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Confessions of a Dog Trainer: I Train My Dogs Using 'People Food' -- And You Should Too

07/31/2014 09:08 am ET | Updated Sep 30, 2014

We frequently hear it in training class: "I won't give my dog any people food." This is a bit of a ridiculous sentiment if you think about it. Food is food. It's not like there are farms that raise chickens for people and different farms that raise genetically-distinct chickens for dog food. So what's all the fuss about?

There are two reasons most people abstain from feeding their dog "people food:" health and behavior. We'll explore both.

For starters, let's talk about behavioral issues that could be caused by feeding your dog anything but commercial dog treats. Many people worry that if they start feeding their dog "human" food, the dog will begin begging or stealing food. This is a legitimate concern: these behaviors are very upsetting to many people. However, this isn't an issue as long as you provide some structure for your dog.

Dogs beg or steal food because they've been rewarded for it in the past. This is a management issue. This is not an issue that is caused by your treat choice. If you never feed your dog from the table or counter, your dog will not associate the chicken you use at training class with the same stuff you cook for your family. That said, if you slip up once and sneak a piece of food to your dog during dinnertime, he's not likely to soon forget that, and you may have a begging problem for a long time afterwards! A similar rule applies for food stealing: if your dog steals food off your counter once, he's likely to do so again. Keep your counters clean until you know your dog has been trained well enough not to counter surf.

What about health issues? First of all as I mentioned before there is no such thing as "people food" and "dog food." Food is food. There aren't separate farms out there raising chickens for dogs to eat and chickens for people to eat. The only thing separating most dog food from most human food is the quality of the ingredients: dog food and treats often contains waste products of the human food industry.

Read the ingredient label of your dog's favorite treats, and you will [hopefully!] see ingredients such as chicken, beef, or lamb. You may also see other ingredients like wheat flour, corn gluten meal, corn syrup, or soy protein isolate. Here's a secret: the only difference between the chicken in your dog's favorite treats and the chicken breasts you can buy at the grocery store is the quality and price. The chicken that goes into dog treats is usually quite poor quality, and you'll often pay much more per pound for commercial dog treats than you would for plain chicken. As an added bonus, the plain chicken you buy at the grocery store doesn't have all that extra junk (corn gluten meal, corn syrup, etc) mixed in with it. It's actually healthier for your dog than the commercial treats.

So, why does your dog's stomach get upset when you give him "real" food? There are two things that are likely to upset his system: variety when he's not used to it and too much fat.

Imagine you never ate anything but McDonald's cheeseburgers for an entire year. Let's say that's what you have for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day for 365 days. Then, on the 366th day, let's say you have a nice steak and salad for dinner. What do you think your system would do? You'd probably have an upset stomach. This can happen to dogs, too. If they never eat anything but the same kibble, day in and day out for years, their systems may overreact when they get fed something different. If this sounds like your dog, it's a simple fix: begin introducing variety in very small amounts. Once a dog is used to eating variety, upset stomachs are rare.

Too much fat can be the other culprit for an upset stomach, and this is again quite easy to avoid. I usually use whatever meat is on sale at the grocery store for training treats, making sure to select leaner cuts. I bake the meat, then rinse off any fat with cool water before cutting it up. By avoiding fatty meats (such as pork or turkey) and rinsing off extra fat, I create my own healthy training treats inexpensively. Even expensive meats, such as lamb, are often much cheaper per pound than a bag of commercial dog treats! If your dog has an especially sensitive system, stick to the same protein as he eats in his regular diet (for example, feed chicken as training treats if your dog eats a chicken-based kibble, or beef if the main ingredient in his diet is beef).

Ultimately, feeding "people food" to your dog during training is cheaper and healthier than using commercial dog treats. Beef, chicken, low-fat string cheese, eggs, and other single protein ingredients can be great options. Just remember to reduce your dog's daily food portions if you're doing a large amount of training to control for the added calories, and never replace more than 25% of your dog's diet with training treats so you don't throw off the nutritional balance. Also be sure to avoid human food toxins, such as grapes, raisins, onions, macadamia nuts, sugar-free products containing xylitol, and chocolate.

Do you feed your dog "people food" in training? What are his favorite treats? Do you make home-made treats for him, or do you rely on commercial dog treats? We want to hear from you! Please comment below with your dog's favorite treat recipes.