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Chow Time: A Personal Feeding Journey with My Dogs

An organic dog food journey, from puppyhood to now...

Tigger and puppy cuteness.

Dogs have been a part of my life since I was an infant. Over the course of my life, I have had many different breeds and rescues. Particularly, living on a farm has provided the opportunity for a wide variety of canines, and the adage: there’s always room for one more!

Among the dog breeds and mixtures I have lived with are: Keeshund, Bordie collie, German shepherd, Samoyed, Alaskan Malamute, Labrador/Shepherd, Black Labrador mixes, Pembroke Corgiis, Kuvasz, Huskey/Shepherd mix, Walker hound, Timberwolf/Malamute, Timberwolf/Shepherd, Australian Shepherd/Chow, Australian Cattle Dog, Basset/Dachshund/Lab, Disney Dog (undefinable breed origin), Old English Sheep Dog, Cairn Terrier, and Australian Shepherds.

Like a lot of dog owners, I spent most of my life feeding my dogs nationally branded non- organic dog food from the grocery store. Since I didn’t have a PhD in canine nutrition, nor was I DVM, I didn’t think that I could trust myself to feed my dogs any other way than commercial kibble and canned dog food.

I started noticing back in the late 1990s that my dogs were having skin issues, digestive issues. I would switch brands, but didn’t notice much of a difference. I added supplements: vitamins and antioxidants with relatively minor improvements. By the early 2000’s I started questioning my dogs’ life spans. My rescue dogs were all dying around age 11- 12 from various forms of cancer. At first I thought that as they were predominately large dogs, that it was just a “normal” lifespan. But then I lost Ravenwolf, my Timberwolf/Malamute at age 10 to Lymphosarcoma and several months later, my 7-year-old rescue Black Lab mix to liver cancer.

At the time I was working as a consultant for a human whole food supplement company. The concept of whole food nutrition was new to me, as I came from a traditional supplement background of USP vitamins, made in a lab: if the molecule came from food or from a petrochemical / coal tar derivative, or was 100% synthetic it didn’t matter because the molecules looked the same under the microscope, and hence the body wouldn’t know the difference.

Of course now I know that nutrients in their whole food form are considerably more bioavailable to the body, then synthetic or “natural” vitamins.

I also was becoming more aware in 2002 of GMOs, and how they have  been sneaked into our food supply. The only “science” was from the Biotech companies themselves. Some small studies I had found that were conducted outside the US (in Australia and Russia) demonstrated the stresses put on the passive and inactive immune systems in rats fed GMO corn.

I switched my dogs to a premium organic dog food.

Reading Labels

There is no question that feeding my dogs a premium organic dog food was an improvement, but the deeper I got into whole food on the equine side, the more I questioned the dog food I was feeding.

Yes, it was organic dog food and it contained meat and grains, but the fortifiers (the vitamins and antioxidants) deeply disturbed me. I knew those ingredients weren’t from food: they were by-products of petro chemicals, and coal tar residue. The minerals were either inorganic sources (carbonate, oxides) or proteinates, which are inexpensive chelates. Ingredients like: “natural mixed tocopherols” meant: processed with Hexane. Vitamin A supplement was not from fish, nor was it the beta carotene form; meaning it was either 100% synthetic or from petroleum esters.

What nagged on my conscience was the fact that my dogs were still getting processed food. And as I delved deeper into the manufacturing process, I realized that there are only a handful of dog food manufacturers (processors) in the US who are making many of the brands on the market. At that time too, some companies had elected to have Chinese processors make their dog formulas.

When processing is in the hands of a few, that means there is a higher risk of contamination, and recalls.

From January 2013 through August 2013 there have been 27 recalls of dog food, and dog treats. And the year isn’t over.

Trying different diets

I decided to try the Raw diet on three of my 5 dogs.

Sierra, my wolf cross, took the diet immediately. But the other two, Rocky Raccoon the blue heeler, and Rutrow, the Disney dog did not.

Rutrow lost weight that he didn’t need to loose, and Rocky had extreme flatulence and diarrhea.

Which led me to try a cooked food diet for Rutrow and Rocky. Using my crockpot, I cooked chicken, and peas; sometimes buffalo and lentils. Rutrow gained his weight back, and Rocky’s intestinal disorders went away.

The Travel Conundrum

Rocky was the “go with” dog; traveled with me everywhere I went by car or truck especially horse shows, clinics, symposiums, and barns. I could manage 2-3 days of pre-made cooked food, carried in an ice chest, but a week on the road made the cooked food a bigger problem.

The Blend

My solution was to use a premium organic kibble as the base, add cooked food (except for the wolf/dog Sierra, who got only raw), and once or twice per week a raw food mix added to the kibble, or a straight raw food meal, no dry dog food. This kept some degree of consistency (the kibble) for Rocky whether he was home or on the road. When Rocky was travelling with me, I fed him the kibble with a canned organic dog food.

Premium organic kibble can be used as a base for food blends | Image by laffy4k

The Picky Eater

I adopted a four-year-old Australian Shepherd from the SPCA. This was my first experience with a purebred Aussie (my dog Wookie had been an Australian).

Shepherd/Chow mix). This dog, that I named Spirit due to his two blue eyes, had been surrendered by his owner because he liked to go on “walkabouts” and would stay away for days. What prompted me to think that I could rehabilitate a wanderer, a “free spirit” is anyone’s guess.

I did not realize he would be the one to introduce me to Picky Eater Syndrome.

Nothing appealed to him. He stuck his nose up at cooked chicken, buffalo, venison, and grass-fed beef. I tried raw beef, raw kidney and he poked around, took a few bites, and said, “Nah.”

I tried lamb, and he walked away from his bowl.

Then I hit upon the idea of salmon. Well that worked for about a week. Then he didn’t want it anymore.

So I tried some scrambled eggs. He loved that. For about three days.

And it hit me, slow-thinking human that I am, that he needed variety.

So I started feeding him one favorite food for one meal (either eggs or fish) and then in the next meal, a combo of either egg with bison, or fish with liver or beef.

The success of that program lasted about six months.

His next hunger strike turned out to be about the kibble. So I changed brands…three times. He didn’t like any of them. So I fed him a mixture of cooked and raw with no kibble.

Then he decided the only things he wanted to eat were peanut butter and cottage cheese in separate bowls. His next food phase was just canned food, followed by canned food mixed with a little cooked oatmeal, and then the inevitable: refused canned food, five different brands.

By this time, feeding him was a stress. Would he eat today?  What would he eat today? Coincidently, my farm manager informed me that the BioStar Optimum bars being fed to the horses were mysteriously disappearing out of the feed buckets that were set up and soaking with feed. She would put the bars on top of the feed, and go off and do other chores, come back, and the bars were gone. So, after she set up the feed for dinner, I snuck out to the barn….there was Spirit, going from one bucket to the next, picking out the Optimum, and licking and eating the beet pulp/alfalfa cubes/chia mixture.

It was a Eureka moment. And totally changed both my attitude and my approach to feeding him.

On days he doesn’t want what the chef (me) is providing, I give him 1 Optimum, and happily watch him head out to the barn to dine on a vegetarian meal (horse food).

Feeding the Overweight Dog

Jar Jar Binks is 15 years old, and is a rescue from the Pound. We suspect his heritage is dachshund/basset/lab. He is long like a dachshund and a basset, but short legged, with a left front foot that turns out almost at a right angle. How he has stayed sound all these years is one of the great mysteries.

He has been trim all of his life, until he turned 14. He became much more sedentary, as older dogs do, and despite cutting his food back, he wasn’t loosing much weight.

Jar Jar, who is the canine version of a curmudgeon, has never met a food he didn’t like. With the reduced portions he was getting grumpier. And then it hit me:  give him the same amount of reduced food, four times per day rather than 2 times per day.

It worked. He lost weight, and was less grumpy. The younger dogs in particular really appreciated that he wasn’t growling at them every time they were within 6 feet of him.

Feeding the Senior Dog

The definition of Senior dog depends on breed and size. Larger breeds may be considered Seniors at age 8, small breeds at age 12 or 13.

I don’t change the feed program unless my senior dog starts loosing weight (a blood test will confirm if there are any underlying issues), or starts gaining weight. Since I’ve had several senior dogs at one time, what seems to be common later on in the aging process is less of an enthusiasm about food. The chow hounds turn into slower eaters –with the exception of Jar Jar, who hasn’t lost his “food is the high point of my day” attitude.

Senior dogs still need protein, and fat (a lower % than an active, younger dog), and I add more pumpkin meal for extra fiber. I’ve also found that coconut meal with its high fiber and protein is a welcomed alternative to my senior dogs, who have been raised on a variety of proteins, fiber sources, and fat sources. The increased fiber helps with constipation.

Dental issues can be a problem in senior dogs. I have found a terrific microorganism, specific to the oral cavity called L.Salivarius, that helps overcome the unfriendly bacteria in the oral cavity.

Dogs with Allergies

I currently only have one dog, Jar Jar Binks, that suffers from seasonal skin allergy. Bovine Colostrum and coconut oil have been the keys to reducing his itchiness, as well as eliminating chicken from his diet.

Feeding Puppies

My current resident puppy, Thunderbear, an Australian Shepherd, and my last puppy, now four years old, Kemosabe, also an Aussie, are considered Large Breed.

Beyond organic dog food, puppies have special nutritional needs | Image by Tony Alter

Puppies have special nutritional needs | Image by Tony Alter

Large breed and Giant breed puppies need less calcium in the 4-10 months growing cycle than smaller breeds. Rapid bone growth can result in structural defects. More and more veterinarians are recommending keeping large and giant breed puppies lean, with a lower calcium % on an energy basis.

So it is very important to check the calcium % on any puppy food, or large breed dog food, as well as the carbohydrate %.

Thunderbear is getting Blue Buffalo’s Grain Free Wilderness Puppy kibble with 1% calcium. He gets a little bit of raw bison (Tablespoon), or a Tablespoon of cooked fish, or sardines with a few vegetables.

Feeding the Pack

There are currently four Australian Shepherds and one curmudgeon rescue dog that make up The Springdale Farm Pack.

The highest percentage of food in their diet comes from protein sources: Antibiotic-free, grass-fed beef, buffalo, venison, salmon, tilipia, swai, trout, snapper, and sardines. I no longer feed chicken meat because I have free range chickens, and it feels disrespectful to eat their relatives. Also several of my dogs: Rocky Raccoon, and Jar Jar Binks, had developed an intolerance for chicken that has presented as either diarrhea, or itchy skin.

I do however feed eggs from my chickens, either cooked or raw (shell and all) once or twice per week.

Wouldn’t you know it, Kemosabe figured out the source of the eggs, and started raiding the chicken nests, grabbing the fresh eggs as soon as the hen got off the nest. Then he showed Thunderbear and Cake Walk. Cake Walk would retrieve an egg, drop it on the ground for Thunderbear, and then grab another one for herself. We have now moved the nesting boxes to a higher location.

I do not feed turkey or pig protein. RAW diets recommend feeding turkey necks, gizzards, hearts but my dogs haven’t been too crazy about turkey. So many pigs are raised on feedlots, under terrible conditions, that I can’t feed a “tortured” animal protein to my dogs.

I don’t feed lamb because I found it aggravates Jar Jar’s seasonal skin allergy. I have never fed rabbit, but Kemosabe and Cake Walk do occasionally dine on rabbit or squirrel that they’ve managed to catch, truly a taste of the wild in the raw!

I get venison from local hunters, but it is seasonal, and not a food source I can depend on year round.

The Springdale Pack does not get grains. There are occasions when I might mix up some organic oatmeal or quinoa on a cold winter morning, but it will be fed by the Tablespoon, not by the cup.

For fiber I feed coconut meal, or pumpkin meal, again by the Tablespoon.

For fat, I use either fish oil (Nordic Naturals Pet), or organic flax seed oil, or hemp seed oil, or coconut meal. Alternating the fats has never been a problem for my dogs’ digestive system. On the days I feed sardines, I don’t add additional oil, since sardines are high in DHA/EPA (Omega 3’s).

For carbohydrates I use kale and green beans, which also provide additional fiber, as well as important minerals like sulfur and calcium (from kale) as well as vitamin A, vitamin K, copper (from green beans). I use carrots as well for added Beta Carotene. Every once in a while I will give cooked sweet potato to the dogs, which is a low glycemic food. I don’t feed white potatoes of any kind because of the high glycemic load.

I avoid rice, unless it is verified organic and grown in a low arsenic area (California).

Fruits: Blueberries and apples are my go-to fruits for my dogs, very small amounts for supportive antioxidants. Kemosabe loves bananas, and Spirit likes bananas when he is the mood. I give them 1-2 slices (small) as a treat.

Base Food

I use Blue Buffalo Wilderness as the kibble/dry food base of the diet. Most of the minerals in it are amino acid chelates, not proteinates and not carbonates and oxides. It is grain free and received a five star rating from Dog Food Advisor. This is a site I highly recommend for information and ratings on all commercial dog food brands.

Crockpot: Into the crockpot goes either fish, or beef with some beans, or kale, or celery, and or carrots. Certain fish don’t take long to cook (Tilipia, and Swai take only an hour). Add plenty of water! I generally make food at night, let the crockpot run on low all night, and the next morning I have dog food for the day. Be sure to use the crockpot water as a nice gravy for the dry food.

Raw Food: Sometimes I add a Tablespoon or two of raw bison to the cooked food/ dry food mix. Other times I’ll add a whole raw egg with the shell. When I can get green tripe, which is the stomach of ruminating animals, I will feed that as a meal itself. At least once a week the dogs get the sardines/kale/blueberry/pumpkin meal/celery (mixed in a food processor) with or without kibble. I will substitute the blueberries for apple slices. I do feed marrowbones once a week, or once every other week, to support healthy teeth.

For some great recipes, I highly recommend the book Chow Hounds by Ernie Ward, DVM.

Nutrient Balancing

BioStar’s K9 Optimum

I balance the feed program with BioStar’s Optimum. I used to use the equine version (100% vegetarian), which the dogs loved. But now that BioStar has a canine version of Optimum, that’s what my dogs are fed. By feeding them a whole food multi vitamin/mineral I can counteract the chemical-nutrients and the inorganic form of minerals in the dry, commercial feed. The canine version of Optimum provides protein from fish and liver, as well as from the blue-green algae Spirulina, which also provides a full spectrum of plant-based minerals.

BioStar’s Dog Star Treats available in Fish or Liver

Treats:  My dogs really like the kale chip treats (Brad’s Raw Kale chips), and apple slices. They also love cheese (particularly Havarti and organic cottage cheese) as well as a spoonful of peanut butter. It took quite a while for me to make a treat for them that I approved of (grain free) that provided the protein quality and fiber quality that I wanted. I can’t tell you how many incarnations of the new Biostar Dog Star Training Treats we went through to get it right.


I have made many mistakes on the feeding journey with both my horses and dogs. The combination-feeding plan I use may not work for every dog or every owner. It is what has worked best for my motley crew, and in keeping with my whole food principles.

Due to the epidemic rates of cancer, obesity in dogs, I endeavor to keep my dogs “lean with gleam”. Kemosabe, in particular, with his double coat can easily look like a fullback on a football team, but this spring, when he was mistakenly clipped down to his skin by an over-zealous groomer, we re-weighed him, and he was 54 lbs. Just a week before at the vets he had weighed 60 lbs. So now I assess his weight on the feel of his ribs through his double coat.

Has the combination diet made a difference in the lifespan of my dogs?

I think so. Sierra, my wolf dog, made it to age 13, and she died cancer-free. Since then Rocky Raccoon and Rutrow both made it well into their teens (Rocky at age 16, and Rutrow, weighing in as a big dog at 85 pounds died at age 14). They did not die from cancer or any other life-threatening disease.

Do GMOs have anything to do with the health, or lack of health in dogs?  I don’t know. I only suspect. More and more studies coming out of Europe are clearly showing the relationship between GMO seeds and immune and liver problems. Finding protein sources for dogs (meat and fish that haven’t been fed GMO ingredients) is difficult, and the wave of GMOs in yeasts, and also laboratory-made amino acids is overwhelming. To verify supplements and companies, you can go to the Non-GMO Project.

May the paws be with you.

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