Dog Weight — The Elusive Ideal

Hello,

My brother’s vet told him that the skinny dogs almost never have medical issues and/or come to the vet. Most of my dogs are overweight. I used to feed them twice a day, now I feed them once a day. Which is healthier for small dogs? I want to feed them less but they look at me with pleading eyes like they’re starving. LOL

Sheila 

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Hello Sheila,

That’s a stunningly rare, valuable and insightful piece of truth your brother got from his vet. Unfortunately most dog owners and vets (including, probably, your brother’s vet) think that skinniness is just something that some dogs come by naturally, like it’s inherited or is impossible for some breeds. It’s true that some breeds are naturally stockier than others, but there is a point at which the canine body functions best and regardless of breed it’s ALWAYS when it is burdened with very low fat reserves.

Even skinny dogs have reserves that will see them through weeks of no eating. Wolves that carry very little reserve fuel typically go days and weeks without food, and there are documented cases of wolves eating very little or nothing for months.  Historically, dogs have had to have just enough reserves on their bodies to see them through times when food is spare but in exchange they absolutely could not sacrifice whatever agility and athleticism is needed to run down prey.  If they had been as compromised as our domestic dogs, the species would have gone extinct.  We can logically conclude, then, that if we want our modern dogs to enjoy the highest levels of health that are possible for members of their species, the reserves they carry must be similar to what wild dogs carry.

A lot of people think physical activity is the key to weight management.  It’s not. Although athletic ability can be honed to very high levels, dogs are naturally endowed with great athleticism and no matter how physically fit a dog is, this does not necessarily mean he carries the right amount of weight or is healthy. Proper feeding, which must include complete breaks from food on a regular and frequent basis, is the key to weight management, NOT exercise.

If you want an idea of how much weight a dog should naturally carry, go to an agility trial. The skinny dogs you’ll see there are not in shape because of all the exercise they do (although that helps, of course) it’s because their owners know that in order to perform at the very high levels all dogs are supposed to be capable of, they cannot carry the kind of weight that is normally seen on domestic dogs.  Regardless of the foods they feed, they keep their dogs’ weight low by adjusting consumption downward of what is considered “normal”.

Because there are so many different breeds and sizes of dogs, it’s difficult to generally quantify ideal weight. But there are some guidelines. For example, you should be able to EASILY feel your dog’s ribs.  Here’s something you can use for comparison: Make a fist with one hand and then use the first two fingers on your other hand to feel across the back of your hand as you bump, bump, bump over the bones just below your knuckles. That’s how your dog’s ribs should feel: taut skin over bone, with slight indentations between the ribs, and no padding.

As far as “emotional feeding” goes, for your dogs’ sake it’s going to be extremely important to begin to counter-condition the behaviors that they have developed which normally motivate you to feed them. Dogs are hard-wired to do that which gets them fed, because they developed in an environment where food is scarce. Domestic dogs live in an environment where food is unlimited. Do you see where there might be a problem? They are driven by their natures to eat everything that they cross paths with, but if we allow them to do that, they will destroy themselves. This is just one example of where civilization and nature are at crossed purposes, and if we don’t take concrete steps that favor nature, the result will always be suffering and misery.

That’s why feeding decisions need to be made independently of how a dog is behaving. The behaviors will go away once they are no longer rewarded. You will need to learn to talk to yourself differently. For example, instead of thinking “oh my poor little Foo Foo is hungry” when you see your dog licking his bowl or circling under your legs in the kitchen, don’t go there.  Entertaining sympathetic thoughts will only hurt your dog, to the extent that it influences you to overfeed or feed inappropriately.  Instead, think “I’ve inadvertently taught Foo Foo to use certain behaviors in order to manipulate me into feeding him. Now that I know what’s best for him, I’m going to stick to that, because I LOVE him”. THAT’S true love. To allow your dog to use shaped manipulations to cause you to do things that will harm him is NOT love.

I hope this is helpful!  Best of luck with the weight management.

Nora

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