How many treats is too many treats for my dog?

Dog waiting for treats from woman with drink

It’s a fact. When you get a dog you need to train your dog. You teach them to sit, stay, come, bark, go lay down, and roll over. It’s all part of the dog ownership game, but how do you do it?

Anyone who’s ever done a google search for how to train my dog to ______? has heard of positive reinforcement training. It’s a great take on dog behavioral science and a more humane approach to dog teaching than other commonly used methods. Essentially, you subconsciously reinforce your dog’s behavior by positively reinforcing when they behave how you’d like them to. For most people that means when your dog does what you want you’ll feed them a treat. Dogs love treats SO MUCH that they’ll work to figure out what they did to earn the treat you gave them and as long as you’re consistent with your rewards and expectations they will perform the action over an over — eventually being able to do it on your command. That’s awesome and I’m on board with positive reinforcement training, but the question I have is about dog health. How many treats is too many treats for my dog on any given day?

On the surface the question is simple. There should be a number. On any given day, your dog is allowed to have (#x) treats. The truth is that’s not the case. For starters, there are many different kinds of treats. Every treat is made different ways with different ingredients in varying amounts. Even treats in the same bag may be inconsistent caloric amounts. Dog’s aren’t the same either. A Great Dane likely eats more than a chihuahua 10 times out of 10. And to mix it up, even more, you could have 2 dogs of the same breed with totally different eating habits for all kinds of different reasons. As dog owners, we think of our pets as members of the family and the reason why might be because they are so much like people — dogs can have different energy levels, personal preferences, and even psychological reasons why they eat more or less of one thing or another. The point is, dogs are complex, so so is the question of how many treats your dog should be allowed to have in any given day.

How many calories does my dog need per day?

Dr. Rex Riggs, a veterinarian from Ohio, says most dogs need about 25 to 30 calories per pound per day to maintain their weight. Okay, so that’s a start. You can think of dogs like people who may or may not need to be on a diet. Heavier dogs should eat healthier and exercise more. Sounds like what your doctor tells you every time you visit, right? So, if you have a 25lb dog you’d want to feed it around 1000 calories per day to keep it 25lbs. If you want to shrink your dog, feed it less. If you want to grow your dog, feed it more. You get the idea.

Studies by the Waltham Center for Pet Nutrition (WCPN) (http://www.waltham.com/) essentially agree with Dr. Riggs. The studies expand on Dr. Rigg’s statement, however, and take into account a dog’s size and general activity level. This isn’t the exact breakdown, but here’s a tentative idea of what their findings recommend for how many calories a dog needs per day to maintain their body weight.

Approximate Calories Needed per lb. of Body Weight
Small Dogs Medium Dogs Large Dogs
(< 20 lbs.) (20 – 50 lbs) (> 50 lbs.)
Inactive 25 20 17
Normal 32 24 21
Active 35 27 24

The number different for dogs of all types.

Figuring out your margin for dog treats

How many treats you can feed your dog comes down to three things.  1.) What size dog you have, 2.) how much exercise your dog gets, and 3.) what food your dog is already eating. If you can figure out how much you’re already feeding your dog during a normal day then you can figure out how much waggle room you have for treating.

Try it out for yourself. Take a look at your cans of dog food or bag of dog food and see if there’s information about calories per serving size. Get an estimate of how much you’re feeding and throw in some extra if you know you like to slip table scraps (which you should think about abstaining from for your dog’s health and well-being, by the way (shame! shame! sorry…. just poking fun, but really table scraps can be a cause for canine obesity. It’s real, people.)). By subtracting that number from the number of calories your dog should be eating in the day (see the chart above and pick a number that fits your dog’s diet requirements) you can figure out how many calories are left for you to feed your dog while keeping it healthy. Take that number and divide it by the number of calories per treat of your brand of dog treats. That gives you the number of your treats that you can feed your dog.

Let’s do a case study

Let’s imagine a dog. How about a 40lb medium sized dog. Okay, great. Now that we have a dog we can make a few assumptions about her.

Let’s assume she is “normal” on the activity spectrum.

Let’s also assume that we love our dog and we’re feeding her Blue Wilderness dog food with chicken. Google lists it at approximately 410 calories per cup. Our final assumption is that we’ll assume she eats a typical adult dog helping of 2.5 cups of dry food per day.

Using our hypothetical dog and common real-life assumption based scenario we can calculate a baseline.

  • 410 calories per cup x 2.5 cups per day = 1025 calories per day from normal feeding

Referring to the recommended values in the table above, our 40lbs dog with a normal activity level only needs 1000 calories per day to maintain its current weight. Uh oh, we’re already helping our dog gain weight and we haven’t accounted for table scraps, friends with treats, random food your dog found on the ground or treats from training sessions.

Maybe that’s the reason you don’t teach an old dog new tricks. They don’t need the extra calories.

Conclusion

Based on the fact that puppies are supposed to eat more than adult dogs (because they’re growing), it’s easier to give treats to puppies. It’s just as rewarding to see an adult dog wagging their tail, but it’s harder to justify not feeding your adult dog dinner because you gave it a Pup-Peroni earlier in the day than it is to maybe give your puppy half a scoop of food on its 3rd meal because you practiced sit and eye contact for 20 minutes that morning.

Treating a dog is okay. The person who spends the most time with your dog is probably you, so you’re in a good place to make an informed decision about what’s best for your dog. Be responsible and remember a little bit can go a long way. Treat, but treat accordingly. I mean, a few extra calories from a milk bone to teach your dog to roll over and play Andrew Lincoln seems like a better option than something like a rolled up newspaper and shock collar, agree? Of course. You can do positive reinforcement training and still have a healthy mutt.

BONUS THOUGHT

If you’re a fitbit person, they make a similar product for dogs. You can track your dogs daily activity, heart rate, resting status, and other health metrics. If you’re inclined, you can really zero in on your dogs health and diet and take control of their lives, keeping them healthier and happier.

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