The other day, a friend of mine texted me about her dog’s obesity problem. Why wouldn’t her dog lose weight, she wanted to know? This was not a question of wanting her dog to look a certain way; rather, the dog weight loss journey had been started in the vet’s office. Their veterinarian had explained how much their girl’s health was at risk, and they didn’t want their baby to die young.
If your dog is overweight, let’s first examine his or her exercise routine. Unsure how much your dog should be getting? Take a look at this blog post for guidelines, including behavioral clues that your dog might not be getting enough exercise. Ask your vet for recommendations based on your dog’s age, health history, and breed makeup, and come up with a plan to gradually ease your dog into the exercise routine that’s right for him. As with humans, a drastic change in exercise routine can lead to injury in dogs.
Second, let’s examine your dog’s diet.
How much is your dog eating per day, and what type of food? Free-feeding your dog by refilling the food the bowl when it gets low is typically inadvisable, as dogs often eat more than is healthy for them. Also, increasing a dog’s exercise routine while free-feeding will likely result in your dog increasing her caloric intake, which will undermine any attempts to help your dog lose weight. Is your dog’s food high-quality and appropriate for his age and other characteristics? Does it have the proper amounts of protein, carbohydrates, and fat? A shocking number of popular dog foods contain unhealthy or even dangerous ingredients, so it is well worth it to do some research before buying.
If you are measuring out the food, make sure to read the recommendations on the back of the bag or box. These guidelines are based on weight, and fail to take into account other factors, such as your dog’s frame; however, they are a good starting point. The amounts suggested are designed to keep a dog at his or her current weight. If you want to help your dog lose weight, ask your vet to estimate a healthy target weight for your dog. Look at the food bag recommendations for how many cups per day a dog of that target weight should eat, and ask your vet for help as well. Then, cut back.
What else can you do to help your dog lose weight?
Let’s talk about those dog treats. I’m using the word “treats” here to include table scraps and chews filled with something edible as well. We often underestimate just how many treats we are giving our dogs because we give them randomly, and fail to track when we do give a treat. Perhaps other members of the household are also doling out the treats, and we have no idea how much they are adding up!
What proportion of a dog’s diet should be comprised of healthy dog treats? No more than 10% of the dog’s daily calorie intake, experts say. Picture, for a moment, how many cups of food you give your dog per day, and what 10% of that would look like. Now picture the size of the treats you are giving. Of course, size isn’t at all the same as calories, and that’s what we should really be looking at. However, if the treats you are giving your dog aren’t something super low-calorie, this approach will give you a hint as to whether you are going significantly overboard with the treats.
If you are trying to start tracking treats, one thing that can be helpful is not giving them out to your dog randomly.
After all, “randomly” is often less random than we may think it is! Was the treat truly your idea, or did your dog whine, bark, or scratch the pantry door for a treat? If it’s the latter, giving a treat will just reinforce the behavior, which isn’t good unless you want to increase the frequency of your dog’s whining, barking, scratching, etc. However, keep in mind that if you suddenly stop rewarding these behaviors with food, your dog is likely to persist in these behaviors for some time before they finally stop. But stay strong- your dog’s health is on the line!
If you often find yourself tempted to give your dog treats out of the blue or when your dog begs, it could be time to look within.
Do you feel like a bad dog parent when you ignore the begging? Are you motivated by guilt? Perhaps you work long hours, or have children who take up most of your time, leaving little time or energy for your pup. Guilt is understandable in this situation, but treats aren’t the way to bring your dog more happiness. Instead, consider giving back to your dog by hiring a reputable dog walker, dog hiking service, or doggy daycare- solutions that could help your dog lose weight!
The dog who is constantly walking over and looking up at you with those big, sad eyes may be suffering from boredom, or may simply be performing a behavior that is usually rewarded, and dog treats won’t fix that. If you aren’t taking care of most of your dog’s needs, then let your guilt point you towards positive change. If you are taking care of most of your dog’s needs, then you’ve got a case of unhealthy guilt. Best to acknowledge it and move on with your day- your dog’s health depends on it!
So when should you give your dog treats?
Most of the time, treats should be earned by your dog, or should be given to assist with training or behavior modification. For instance, a frozen kong filled with peanut butter is a great treat to give to a crated puppy just before you leave the house. The treat creates a positive association with the act of you leaving the house, which, along with other strategies, can help prevent separation anxiety from becoming an issue.
A frozen kong could also be given to your dog while you are eating dinner to keep the dog entertained so that he or she won’t beg. Of course, you’d want to make sure to give the kong before any begging behavior appears, as you would not want to reward the begging. Tiny treats could also be used to help a dog learn loose-leash walking or other basic commands. Help your dog lose weight by giving treats sparingly.
What if your dog has a good diet and exercise routine, but she still isn’t losing weight?
It may be time for a trip to the vet to assess for health problems, such as hypothyroidism, which can be managed with medication. Whatever the reason for your dog’s excess weight, with a bit of research and discipline, you can help your dog live a longer, healthier life. So go ahead- your pup deserves it!