biscuits that use fewer ingredients, or lower glycemic and more nutrient dense carbs like legumes, oats, or buckwheat instead of wheat or potatoes.
Cookies are the oldest style of dog treat.
I bet you didn't know that dog cookies used to be synonymous with dog food. Back in 1860, James Spratt first marketed dog food in the form of Spratt's Meat Fibrine Dog Cakes and was sold as a convenient substitute for food.
The purpose was to promote meat inclusion during a time when dogs were typically fed a diet of grains, hardtack and animal scraps, if and when it was available. It wasn't until 1908 that the dog cookie, now known as Milk-Bones, were sold.
Although the history of cookies goes back a long time, the resemblance to the modern cookie isn't as sparse as you may think. We've come a long way since the days of fibre bricks and hardtack, but the basic premise of a biscuit recipe is still the same.
As much as we tout the importance of animal protein, the fundamental basis of biscuits still requires carbs. Whether we use grains, starches, legumes or seeds, carbs are required to make a biscuit. Otherwise, they would not have the cookie texture that we all know and love.
Dogs love to chew. Providing your dog with an appropriate natural chew is great for dental health, anxiety and will help satisfy your dog's instinctual urges.
Natural chews can be classified as a solution-based treat for dental health, but won't contain additional ingredients like supplements. For more treat ideas for dental health, take a look at our list of the best dog treats for managing bad breath.
We also recommend using natural chews as a way to keep your dog mentally stimulated. For active dogs, teething puppies, and dogs with anxiety, chews can provide you with some much-needed peace and quiet - while also doing the same for your pet.
Chews don't have a long distinguished history like the dog biscuit, but I think it's safe to say that canines have always had the instinct to chew. Wolves and wild dogs hunt their prey and consume some of the bone and connective tissues because that is what carnivores are built to do.
The cooked natural chew industry has only begun to explode within the last 20-30 years, but in that time we've managed to find new uses for just about any part of an animal that used to be discarded. Hooves, ears, tendons and kneecaps are among some of the more popular natural chews.
Not every chew is long-lasting and some can be used for rewarding and special treats or nutritional supplementation. Chews like chicken feet or turkey tips are a great source of calcium and can be used regularly to buffer your pet's dietary needs.
If you’re curious about what kind of chews you can try, take a look at our 10 best selling natural dog chews.
The toughness of natural chews can vary greatly, so make sure you choose the right natural chew for your dog's needs and habits. A smaller chew, like the ones mentioned above, may be too small for a large breed dog and puppies that tend to gulp their food.
This can potentially create a choking hazard, so always look for appropriately sized chews.
Some chews are just way too hard for certain dogs. Antlers and smoked bones can splinter or even damage your dog's teeth. Young puppies, senior dogs, or pets with dental issues may do more damage than good with a hard chew like that.
Rawhide is another controversial chew. Rawhide is difficult to digest, and is often made from multiple paper thin layers pressed firmly together, which can expand when it reaches the stomach. This can cause digestive upsets and in some cases, blockages. Always feed rawhide with caution. Look for puffed rawhide that will not expand as much as pressed rawhide.
You want the chew to last, but you also need it to be safe. Always monitor your dog when trying out new types of chews. This way you can remove the chew if you think that your dog may hurt themselves.
Soft treats are probably the largest and most versatile category of dog treats. This style of treat is ideal for training, like treat training, scent detection and potty training. The vast array of flavours, formulas and shapes allow you to use soft treats for just about any training purpose that you can think of.
When you are training, you want the treat to be high value, which means it needs to keep your dog focused and anticipating his reward. Things like texture and scent can be very important when choosing a training treat too. The stronger the scent, the more likely your dog is to actively participate in training sessions.
For dogs with sensitive palates and dental issues, such as young puppies that are teething and senior dogs, soft treats will be more desirable.
You can also use soft treats for mental stimulation. Placing aromatic soft treats into a treat ball or a puzzle toy will encourage your dog to play and stay active. Interactive games and seeking games can engage your dog's mind and relieve both anxiety and behavioural issues.
For pets that are watching their figure, cutting or tearing soft treats into smaller chunks allow you to play longer and train harder without the fear of overfeeding or tummy upsets. Many high-calorie and solution based treats can be found in a soft treat format too.
Looking for some recommendations? Many brands are adding more variety to their treat formats but we have a few favourites that work perfect for many treating purposes. Check out Zukes, Cloud Star, and Farm Fresh for some soft and chewy training treats.
We want these treats to provide a health benefit, but still, be a delicious snack that your dog enjoys. The flexible nature of soft treats can accommodate practical purposes too.
Treats used for hiding pills are readily available, so that medication time isn't a struggle.
Be cautious of the ingredients in softer treats though. They can sometimes hide added sugars, salt, or poor quality ingredients and preservatives. Sweeteners like maple syrup, cane sugar and honey are often used to make these treats more palatable so be sure to feed these sweeter treats in moderation.
A best practice is to use a higher quality treat for frequent training, and sweeter more indulgent treats less frequently and for bigger rewards. Look for treats with meat either first or close to first on the ingredient list, and sweeteners and salt closer to the end.
This will ensure that the "junky" ingredients are in much smaller quantities and the treat still offers some nutritional value.
For a healthier alternative for treat training and rewarding, try using freeze-dried treats. Freeze-dried treats are often single or limited ingredient so they are perfect for treat training pets with food sensitivities.
Freeze-dried treats are often just meat so they are extremely high value for very picky eaters or easily distracted dogs. Try using freeze-dried for things like puzzle games and treat balls, just like you would a soft treat.
They may not smell as strong to us, but trust us, your dog can smell them. The popularity of Freeze-dried treats is on the rise, so there are a number of widely available and affordable options for both dogs and cats. Check out Benny Bully's, Purebites, or our ValuePack brand for some great deals.
Another way to use freeze-dried treats is as a meal topper or a nutritional supplement. The dry treat can be crumbled into your dog's food, or re-hydrated and fed as a side dish. This can add extra calories or just add a more robust flavour for picky pets.
Freeze-drying is simply a way of removing the moisture from the ingredients using extremely cold air, then lowering the pressure and removing the ice with a vacuum. This method preserves the nutrients in the product because it is not subjected to a heat or cooking process.
Freeze-drying methods date back as far as 15th-century Incan civilizations, where they stored food at high altitudes of Machu Pichu, where the low pressure would evaporate the ice from the frozen foods. Obviously, our modern methods involve a more advanced system than leaving our food at the top of a mountain, but the process is fundamentally the same.
A lot of freeze-dried treats are made of liver. While liver is high in many essential vitamins and minerals, it's also very calorie dense. When training, look for options with the smallest sized treats that you can find, or be prepared to cut up larger treats.
With something as calorie dense as liver, it's easy to overfeed and potentially cause some digestive discomfort.
Freeze-dried treats are also the perfect texture for puppies, seniors and dogs with dental issues who may not be able to chew crunchy cookies or chews without discomfort.
Treating For Health Conditions
It can be difficult to find the right treat options for pets that have certain health conditions. Your pet may have dietary limitations due to an illness or disorder and treats that may work fine for most dogs may have serious side effects for another.
When it comes to allergies, almost any kind of treat will work, as long as they have the right ingredients. The hardest type of treat to find for allergies is soft treats. They tend to be more ingredient heavy and often have higher sugars than other types of treats.
Hypo-allergenic and limited ingredient treats are often recommended for food allergies but are not always the best fit for every dog. For more information on finding treats for allergies, check out this article on hypo-allergenic dog treats.
If you suspect a food allergy, you will need to assess both your dog's diet and treats.
Finding the right treats requires you to first discover what your dog is reacting to. The trial and error method, or an elimination diet, can help rule out some of the most common culprits. Read Dog Food for Allergies, to learn more about choosing the right diet for your pet.
Look at your dog's diet for clues. Are you already feeding a hypo-allergenic or limited ingredient dog food? If so, try to find treats with similar ingredients to their diet. In most cases, it's safest to find single ingredient treats that your pet can tolerate.
Digestion and Organ Function
Digestive issues and situations of compromised organ function may require you to limit:
- Fat (Pancreatitis)
- Protein (Acute Kidney Failure)
- Carbohydrates (Diabetes)
- Calories (Weight Management or Digestive Issues)
- Organ Meats (Chronic Urinary Tract or Kidney Infections)
You should be careful of which type of treat and how calorie dense that treat may be. High protein or low carb treats may be ideal for diabetic dogs, but for kidney disease, high protein content may do more damage than good.
If you would like to know more about Diabetes or Pancreatitis, take a look at our blog about Treats for Diabetic Dogs.
Always consult with your vet to ensure that your dog's health condition is being appropriately monitored. Blood tests or other procedures may need to be done routinely to monitor organ function and ensure that new treats or dietary changes aren't having a negative impact on your pet's condition.
Tips for Choosing Treats
Now that you have all the tools to choose the right type of treats for your dog, it's time to dive in and start trying some out. Every dog has different tastes, so don't be afraid to test out different flavours and brands to find the ones that your dog will flip for, or at least roll-over for.
Unlike their staple diet, treats can be more fun and diverse, so you can change it up and surprise your dog with exciting new treats whenever you want. For pet's dealing with sensitivities or digestive issues, always introduce new treats in small portions to make sure that their bodies can adjust to the new ingredients.
For treat training, try finding a good treat pouch to hold your treat mix, that way you can reward your dog whenever the opportunity arises. Rewarding should always be timely, so using a treat pouch is not just convenient, it also helps you reward quickly.
Reward treating works best with vocal commands or physical praise, so there should be plenty of belly rubs and make sure you tell them what a good dog they are. This will help your dog relate to more than just the snack, but see, feel or hear the praise from you.
For many overly excited pups, or nervous dogs who get anxious around fast movements, try routinely using a hand motion as part of your praise. Something as simple as a thumbs up can be an additional visual aid to help them understand their success.
This will not only help your dog build confidence but it will strengthen your bond too.
What's your favourite way to treat? Let us know in the comments below!
Posted by Krystn Janisse
Krystn is a passionate pet nutrition enthusiast. She has worked in the pet industry for over a decade and loves to share her passion for animal welfare with others. She loves all animals but is currently channelling some crazy cat lady vibes with her five lovable, but rebellious cats.