This article is written by Valor K9 Academy – Boise Trainer, Samantha Lee. 

Canine diet and weight management are two of the most underrated factors in a dog’s overall health and behavior. What you feed your dog directly affects their skin and coat health, dental health (kibble is the leading cause of tarter), life expectancy and energy level. In fact, the difficult truth is that nearly all chronic health issues, including allergies, joint disease, diabetes, digestive disease and cancer, can be linked to the food you feed your dog and whether or not they are over-weight.

Diet affects training

Throughout my career, I have trained hundreds of dogs; countless have been obese and were on medications for various health issues like allergies and most of the dogs had “low” food drive. Whenever I talk about the subject of canine nutrition and obesity, it always makes me think of a specific dog I trained two years ago. She was a 4-year old German Shepherd who was extremely dog reactive on leash and had unreliable basic obedience with low food drive. When I arrived to pick up the dog, I noticed that she was very overweight and was being fed a low-quality dog kibble.

As a trainer, I believe a large part of my job is to advocate for the dog’s needs so I immediately discussed reducing the dog’s food intake during training along with changing her food. In training, I quickly noticed that this dog did have a solid understanding of basic commands but she was very reluctant to obey any of them. 

Board and trains are physically demanding in that we are doing 10-15 sessions each day and by the second week, this dog’s behavior was worsening. She was getting more reluctant to leave her crate, more reactive to me when training which told me that training was aggravating her health issues. I immediately called the client and asked to get this dog to a veterinarian for assessment.

It turned out that she had blown both of her ACL’s in her back legs and had hip dysplasia so the more active she had been through training, the more pain she was in which is most likely a result of her obesity. The bottom line is that her health issues directly affected her overall behavior. 

The hard truth is that obesity affects your dog’s health, happiness, behavior and quality of life; and yet obesity in pet dogs is so common nowadays that owners see an overweight dog as normal and fit dogs are being ridiculed as underweight and underfed.

In a study in 2018, it was estimated that 56% of dogs are overweight in America (study link here)… that is about 50 million dogs who are prone to injury and illness; Whose owners spend $2k a year on medical expenses directly related to their dog’s obesity.

Wait, so what’s spoiled then?

I want to re-define what a loved and spoiled dog looks like. A truly healthy and happy dog is a balanced dog. A balanced dog has structure and training, daily exercise, a high-quality diet and a healthy weight. Here are 4 easy ways to help your dog maintain a healthy weight: 

  • Add a variety of fresh foods at least 3 times per week! 
  • Adjust your dog’s daily food intake according to the day’s activity. So, always feed a light breakfast and the dinner serving depends on how much exercise your dog received that day. I.e. a hike, swimming, playing fetch or treadmill. 
  • For training, use your dog’s meals instead of treats. If you need higher value food, use dehydrated raw and subtract the amount fed in training from their dinner that night.  
  • When looking at “recommended serving” suggestions, 1st look at the weight your dog SHOULD BE, not the weight it currently is. 2nd, calculate the kcals per cup to determine the correct size.

Fresh is best!

food for dogs

Types of Dog Food in order of highest quality

When it comes to a healthy dog diet it is comparable to a human’s diet, meaning higher quality food is raw and fresh food; not processed food. Raw diet is ranked highest in terms of health because it has zero processed food. There is commercial raw food available but it can be the most expensive raw food option. Sourcing your own ingredients to feed a raw diet requires education and preparation to feed, hence the popularity of convenient dog food diets aka: kibble or canned food.

That does not mean every dog has to be fed raw food in order to be healthy but all dogs should have as much raw/fresh food in their diet in order to be their healthiest. This means lowering or eliminating the amount of processed food your dog eats, will optimize your dog’s health.

The thing is, commercial diets are by definition processed food and processed food is the same in the dog world as the human world – subpar in terms of nutrition. Remember, the documentary Super-Size Me? There are drastic health concerns from making processed food the primary source of your food. It is the same for dogs. Not all processed food is created equal so it is extremely important to look at the quality of the ingredients used to make the food you are feeding your dog.

When I ask my client’s why they feed what they feed, 9 out of 10 times, the answer is that it was recommended by the breeder, a friend, their vet, or a pet store employee. The other determining factor is often that the cost of a bag of food correlates to the quality of the food. Knowledge is power and educating yourself on what you are truly feeding your dog is the best way to determine the quality.

What I feed

I am a dog mom to five dogs and it is through my journey of raising them all that I continued to research and learn about commercial dog food diets. Today, I feed them a rotation of raw and kibble and rotate the protein sources of both the raw and kibble. Each day, I add whole ingredient supplements and a variety of fresh foods like eggs, fruits and vegetables. I researched the 3 brands of kibble I use because I only feed non-synthetic and whole ingredient kibble.


belgian malinois off leash k9

Samantha’s pack

You can’t trust the front of your dog’s food bag

So, let me help you learn more about what you are feeding your dog! The first thing you should know is that you can not trust the front of the bag. FDA regulations do not monitor the marketing on the front of the bag so dog food companies use non-specific words like “holistic” or “organic” or “all natural;” but unfortunately words that have meaning in the human food industry doesn’t mean anything legally in the dog food industry. So, you should ALWAYS investigate the back of the bag because legally it’s the only place the dog food company has to be truthful.

For example, if a bag says “Lamb & Sweet Potatoes” it does not mean “Lamb” is the sole meat source, ALWAYS read the ingredient list.

Protein is, by far, the most expensive ingredient in the bagThe marketing company that makes pet food is often trying to convince you that the $80 bag of food you just bought actually contains $80 worth of ingredients, when chances are, it doesn’t. You probably know that animal protein should at least be the first ingredient in any dog food – but did you know that it should really be the first, second and even third?? 

Why? Because no ingredient is affected by water weight more than protein. The marketing companies that sell kibble know you’re looking to see the 1st ingredient, so that’s the first place they think of to trick you into thinking there’s more protein in the food than there really is.

The ingredient panel

When you look at an ingredient panel, the pet food ingredients are listed from most to least by weight – so whatever contributes the most to the weight of the food will be first on the label. But there’s a trick to this … 

  • The weight of the ingredient is measured when it’s added to the food – prior to being cooked not as the final product which has zero moisture or water weight meaning it is no longer the largest ingredient in the recipe 
  • Meals don’t contain water because in order to become “meal” it has been rendered. For those who don’t know what “meal” means, it is animal meat that is processed through rendering which is where they overcook the meat to dry it out and turn it into a protein powder. 
  • That’s the difference between meats and meals (I.e. chicken vs. chicken meal). Meats contain water – many meats have 50% or more of water weight. 

So, although a whole animal (I.e. chicken, salmon, beef) may be the #1 ingredient, most kibbles have at least 1 more source of protein in the top 5 ingredients and the secondary and even third source of protein is most likely a “meal” making it the dominant source of protein given that it was weighed as a dry matter unlike meat. Now this isn’t an endorsement for meat meals instead of real meats, but you need to know when the marketing on the front of the bag is manipulating your understanding of the actual ingredients. 

The only two areas…

If you see the above marketing it is because they don’t want you to investigate the bag further – they are trying to sell you at first glance. The big lesson here is that no matter how appealing the marketing on the bag may be, the ONLY TWO AREAS of INFORMATION that legally in accordance with FDA dog food regulations, are the ingredient list and the guaranteed analysis. 

So, here is my quick tip on how to understand the Guaranteed Analysis breakdown on the back of your dog’s food bag; use this formula to calculate the carbohydrates aka: filler food in your dog’s commercial diet. A good percentage of carbs is 40% of less. 

100 – % protein – % fat – %moisture – %fiber – %ash (if not listed, assume 6%) = % of carbs.


raw food for dogs

How to determine how much filler foods are in your dog’s kibble (graphic by Samantha Lee)

What you want

When it comes to the protein source for kibble, the words you want to see are; 

  • deboned (meaning higher content of meat) 
  • whole animal and/or specific organs (i.e. liver) 
  • whole animal AND that same animal’s “meal” (i.e. chicken and chicken meal) 

What you don’t want

You want to avoid; 

  • by-product anything 
  • non-specific meat meal (i.e. poultry meal) 
  • bone meal, “meal” being the only protein source AND plant protein (i.e. corn meal, pea protein) 

Fat is important in your dog’s diet because fat is an energy source for their body. Dogs who perform at higher levels and/or are hyper active will require a higher fat diet than a typical pet. 

Salt divide

My other quick tip in determining the quality of ingredients is understanding the quantity! Ingredient lists go from highest quantity (by weight) to least so the first ingredient is the densest. So, I utilize the “Salt Divide” to help me read the ingredient list.

Many dog kibble brands add salt to their kibble recipe. But the FDA ruled that the legal limit for salt as an ingredient is 1% or less so… finding salt on the ingredient list becomes a very easy checkpoint on an ingredient list because you know that any ingredient AFTER “salt” is 1% or less of that bag.

blue buffalo nutrition label

Blue Buffalo Chicken & Brown Rice Ingredients

For this last example, I have highlighted two things; this bag claims “vital nutrients and antioxidants” as well as “healthy fruits and vegetables” I don’t know about you but neither of these phrases gives me any specific information nor do I know what they mean. They’re vague and use general terms, we, the consumers, like to see… the mention of “nutrients” “antioxidants” “fruits and vegetables”.

In the ingredient list, you can see that “pea starch” is the main “vegetable”. Also note how high up the Salt Divide is (meaning everything underneath it is 1% or less of the total ingredients).

Inexpensive ways to improve your dog’s diet

You can’t control everything in your dog’s life, but you do control what they consume. So, no matter what your dog food budget is, there are cost effective ways that you can boost your dog’s diet and help them have the healthiest diet possible. Here are some ideas to help you add as much fresh food as possible to their diet. 

  • Add veggies or fruits (blended or cooked for optimal absorption)
    leafy greens, wheat grass, blueberries, beets, carrots, pumpkin, apple, broccoli, green beans & cantaloupe
  • Rotate and/or add a variety of proteins. Feeding 1 protein for the dog’s life can make them intolerant to other proteins, however it is impossible for dogs to get all the nutrients they need from just 1 protein. More protein variety provides various amino acids, vitamins and minerals.
  • Add dehydrated raw to your dog’s diet is a great way to add various proteins and high nutrition. You can use as a topper or for one meal per day. Try Organic duck, chicken or quail eggs! Bone broth is also a great protein source!
  • Add supplements! Even though kibble is a “balanced diet” most brands have less than 1% of vitamins and minerals in their recipe and the ones that they DO have are more often than not synthetic. I recommend adding Multi-vitamins, gut health, probiotics… when possible use powder form because the chewable often contain soy, wheat or otherwise. Also, joint supplements are much more beneficial as a preventative so start around 2 years old.
  • Prebiotics & Probiotics! Gut Health is really important so adding things like canned pumpkin, goat milk, kefir milk & non-fat Greek yogurt 

Want to learn more about your dog’s diet? A great resource prior to purchasing any commercial dog food kibble, canned, commercial raw is to check out which is a website dedicated to analyzing dog food brand’s ingredients.

You can also read our other blog posts about feeding raw!

How to feed dogs a raw diet (click) and A simple guide to feeding raw (click)

Article by: Trainer Samantha Lee

(Thank you, Samantha, for sharing your passion and knowledge with us!)

Have a question? Comment below!