Do Dogs Need Treats?

Updated November 29, 2020

Following our killjoy post about Christmas hazards, now we’re going to tell you why your pet doesn’t need treats! And why they are happier without them.

Don’t worry. We’re not going to report you to the RSPCA if you occasionally give in to those pleading brown eyes. We know treat feeding comes from the heart and later I even talk about ways to do it well. But we do hope that after reading this you will feel less like you have to give the treat, and less guilty if you don’t.

What’s Wrong With Treats?

The problem is, of course, everything we say about what they are thinking can’t be proven. We’re all guessing what’s going on behind that irresistible look. So let’s start with a few agreed facts about food and health

  1. Treats are usually foods which cause harm if not fed in small amounts.
  2. The foods you can tolerate are often not the same as for your pet.
  3. Pets with large treat intakes are usually overweight and less healthy.
  4. Treat feeding can cause unpleasant changes in behaviour.

The most common reply to these facts is usually something along the lines of: “But he just begs and begs until he gets it”, or “he seems really hungry”. All observations based around the fact that we care for our pets and we want to make them happy and we think the treat will do just that.

Why Dogs Like Treats

No one is denying they really want the treat. However, we think that the reason it is so treasured has almost nothing to do with flavour. Please don’t try this but I bet if you prepared and ate dog biscuits every meal and gave your pet prepackaged gourmet meals they would beg for the dog biscuits.

What’s going on here? Eating for dogs is intensely social. You are semi-godlike figures eating nectar of the gods. You’re also spending a lot of your precious time making it and they crave every minute we devote to them. It’s about who eats the food, and how much time is spent. Now think again about the ‘fussy’ dog. He’s got people fussing over him, giving him a choice of foods, feeling very important. This, by the way, is where the behaviour issues can come from, especially in entire males.

Wolves & Poker Machines

Now at this point, clients who have seen myself (Andrew) will probably have already heard my wolf lifestyle theories and the gambling analogy. Both are my thoughts to explain begging behaviour.

Wolves first. The most important thing to know about wolf packs is that as hunters, they are rubbish. Sorry wolves, but anyone who succeeds at something at only one of ten attempts isn’t exactly hyper-efficient. However, they supplement their infrequent kills with continuous scavenging, including vegetable matter, insects, lizards, rodents etc. And when they make a kill, it’s a big animal, and they GORGE themselves. Who knows how many days supply they pack away while they can. This is also because looming on the horizon is Winter. Only those with sufficient body fat will survive without hibernating in a frozen landscape.

Our dogs still have that opportunistic, desperate wolf running their bodies, and driving their attitude to food. We’ve all accidentally fed our dogs twice without realising at the time. There is no such thing as a ‘full’ wolf or a ‘full’ dog. If the right food comes along, they are up for it. So are they feeling hungry? I don’t think so. Do they need it like they are saying? Definitely not.

This brings me to the gambling analogy. I see dogs (and wolves) as having an almost obsessional attitude to food. It depends a little on the personality and breed of course but to me, each time we feed them it’s like a shower of coins from the Poker Machine. If we start feeding treats, it’s like a gambling addict being forced to live with a poker machine. If it may jackpot any time, I’d better play it all day.

How To Use Treats

So are dogs happier getting treats? I don’t think so. I think the best thing you can do for a dog is to structure their feeding so they can predict the times and amounts. Then they can relax and forget about food the rest of their day, and go sleep in the sun instead.

And there is even a place for treats in a structured diet. They key element is consistency. They can be used as a consistent behaviour reward such as toilet training. Or at an identical time of day, in quantities not likely to unbalance a good diet. A crust from breakfast every day won’t hurt them. Do ask them to sit for it though.

Are Treats Necessary?

The last thing I usually say to treat feeders is this. Imagine your dog is elderly, and can talk. You ask him, “tell me what made your life great, what made you happy?” I doubt anyone would seriously think the dog would talk about food. Food is instant gratification. I think we all know what they would say:
You took me for walks.
You played with me.
You talked to me and patted me without being asked.
You held me when I was scared.
When I had that prickle, you got it out.

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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here.

If you want to know more about pet treat regulation and safety, read Myth 7: If It Is Sold For Pets It Must Be Safe.  For advice on which treats to feed dogs, read our Guide to healthy treats for dogs.