Make treats for your dogs

Snacks for the canines among us

May 31, 2012

I haven’t eaten beef since high school, but today my kitchen counter is filled with roast cut-offs, slices of tongue, and strips of liver. There are racks of the stuff drying in the oven. I’m scrubbing the red stains off a formerly veggies-only cutting board, bloody well determined to find a workable solution.

The challenge? Creating healthful treats for dogs.

I’m one of a growing number of people who don’t buy commercial dog food. Some of us non-commercial types rely on homemade kibble, and some provide a raw-meat diet. After all, there’s some evidence that ingredients such as grains, sugars, and the low-quality meat products typically found in commercial pet foods can be detrimental to animal health.

Winston the Pomeranian adores homemade treats.

But it was the 2007 melamine scandal — when ingredients imported from China and used in commercial pet foods caused kidney failure and death in pets — that really put many North American pet owners on the dog-walking path to better eats. And this spring’s salmonella outbreak — in humans, but carried via commercial pet food — may increase those numbers.

I learned to pay close attention to what our pets ate after two of our dogs developed serious health problems and didn’t make it to their second birthdays. Their premature deaths may have been entirely unrelated to the high-quality commercial dog food we provided, but we no longer take any chances. Today, our three remarkably healthy dogs have eaten a raw-meat diet for the last six years.

Still, it didn’t occur to me until recently that doggie treats might be a problem, even though I know that, like commercial pet food, most doggie treats are just empty fillers.

Often the first ingredient in a canine snack is grain, a food group that isn’t a natural or necessary part of any dog’s diet. Any hint of wheat or corn causes one of my dogs to itch, and another to have digestive problems. So instead I relied on commercial jerky treats: simple strips of dry meat with the reassuring (but technically meaningless) word “natural” on the package.

Jedi the German Shepherd likes homemade treats right from the freezer.

This seemed like a reasonable choice until I discovered that the American Veterinary Medical Association had posted an alert stating that kidney-disease symptoms in dogs appeared to be associated with the consumption of chicken jerky treats made in China. The packages I bought were indeed stamped “made in China.” I contacted the company immediately; they reassured me that they test regularly to assure quality. But that’s not much comfort, because tests have yet to identify any toxin responsible for kidney problems in any jerky products.

Instead, I decided to create my own grain-free dog treats.

Recipes online mostly start with wheat and end with salt — two ingredients I’m trying to avoid. So I’ve dried, ground, and baked all sorts of concoctions, hoping to find the perfect, easily stored treat. No surprise: truly wholesome ingredients simply don’t last at room temperature. That’s entirely logical, but will force my family to change some habits. No more storing treats in the car for the dog park, for example.

I’ve also learned that it helps to look at “people food” prep with an eye to potential dog treats. I keep a bag or container in the freezer, adding the cast-offs from meats, poultry, and fish as I cook. Cut-up pieces of chicken skin, a fatty strip with some meat from a steak, a not-too-appealing hunk of tough pork — all can be used as dog treats themselves, or incorporated into baked treats.

So far, I’ve come up with recipes for Doggie Squares and Hound Jerky, plus a list of quick treats (see sidebar) to use in a pinch. My kids were horrified by our liver- and fish-smelling kitchen, but my dogs enjoyed their new roles as taste testers.

Laura Grace Weldon is the author of Free Range Learning. She likes slow food and fast wit, and lives with her family on Bit of Earth Farm in Ohio.

Related recipe: Doggie Squares; recipe: Hound Jerky

There are 20 comments on this item
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1. by ruth_117 on Jun 1, 2012 at 12:40 PM PDT

I make homemade dog treats too, so it is great to see some new recipies. My dogs favorite is liver that I boil whole then slice into 1/4 inch slices and dry in the oven. I have also used the slowcooker to cook whole hearts and tongue. Both of these seem to have a good chewy texture and can last up to a week in the fridge in a paper bag. Plus my dog is always on his best behaviour if he thinks he can get a liver treat!

2. by vintagejenta on Jun 4, 2012 at 3:02 PM PDT

Frozen slices of banana, anything with peanut butter, and frozen cubes of mashed sweet potato are all treats in our house.

We also buy “natural” treats from a local pet store - the main ingredients are often chickpea meal and/or yogurt or meat. All protein-rich, but somewhat more shelf-stable. Our little sheltie’s favorite treats are actually “pumpkin pie” flavored! And yes, the treats have real pumpkin in them.

3. by Bob on Jun 9, 2012 at 12:21 PM PDT

Really glad to stumble on this. Wish it had been titled “grain free dog treats” because that’s what is really hard to find online. The suggestion to save scraps to use for dog treats is particularly helpful. I have two Great Danes. Friends keep ziploc bags in their freezers to put in cut-offs cooked or raw, from meat. It really helps me have treats and healthy morsels to mix in their food. I’m eager to try these recipes. THANKS!

4. by anonymous on Jun 16, 2012 at 12:13 PM PDT

Thank you! I have been so frustrated by the junk out there for dogs. Buying beef heart right from my butcher turned out to be really cheap. Next time he’s going to order me a bunch in bulk and I’m planning to get together with some friends, slice up jerky, drink some beers, watch all our dogs play, and send everyone home with lots of jerky. I’m calling it a Jerky Party.

5. by Frank Watson on Jul 12, 2012 at 11:53 AM PDT

Can’t you change the tags on this to “grain free dog treats,” as suggested in other comments? I only found this via a link on a forum for canine health problems. My two pugs have been really sick thanks to corn and wheat in the top-of-the-line dog food I’d been buying directly from the vet’s office. Within a week of switching them to real meat, bones, and a few steamed veggies, they no longer have skin problems, digestive problems, or immune system dysfunction. They’re off meds and have more energy than we’ve ever seen. I’m thrilled to see recipes and other suggestions for treats but honestly, finding this article was just luck. Re-tag!

6. by Debbie on Aug 13, 2012 at 8:33 PM PDT

I love the recipe for Doggie Squares and will definitely be making some for my dog, especially with pumpkin flour (great for the digestive system). It’s impossible to find treats that are not loaded with grain, salt and preservatives. I have been giving her homemade beef, chicken and salmon jerky as treats but I definitely need to add some variety and this will help.

7. by Debbie on Aug 13, 2012 at 8:33 PM PDT

I love the recipe for Doggie Squares and will definitely be making some for my dog, especially with pumpkin flour (great for the digestive system). It’s impossible to find treats that are not loaded with grain, salt and preservatives. I have been giving her homemade beef, chicken and salmon jerky as treats but I definitely need to add some variety and this will help.

8. by Brad Brown on Sep 5, 2012 at 4:30 PM PDT

Wow, your dogs must love you!

9. by Cindie Windsor on Sep 18, 2012 at 4:09 PM PDT

My dog loves frozen blueberries and I also make her chicken jerky. She loves the jerky. I buy the inexpensive chicken breats in a 3lb bag. I can get a bag on sale for $5 or $6. Slicing the chicken breast when they just begin to thaw makes it easy to get uniform slices. At the big chain pet stores chicken jerky is very expensive.

10. by anonymous on Nov 4, 2012 at 7:49 AM PST

As my Dobie’s veterinarian once pointed out (I really miss the dog and the vet), if it isn’t good for me, it isn’t good for my dog. Charlie’s favorite meal was pot roast and veggies, and he rarely ate commercial dog food until I had to move and his new owners used a different vet.

11. by anonymous on Nov 21, 2012 at 10:33 AM PST

Where does one buy pumpkin flour or sweet-potato flour? I don’t believe I’ve ever seen it in the grocery stores. I want to try the Doggie Squares and the Hound Jerky. Grains in food & treats were making my dog itchy so now I’m careful to look at all the ingredients (like I do for myself) in a product to make sure they are healthy.

12. by anonymous on Nov 30, 2012 at 12:13 PM PST

o my god my dog loves all the treats i make him
but is it ok for them to eat penutt butter my kids give him spoon fulls and it gets stuck to his mouth i tell them to stop but they say its good for them...

13. by anonymous on Nov 30, 2012 at 1:30 PM PST

I just made chicken jerky for treats for my dog. So easy and healthy. No preservatives. After I make them in the oven I freeze them so the keep a long time. It doesn’t take long to thaw out. I don’t buy treats at the store anymore. Most of them are made in China and i don’t trust ANY food from China. I like new ideas on making dog treats. Unfortunately pumpkin flour and sweet potato flour are not available in my area. Too costly to ship!

14. by anonymous on Dec 4, 2012 at 7:00 PM PST

Where do you find pumpkin flour or sweet potato flour?

15. by Laura Weldon on Dec 6, 2012 at 6:27 AM PST

To the question about peanut butter, as with any food added to your dog’s diet, simply watch for reactions. Most dogs adore peanut butter (mine are even more fond of roasted peanuts) but I’m sure there are exceptions, so if you see any symptoms discontinue immediately. I know it took us a long time to identify our German Shepherd’s reaction to wheat----itching and flaking skin, joint stiffness, even an unpleasant smell to his skin. It all cleared up once we removed wheat and other grains from his diet.

16. by Laura Weldon on Dec 6, 2012 at 6:31 AM PST

To the question about finding pumpkin and sweet potato flour. We get ours through a food co-op so getting it isn’t all that expensive. It’s also pretty easy to make if you have a food dehydrator, simply thinly slice either pumpkin or sweet potato, then run the dehydrator until the pieces are very dry and crumbly. Grind in a blender or with a mortar and pestle. It keeps quite a while. You can replace the flours mentioned in the Doggie Squares with ground flax too!

17. by John Manship on Jan 5, 2013 at 7:15 AM PST

Thanks, this is very informative! I prepare my dog´s food, but confess that the base of this is quality dried dog food.

I too save all scraps from trimming meat and chicken (might even throw in a whole boneless breast ´accidentally´ now an then for my Woffer). A vet gave me this recipe which is healthy for dogs;

Use either your low fat beef and poultry trimmings, boiled and cut up into small pieces, or use ground beef. Mix 1 cup boiled ground beef with 4 cups cooked, cool rice and 1 cup cottage cheese. Keep in fridge. When serving Fido, mix a half cup of this mixture with a serving-sized portion of dried dog food. Other alternative meats I make this with are chicken hearts/gizzards.

18. by anonymous on Feb 19, 2013 at 9:44 PM PST

I love my dogs, I have been very busy nowadays and barely no time with them. But as I read this featured article it gives me to think about having a treat with them.

19. by Robert Griffin on Jun 17, 2013 at 10:22 AM PDT

I love how happy my dog gets when I add a little broth or scraps to his food. A little goes a long way.

20. by Toby on Oct 11, 2013 at 3:22 PM PDT

Most dogs do not have a problem with grains -- unfortunately commercial biscuits are often not much more than that. Some dogs it is true develop skin problems when fed grains but most are unaffected. Fat added should be minimal. They also are best not to have added salt or sugars. The things they love -- meat, poultry, fish, cheese, and peanut butter all make good additions although first quality animal protein is the best choice. They seem to love squash, apples, shredded carrot, and my dogs also like greens like broccoli and green beans. I do make my own biscuits for my dogs, and to sell at the local market, where I also offer a grain-free alternative. That has chick pea flour in it. I do use white rice, which dogs can usually digest easily. The great majority of purchasers do not ask for grain-free but when they do, I have it not on display -- because it’s a lot more trouble to make.
I came to this site because I was googling how much powdered eggshell to use in home-made dog food -- the recipe and instructions are there but nothing is said about the addition of calcium and phosphorus which is extremely important when dogs are not given bone products

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