Be more dog. A few simple secrets to better understanding & training your spaniel

Do you speak Dog? I know, I know, odd question to ask… But bear with me.

A few days ago, as we finished our little training session, I wondered how much my perception of training has changed over the years. Once upon a time training a pup a few basic commands felt, well, basic… Nothing much. Treats, gestures, cues – job done! 

But as the years passed by and the volume of digested books, studies, courses and experiences settled in my brain, I realised a simple thing – training a dog – and especially COMMUNICATING your idea to the dog effectively – is far from simple, rrrrrrreally far from simple.

More often than not (and here I am talking about regular pup parents like you and me, not professional trainers) getting a pup from A to Z feels like a three step process: the treats and lure, the results and the added cue or gesture or both. Creatively speaking, we see training as Malevich’s Black Square. 

For a typical dog, on the other hand, our efforts are likely to resemble something painted by Dali…

The smell. The dog smells all the distrastive, often invisitable to us, thing around him. He also knows that you have treats in your pocket. He knows what sort of treats they are. He smells your emotions. 

The taste. It makes the brain happy. And the pleasure should be immediate otherwise there’s no point. 

The sight. He watches you most intensly than you’d dare to know. For a dog, it’s not such a cue -> a treat link. It’s also everything in between (it’s known as bridging if you want to be clever). The position of your body, your hand, your eyes, facial expression, any movement you might make, the spot where the treat is placed and received. All these matter to him and will be remembered carefully because  he needs to remember exactly what, when and how gets him the treat.

The sound. Dogs are a creatures of a few words. They like it simple. The first word is to get attention. The second one is to determine an action. High pitched sounds can mean excitement or alarm. Longer (stretched like legato in music, think “staaaay” or “gooood boooy”) words are to slow down, calm, stay still, relax… 

The emotions. Happiness, fear, excitement, stress – all these emotions cause a burst of different hormones that will have an effect on the pup’s ability to concentrate, learn and remember. 

What does it all mean?

For me, communicating an idea to a dog successfully involves a few simple but important points…

… only train when you feel happy, relaxed and well (otherwise the dog will sniff out our own hormones, especially stress hormones – and will mimic them)

… only train when a dog is happy to be trained – he is rested, happy, adventurous, excited and eager to learn

… keep the duration of training based on your dog’s abilities. Do not let him get tired or bored. Think how you’d feel if you were made to sit through a two hour lecture – even if it’s really interesting in the beginning, the brain often gives up on living after an hour unless there’s a break

… watch your own body language – record your sessions if necessary

… use the right tone of your voice depending on what you want to achieve and, please, do not get into the “machine gun”mode saying to your dog “sit, sit, sit, sit” or “come, come, come, come” on repeat. One word – long pause – another word if needed. Otherwise your pup will just hear “comecomecomecomecoooooome” the same way we hear “yap-yap-yap-yap” – it’s just another meaningless and slighly irritating noise…

… choose treats wisely. You don’t need to have a whole bag of high value treats! Mix them up! I use kibble, but if we need high value or more attention, add a few tiny pieces of cooked chicken breast and mix them all up. The kibble get a bit of an extra “flavour”. Everyone is happy

… be precise. Reward within 1-2 seconds with easy-to-swallow tiny treats, with precise action, at precise spot and accompanied by specific word and specific praise. Eventually the praise will (or almost will) replace the treat teasing the pleasure center in the brain with a sound alone. 

Simple? Yes, once you know the why’s and how-to’s. Now all you need to do is to remember these points while putting them into action. And that’s when things suddenly get as complicated as learning and practising a foreign language. It takes an effort but suddenly and eventually everything falls into place.

Image credit: Salvador Dali. Feather Equilibrium. 1947

Benefits and risks of raw honey in canine diet / dog nutrition and healthy home made treats for dogs / canine nutritionist in UK / perfect cocker spaniel / dog blog about English cocker spaniels, tips on grooming, hand-stripping, diet, nutrition, food, health, raising a cocker spaniel puppy (C) Natalia Ashton

Can my dog eat… honey?

“Honey” may be one of the sweetest names for a golden cocker spaniel puppy, but it is also one of my favourite “superfoods” and natural ailments.

Nutritionally, about 40% of honey is fructose, 40% – glucose, 15% – water and 5% – other sugars plus 80 trace vitamins and minerals including B, C, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, calcium, potassium, iodine, sodium, copper, manganese, zinc, boron, silver and silica. Manuka honey also contains some proteins and fatty acids.

No wonder that honey is praised for its antibacterial properties, source of energy, and an ability to maintain healthy digestive, nervous, immune and skeletal systems, support haemoglobin levels, improve memory function and aid natural detoxification.

Studies that were done on humans or rats linked manuka honey to the blood sugar control, reduced risk of diabetes, metabolic syndrome and several cancers.

In dogs, a 2016 pilot study concluded that medical grate manuka honey could be used for treatment of ear infections (but please do discuss this with your vet before going ahead!)

But can the dogs really eat honey?

The answer is… IT DEPENDS.

Whilst a little honey may be beneficial for healthy adult dogs without underlying health conditions, it should not be given to overweight and obese dogs, dogs who have diabetes, and must never be fed to puppies under 12 months of age or any dog with the weakened immune system.

Raw honey may contain botulism spores (two other common sources are raw meat and carcasses of dead animals) and be potentially fatal. Adult dogs are resistant to the bacterium, but neither puppies, nor ill dogs have enough natural defences for protection.

The spores cause paralysis, extreme salivation, vision problems, runny eyes, difficulty swallowing and breathing and death due to either paralysis of the heart or lungs. If a dog does recover, he requires maintenance therapy for life. First symptoms may take between a few hours to up to 6 days to develop and often begin with weakness in rear legs that appear within 24 hours after ingestion of the spores.

For this reason, all puppy parents must check any foods or treats for presence of honey and avoid them until their dog’s first birthday. It is also essential to check that grooming products, especially balms and creams, you use for a puppy are free from both honey and beeswax (cera alba).

The good news is dogs naturally love honey (because they do love anything sweet) and honey may provide some goodness for all healthy grown-up canines, so treat them to a 1/4 tsp (cocker spaniel size) of good quality raw honey a few times a weeks without worried.


Adapted from Beyond the Doughnut: 30 meals & treats your dog will love.


Photo credit: Karsten Masden and Florian Kurz via pixabay

dog dry pet food, kibble, benefits of kibble and dry dog food, types of kibble, does kibble cause cancer and illness in dogs, pet food recalls , nutrition advice for dogs, English cocker spaniel blog and tips on grooming, diet, training and puppy care (C) Natalia Ashton

On kibble, cancer & all the nonsense in between

“I thought you were a better dog mum…” somebody told me the other day after I mentioned kibble as a part of my boys’ diet. Agreeably, my parenting skills may be subjective for all parents are unique. On the other hand, my knowledge of food and it’s properties for human and dog health does come with diplomas, certificates and tax return forms confirming that I studied and practised in the field of human and pet nutrition for almost 20 years now.

And yes, my dogs do eat kibble. It has been on a menu since they were conceived. And it will remain on the menu because they’ll tell me off if it’s gone.

They love it. They look fabulous on it (in fact, it was their good looks that made “the better dog parent” ask me about their food). And they are healthy and active. That’s good enough to me.

I admit, I spent a lot of time choosing their food. It’s never complicated and far from fancy, but everything that goes into their mouth comes from the brands I trust and is made with ingredients that don’t put me into a freezing state of anxiety.

Today I wanted to talk to you about it because I often feel that many pup parents also experience anxiety, fear and borderline paranoia when it comes to choosing food for their spaniels, especially if the puppy eats kibble. 

How did kibble as such come about?

For centuries domestic dogs ate the same cooked meals and foods as their families. In 1860 James Spratt introduced the first commercially-made dog biscuits made from beef blood, wheat and vegetables. The “Meet Fibrine Dog Cake” was expensive but proved to be so popular among British gentleman and their sporting dogs that the company became the largest pet food manufacturer in the world.

It was the matter of convenience and dogs obviously enjoyed what they were given even though the original recipe wasn’t perfect. When it comes to the English cockers, many were fed a mixture of dry biscuits and cooked food with the most prominent breeders singing praises to a pressure cooker as “one of the greatest inventions”. Later on many moved onto commercial dog food.

What are the benefits of kibble?

A good quality complete formula provides all nutrients a dog needs to be fit and healthy. It takes away any guess work for all pup parents because one really does need to be a trained small animal nutritionist to create a balanced home-made diet on a daily basis.

It is an affordable option. You can buy good quality dry food without spending a fortune. This helps many dog families to feed a dog well on a certain budget.

Dry food keeps well and makes a useful backup in many situations whether you are at home, unwell and cannot go to the shops, or travel and need to have a supply of food that won’t go off.

Some formulas may have a positive effect on plaque control (1, 2, 3, 4)

Veterinary foods can literally save your dog’s life, help with severe allergies and dermatological conditions, and the easiest and scientifically-backed option during recovery, chronic illness or while a pooch is trying to lose weight.

Can kibble really kill our dogs?

Kibble does not kill dogs. In fact, any kibble from a PFMA-registered manufacturer will always be a better option than a typical home-made or raw diet that are practically never balanced and may even contain heavy metals above any reasonable limits. There have been studies and reports on cockers who survived DCM after their diet was swapped from home-made food to commercial kibble, and other case studies of puppies suffering from malnutrition and bone abnormalities after eating raw-based diets.

It is true that kibble may contain aflatoxins because these substances are present around in abundance. They may be found in grains due to poor storage, changes in moisture and temperatures, or when crops survive extreme weather conditions or insect damage. However, any responsible pet food manufacturer abides to a set of very strict rules and practices including pet food safety and regular testing of their ingredients before they leave the supplier or upon delivery of each batch. The storage practices are also regulated.

Pet food companies get their supplies of grains from the same sources as human food companies, so if you believe that your dog’s kibble may contain mycotoxins and thus be harmful, you must also admit to yourself that any rice, oats or barley you cook for your family is also a source of danger.

It is true that there were food recalls of several brands due to aflatoxin poisoning in dogs. They happened in the US, 12 episodes were documented between 1975 and 2006, the ingredient in question was corn, not rice, wheat or barley, on two occasions the harm was caused by too much vitamin D3 or synthetic antioxidants. For the 2006 case it was established that the manufacturer “did not adhere to its own stringent guidelines for aflatoxin testing of 12 shipments… The final food product was shipped to… retailers in 23 states and at least 29 countries.”

These cases are rare, very rare and so far seemed to occur in the States and Australia, not the UK or Europe, and always – due to malpractices and carelessness. Your dog is more likely to catch bacteria from a raw food or suffer from malnutrition if he eats home-made diet than get poisoning from commercial kibble.

The 2007 melamine poisoning that was an absolute tragedy for many families also happened in the US because the company used ingredients containing melamine.

And in 2018, 2019 and 2021 several brands of dog food had to be recalled because they contained too much vitamin D. If it makes you feel any better, it is more likely that food recalls would involve human food, especially in its natural, raw state, than pet food. And it’s worth to mention that raw pet food also gets recalled too, though manufacturers do not always make it known to general public and the updates end up on food safety news website only. There were 51 samples of raw food (three quarters of all tested) that failed safety tests in the EU due to bacterial contamination in 2019, was a raw food recall in the UK and 67 (yes, 67!) cases in the US in 2020 and 2021.

So it’s not all black and white and all we can do is to choose manufacturers we trust among the ones registered with PFMA and keep on living. No company wants to recall their food or intentionally cause harm to our dogs. Yes, ALL companies are interested in making profits because it’s the nature of any successful business. But any successful business also exists because of their happy customers, so they will always do their absolute best to keep things safe. My dogs eat food made by British company who use a mixture of regular and organic ingredients that they farm (except the rice) making it fully traceable, use no preservatives or synthetic additives and BPA-free packaging.

Does kibble cause cancer?

I would not let you go unless we talked about the big C vs big K (for kibble) question. Canine cancer is a complex subject. It goes far beyond the subject of nutrition even though nutrition does play a very important role. The frustrating part is that dry food got the blame for everything because of some studies that got taken out of content and re-told in ways that suited the story tellers and their personal objectives and believes – not the unbiased views of knowledge or science. If you look closely, the tales often originate on blogs and websites of people who may look for somebody to blame or use it as a marketing strategy to divert people attention from “killer kibble” to their own brand of food or product.

First of all, the kibble is directly and conveniently compared to human junk food because this is a kind of association many could easily understand – not because the two are alike. Any junk food or many processed foods you’d get in certain food chains really are garbage however you look at them. They are completely unbalanced nutritionally, made with a few ingredients that have once been natural (do you get a piece of mind being assured that a milk shake does contain milk? because it has to be specified to be believed?) and then enhanced with sugar, preservatives, additives, colorants and flavour enhancers before being dipped in hydrogenated fats. Naturally, nobody, absolutely nobody, would remain healthy if they regularly ate these “foods”.

On the other hand, good quality kibble is made with ingredients and animal parts that came from the same factory as human foods. The only difference is that the dogs are given parts most humans would  find unappetising (unless some junk food chain mashes them into a pulp and uses this mince to create objects that resemble chicken breast or real burgers). Pet food companies that follow strict standards will never use road kill, dead animals or put hairs, hooves, horns and other inedible parts into their products. This is against the law. On the other hand, bird feathers and human hair can be legally used in some flours and breads made for human consumption, and beaver anal and urine secretion may end up as a natural flavouring in your strawberry ice-cream. 

The temperatures used to make extruded kibble were initially around or over 200C. These days many companies produce kibble at temperatures of 120-180C. Some go even below 120C. A few use cold pressed method. Yes, using any form of heat can reduce certain nutrients, but it can also destroy harmful bacteria and anti-nutrients that can affect dog’s health. Also, if you just think about it, every time you cook anything in the oven for your own dinner, the temperatures would be around 165-200C, but it won’t necessarily mean that all those meals will lead to fatal disease, just like eating raw diet 100% would not necessarily turn you into a picture of health or give you a supermodel physique.

The carbohydrates in kibble are not necessarily the cause of cancer either. Yes, sugar, particularly refined sugar, may be responsible for inflammation and cell mutations. On the other hand wholegrains, starchy vegetables and fruits contain various forms of sugars, but they also contain fiber that helps to reduce the risk of digestive issues, and vitamins and minerals that work as antioxidants protecting the body and keeping it strong and potentially cancer-free. And I just have to mention that barbecuing your favourite steak or cooking any meat to achieve that tempting brown crust also causes production of acrylamides as well as other carcinogen (especially true for the BBQ)

You might have also heard of acrylamides as one of the reasons to avoid kibble because these substances are formed in many foods as as a result of cooking at high temperatures, which is known as Maillard reaction. So far all is true. It is also true that acrylamide in its various forms is concidered to be a potential carcinogen for humans because it caused tumours in rats that were given experimental oral doses of acrylamides as a part of a study. However, according to science, we cannot really be fully compared to rodents because humans aren’t rats, one has to be extensively exposed to acrylamide to be at risk through either industrial exposure or smoking, and there was no exact link between breast cancer and acrylamides in US women. When studies looked into dietary sources of acrylamide, the outcomes were inconclusive for several reasons: the amount of acrylamide varied greatly between foods, many “healthy foods” contained acrylamides yet were fantastic sources of nutrients and cancer-fighting antioxidants, and Maillard reaction could include production of other substances, not just acrylamide. It has also been established that boiling and cooking on a hob at lower temperatures did not produce acrylamide. But over-baking, frying, deep-frying and microwaving did. Additionally, the list of worst foods included crisps, chips (half of the total exposure!) and bread – all of them are sources of either white potatoes or refined flours, not vegetables of wholegrains!

When it comes to pet foods, a small study did find acrylamide in certain brands of pet food. The selected formulas of kibble were based on derivatives and unnamed grains and thus can only be viewed as an example and not the indefinite proof. However, even this small research mentioned that the amount of acrylamides were “relatively moderate compared to human food” and several other studies demonstrated that acrylamide can be metabolised and detoxified.

Another study included three lab puppies that were fed burnt maize porridge by their breeder and died. Acrylamide was considered because the porridge was badly burnt and there were no bacterial or other infections found in pups through testing. However, the researchers only suggested acrylamide as a possible reason. It was also mentioned that the puppies have not been fully vaccinated and when they were operated on, the vets also found hard objects in their stomach, which turned out to be the undigested porridge, so it could also contribute to the tragic outcome.

Regardless of what you do, our exposure to acrylamide is unavoidable. We can potentially reduce the risk of over-exposure, but all living creatures will still end up with some of those molecules in their bodies for about 24 hours and then detoxify most of the substance provided the body, and the liver in particular, are healthy.

It is also incredibly important to remember that dogs are much closer to humans in their biology and reaction to disease than rodents, so chances are, dogs reaction to acrylamides will be similar to ours, not the ones of lab rats. When beagles were given very high doses of acrylamide in 1974, they developed neurological symptoms. A 1981 study on greyhounds reported that dogs suffered from nerve damage and difficulty swallowing after they were given pure acrylamide in a water solution. A 1984 study also showed that dogs absorbed the substance rapidly, but over 60% was later excreted naturally. In all three cases, however, the exposure was extensive and affected the nervous system, but did not cause cancer. 

Disease, neither human nor canine, is never limited to temperatures. Never. It is a combination of genetics, breed predisposition, health status, preventative and medical care, weight, lifestyle, emotions, choice of every product you’d have around your home (and choice of home and homewares too!), choice of tableware and cooking utensils, choice of ingredients and storage, activities and rest, places you visit and locations you avoid.

Saying that kibble is cancerous simply because it is processed at high temperatures is wrong and misleading. It instils fear, and fear leads to serious mistakes and can even puts you and your dog in a state of disease.

Cancer can happen to dogs and people who have been eating healthy food and living a healthy life and it may never happen to people or dogs who existed on very poor quality diet, smoked, drunk and moulded the sofa to replicate the shape of their derrier.

Dry dog is not evil and is definitely less problematic than anything you’d whisk yourself on a whim or feed your dog any commercial foods that are based on trends more than science. 

Use a trusted PFMA-registered manufacturer, consult a qualified nutritionist about creating a balance between your dog’s main diet and a few fresh and healthy treats, test your dogs vitals once a year if veterinary assessment alone does not give you a full peace of mind, use preventatives, groom well, stay active, create a dog-friendly home free from products and substances that can harm your cocker.