I have written previously about research examining the value that training treats have for our dogs and the importance of considering “high level vs. low level” treats when we train (see “Treat Please” and “Speaking of Treats“).
A second, and equally important consideration for reward-based trainers is the quality of the treats that we select for use as positive reinforcers.
Unfortunately, there is not much published research regarding the quality of dog treats. A few years ago, Dr. Maria de Godoy and her team at the University of Illinois compared several types of rawhide chews and found that some forms of these are significantly less digestible than others (see “Rawhide“). Recently, the group expanded their work to include quality assessments of a variety of different types of dog treats, some of which trainers may frequently use. So let’s look at their study and how their results may help trainers when selecting what we should use with our dogs.
This set of experiments used the same in vitro technique that was used in the rawhide study to estimate gastric (stomach) and small intestinal digestion of different treat types. Similar to the 2014 study, the researchers included a set of four rawhide chews. In addition, they tested the digestibility values of nine dental/non-dental chews,, three different cat treats, two brands of dog biscuit, and of interest for this essay, seven types of soft meat products, the type of treats that many of us use in our training practice.
For our purposes, let’s focus on the results for the seven brands of meat product training treats.
- Primary Ingredients: Three products were chicken-based, one was beef-based, one was duck-based, and two contained a single ingredient; a dehydrated haddock treat and a freeze-dried lamb treat.
- Chicken Little (and a Lot): Despite similar ingredients (chicken, soy, flour), the three chicken-based treats varied tremendously in digestibility values. One brand was only 16.6 percent digested in the gastric phase. This increased to 72 percent digested in the intestinal phase, which is still quite low. The other two chicken-based products performed better. One was only 50 percent digested in the gastric portion, but this increased to a respectable 88 percent in the intestinal phase. The chicken-based winner was a product containing chicken, soy grits, beef, and soy flour. It was 92 percent digestible in the gastric phase, and digestibility increased to a whopping 99.4 percent in the intestinal phase.
- Beef Bites: The beef-based treat was poorly degraded in the gastric phase (38 percent), but made up for this intestinally (98 percent).
- Freeze-Dried and Dehydrated Treats: Dehydrated haddock was another winner in this study; 86 percent disappearance in the gastric phase and 99 percent in the intestinal phase. In contrast, the freeze-dried lamb treat was only of moderate quality; only 39 percent digested gastrically, followed by 89 percent intestinally.
Take Away for Dog Folks
Anyone who has perused the dog treat isle of their local pet supply store knows that the ingredients that are used in meat-based treats vary tremendously. The seven products in this study reflect this. Primary protein sources included chicken, beef, duck, lamb and fish (haddock).
Regardless of protein source and processing type, most of the treats in this study were well-digested. Of the seven brands, five had total (intestinal) digestibility estimates of 88 percent or greater. Only one product, a chicken treat containing chicken, soybean meal and wheat flour, had a value that would be classified as very poorly digested (16 percent in the stomach and only 72 percent intestinally). These values are rather dismal. Only 16 percent disappearance gastrically means that this treat leaves a dog’s stomach almost fully intact – this is a value that is more on par with what we would expect from a poor quality rawhide chew rather than a soft, meat product.
This information is helpful to trainers in that it illustrates the range in quality among brands of food treats, as measured by estimates of gastric and intestinal digestibility. The results suggest that many, (but not all), meat product treats will be well digested by dogs.
However, I have a bone to pick here……
Soap Box Time: Of personal interest to me were the results for the dehydrated haddock treat (highly digestible) vs. the freeze-dried lamb treat (pretty low digestibility). Like many trainers, I frequently use single protein dehydrated or freeze-dried products as training treats. So, learning that treats of similar processing may differ significantly in measures of quality is of real concern.
How are we to know?
Which of course, is why I am up on my soapbox. This information is of practical use to trainers and dog owners only if we actually have access to it. Unfortunately, the brands that were tested are not identified in this paper. This is not unusual. Not identifying product brands is the general norm in this type of study.
The problem for trainers is that, unless we are provided with digestibility information , for foods and for treats, we cannot make informed decisions for our dogs. It is certainly NOT the responsibility of canine nutrition researchers to provide this information to us. Rather, in the spirit of transparency and consumer confidence, the companies that produce these treats should provide quality information, such as digestibility values, to their customers.
But, alas, they do not. So, just as we must for foods that are promoted as being “complete and balanced”, so too should we begin to demand quality information regarding the treats that we choose for our dogs.
So, how do we, as trainers, select treats that are healthy (and digestible!) for our dogs?
Personally, I have chosen in recent years to use only a small set of freeze-dried or sausage-roll type treats that are produced by companies that I trust. Some of these use human-grade ingredients. Another option for many of us is to make homemade training treats. There are many great recipes for these available – my mother-in-law makes one for our dogs that is peanut butter based and that works great for training. (And believe me, if I can make these treats and not mess up the recipe, anyone can).
So trainers, what do you use for your training treats? And, what criteria do you use to select them?
Cited Study: He F, Holben G, de Godoy M. Evaluation of selected categories of pet treats using an in vitro assay and texture analysis. Translational Animal Science 2020; 4:1023-1030.