How to Choose Healthy, Tasty Treats for Your Dog

We tell you what to look for at the store. Want to DIY? We have a Cheesy Salmon Squares recipe.

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Recently I was watching my favorite guilty-pleasure TV show, while clutching a box of Girl Scout Peanut Butter Tagalong cookies (which I’d purchased, you know, just to be supportive). One adrenaline-fueled zombie moment led to another … during which I sat there compulsively crunching my way through 8 ounces of comforting, peanutty goodness. Next thing I knew, the box was half-empty.

Okay, so that happened. But isn’t this usually the problem with tasty treats? As individual servings, they look so tiny and harmless. Yet if we’re not paying close attention, it’s easy to get carried away.

Our canines love treats as much as we do, so even dogs with an otherwise healthy diet can succumb to the sneaky sabotage of between-meal snacks. According to my vet, these “tidbits” should only account for roughly 10 percent of a canine’s total daily calories. Yet many of us reward our pups with two, three, or four treats at a time — not fully considering the (often empty) caloric consequences.

In fairness, it’s fun to praise and reward our loyal companions. It’s a great way to bond, motivate, and teach desirable behavior. So what we can do is make those calories count, with naturally healthy treat options that pack some actual nutrients. What’s the smartest approach? Follow these four simple guidelines.

1. Analyze labels

Most commercial treats look and smell delectable — but like “junk food” for people, they lack nutritional value. Many are filled with artificial flavorings and colors, added sugar and/or salt, preservatives, and chemical additives that can actually be harmful to our canine companions. The label helps you weed out these worrisome elements. Look for all-natural, easy-to-identify ingredients you can actually pronounce. Anything made with animal by-products could contain some seriously chancy ingredients, so put it back on the shelf. Also reject cheap fillers, including excessive amounts of key canine allergens like corn and soy.

2. Prioritize proteins

A true quality treat should name its protein source at, or toward, the top of the list — and that protein should ideally be animal-based (unless your vet has suggested otherwise due to ailments such as kidney issues). Look for single-word entries like salmon, duck, turkey, lamb, chicken, venison, beef, etc. Healthy, human-grade protein will always be presented in very straightforward terms. And since proteins are absolutely crucial for your dog’s growth, energy, and well-being, you want to choose the best protein possible.

Veggies and proteins by Shutterstock.
Veggies and proteins by Shutterstock.

3. Cultivate a new mindset

Most canines seem to feel that if something can be chewed and swallowed, it’s potentially cause for enthusiasm. So attract their attention with a bumper crop of healthy options that are low in calories and brimming with nutrients. Many pups love crunchy vegetables like green beans, peas, broccoli, spinach, and baby carrots. Try presenting chilled baby carrots or frozen green beans in a happy, “this is good stuff” voice. Safe and tasty fruit options include frozen chunks of watermelon, banana slices, and seedless chunks of apple. Just steer clear of onions, garlic, raisins, and grapes, which can be toxic to many pups. If your pooch doesn’t suffer from grain allergies, you can even consider whole grains like tiny unsalted chunks of rice cake.

4. Consider homemade

What?? Yes! It’s surprisingly quick and easy — and as a big bonus, you control the ingredients. Here’s a Grant and Maizy favorite, which combines a healthy Omega-3 boost with the tasty tang of cheese. I make these in the toaster oven, which results in virtually zero cleanup (plus, I can use leftover ingredients to feed our human pack).

Cheesy Salmon Squares

Ingredients:

  • 1 can/pouch (roughly 3 to 4 ounces) wild-caught salmon in water
  • 2 to 3 free-range egg whites
  • 1 1/2 cups whole grain flour (if your pup is wheat-sensitive, chickpea flour is a good substitute)
  • 2 tablespoons parsley
  • 2 tablespoons organic, shredded mozzarella or mild cheddar cheese (your dog won’t care, trust me)

Instructions:

  • Lightly grease a 9-inch-square baking dish with coconut oil or olive oil
  • Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. (or seriously, just use the toaster oven)
  • Dump the entire undrained package of salmon into a mixing bowl
  • Add the egg whites, parsley, and cheese, stirring until blended
  • Fold in the flour about a quarter-cup at a time, until mixture is dry and crumbly.
  • Scoop this mixture into your prepared baking dish, then press and pat down into an even layer
  • Bake for approximately five to seven minutes, or until set
  • Cool for 20 minutes before cutting into small squares
  • Refrigerate for up to eight days, or freeze for up to three months; don’t trip over your drooling pups on the way to the fridge
SalmonSquares
Cheesy salmon squares by Marybeth Bittel.

Finally, remember that “treat” can mean lots of things to a dog — and the best treats aren’t necessarily food-based. So next time you’d like to treat your dog, try taking him for a nature hike, playing an energetic game of fetch, or teaching a fun new trick. Most pups will value your time and attention just as much as a yummy snack. In many cases, probably even more.

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Marybeth Bittel

Marybeth lives in the Midwest with her wonderful husband, and her rescue dogs Grant and Maizy — all of them Heinz 57 mixed-breed types. A freelance writer and marketing consultant, she’s been rehabilitating severely abused rescues for over two decades. She’s currently working toward specialized certifications in animal nutrition counseling. Connect with her on LinkedIn or check out her family Instagram feed.

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