They eat pea shells and slices of apple, go nutty for peanut butter, and would sell out their own mothers for an entire piece of bacon. Food can come on a plate, in a bowl on the floor, even on the floor, and it makes no difference. Not even the most fervent restaurant-goer loves food, and I mean all food, as much as a dog.
But when we talk about dog food, does anyone actually have much to say? Most of it is made from ingredients deemed unfit for humans, which is why there’s a difference between so-called "human grade" and "feed grade" foods. Even the "good stuff" that comes in a can is no more appetizing, ranging from underwhelming pate-gray to chunky, syrupy brown meat bits.
American dog owners are increasingly feeding their pets as they feed themselves.
The dogs of America are ready for an upgrade. A recent Boston Globe article (title: "Millennials’ pets eat better than you") reported that young pet owners are "feeding their pets as they feed themselves: free range, organic, and gluten-free." The raw food diet that’s trendy among certain humans has also found its way into pet stores. Between 2014 and 2015, sales of freeze-dried and frozen raw pet foods increased 64 percent to $40 million and 32 percent to $52 million respectively, according to market research firm GfK. Statistics from the American Pet Products Association show that overall spending on pets increased to $60.28 million in 2015 from $28.5 in 2001. There are canine-friendly pop-ups with multi-course dog dinners, dog-exclusive restaurants, and a selection of "pooch hooch" dogs are literally lapping up.
As American dog owners look for new ways to spoil their pets, a growing number of books are focusing on safe-for-dogs recipes. 2011’s The Culinary Canine: Great Chefs Cook for Their Dogs — and So Can You! featured 30 chefs who happily cook for their dogs. In it, Dominique Crenn revealed her rescued Chihuahua Maximus "loves blueberries," recommending a "poached chicken, organic brown rice, and blueberries" dish that wouldn’t be out of place in a food magazine. Chef Anita Lo, of New York’s Annisa, offered a dog-friendly recipe for "roasted filet of bluefish with roasted yams, peas, and bacon."
But for those aren’t so comfortable in the kitchen — or who would consider it torture to cook one meal for humans and another for their pets — books like Cooking for Two — Your Dog and You offer a guide to interspecies dining. But just because they can, should people and pets really eat the same things? How do America’s dogs feel about home-cooked meals? I decided to find out.
Two members of the canine family gladly agreed to be test subjects. Mesa, the female volunteer, is a three-year-old, often grumpy-looking lab mutt. Bandit, representing male dogs, is a one-year-old Catahoula Leopard Dog from Texas who has gotten into trouble on multiple occasions for stealing kisses. Conveniently, they both live in my house. Together we tested five recipes from two upcoming cookbooks: Dog Obsessed by Lucy Postins (Rodale Books, released October 11), and Cooking for Two by Brandon Schultz and his canine co-author Chase Schultz-Osenlund (Skyhorse Publishing, out October 4), as well as a new version of Shaggy Dog Eats by Christy Bright (Sterling, August 2016).
The first two meals came from Cooking for Two — the human-friendly chicken and rice dish known as "Arroz con Pollo" and a heaping portion of macaroni and cheese. Like most of the recipes, after a few steps, the directions for both dishes verge into separate categories "for dogs" and "for humans," depending on who is getting fed what portion. Cooking for Two’s recipes are meant to be timesavers compared to cooking two entirely different meals for a person and a dog — yet they come in one-meal servings for a reason. Though many people feed dogs leftover scraps, many human foods shouldn’t be given to pets. Some are only bad in large quantities and cause upset stomachs, while others — like chocolate or caffeine — can lead to death. Other ingredients like cheese might be fine in small quantities but, as most dogs can’t easily process lactose, are best left for an occasional treat. The most notable no-nos for these recipes’ purposes are salt, sugar, and onions. Unfortunately, it’s easy to forget how salt and onions making everything taste delicious — until you remove them from a recipe.
Schultz’s macaroni and cheese recipe did allow the dogs to have cheese (like people, dogs that are lactose intolerant or need low-fat diets shouldn’t be eating whole-fat dairy products), though humans were instructed not to add spices or hot sauce to theirs until putting it in their own bowls. Frankly, my standards for macaroni and cheese are probably about as low as the dog’s, but ultimately, this recipe felt more like a TV snack than a full meal. The dogs, unsurprisingly, loved it.
This arroz con pollo had no yellow rice (since it’s usually made with spices, onion, and garlic), substituting the white stuff instead. While the chicken thighs were seasoned with salt and pepper, the recipe advised removing the skin before giving any to the dog. Because of the light seasoning, humans were instructed to add salt and pepper to their own dishes once the dog’s portion had been set aside. But it just wasn’t enough. My fiancé walked into the kitchen while I was cooking and looked forward to the meal. But after a few bites he put down his fork and said, "I might have something else for dinner."
So the dogs ended up eating most of the dish. Once again, they loved it. Bandit and Mesa continued pushing their bowls around the floor with hopeful licks long after the last pieces were gone. When the average recipe ends up in the dog’s dish, it’s a failure — but for this arroz con pollo, the dog bowl was the final destination all along.
This revealed an unexpected benefit of cooking for your dogs: There’s almost no way to get a recipe wrong. "Cooking for a dog is probably the lowest form of pressure," says Schultz, author of Cooking for Two. His recipes highlight simple comfort foods — "stuff you need to learn to cook anyway" — Schultz says, and it’s all about "maximizing flavor with the fewest ingredients." Unlike cookbooks with long, multi-part ingredient lists, these recipes are easy on home cooks without a developed pantry, but most recipes make multiple servings, which means a lot of beginner cooks are testing new culinary skills on unsuspecting friends and family. "It’s easier for people to cook for a cat or a dog," Schultz says. "They’ll eat what you give them for the most part." He pauses, "Maybe not a cat. They’re a bit more judgey."
The trend of cooking for dogs is, for many owners, about giving their pets the best quality food out there. Yet there was also a more serious catalyst for the rise in premium pet foods. In 2007, Canadian pet food manufacturer Menu Foods received a shipment of wheat gluten from a new supplier in China. These ingredients, it later turned out, came with a hidden additive — melamine — which was used to cheaply fake the food’s protein levels. The adulterated food resulted in the largest pet food recall in history, and the deaths of thousands of dogs and cats.
"If you have a tasty people recipe, it’s not so great for your dog. If you have tasty dog food, it’s not so good for people."
Owners were shocked, not just at the horrific fallout, but that so many different brands of food could originate in the same place with the same ingredient. Menu’s food sold under a variety of more familiar names — Iams, Eukanuba, Nutro, Hill’s — totaling roughly 100 brands of dog and cat food. As the story broke, non-commercial foods grew in popularity. The New York Times noted that many cookbooks for pet foods sold out on Amazon the week of the recall; sales of others tripled.
And not all dog cookbooks are meant for humans to enjoy. "The stuff that provides the flavor we’re looking for isn’t good for dogs," says Rick Woodford, author of Feed Your Best Friend Better, possibly the most popular cookbook in the canine genre. "If you have a tasty people recipe, it’s not so great for your dog. If you have tasty dog food, it’s not so good for people."
Dog Obsessed was written by the founder of California’s Honest Kitchen, a company that makes "human-grade" pet foods, and the majority of its recipes feature meals made at least in part from its products. Yet, it also thoughtfully includes a section highlighting "Meals for you and your dog — with wine!" By this point in the cooking experiments, Bandit realized that he wanted to be part of whatever was going on in the kitchen always. Mesa, being slightly older and wiser, was content to watch from her bed in the kitchen, ready to spring up for the chance to get a special treat.
Together, we made chicken stew with tomatoes and greens. (If by "together" you mean "I made it and they sniffed around the kitchen until they got to eat some.") But this meal was not just filling for dogs and humans, it was delicious, too. Salt was only added to the human portions, though the soup did call for some garlic and two teaspoons of dried Italian seasoning. (While onions are always off limits, garlic in small quantities is okay for dogs.) The recipe featured collard greens, potatoes, diced tomatoes, and chicken — enough food groups and flavors to make a full meal. Interestingly, it was also the healthiest human dish of the lot.
For dessert, I chopped up some apples, processed them with Greek yogurt, and froze the mixture into ice cube trays to make "Apple Pupsicles," per instructions from the Shaggy Dog Cookbook. This book was another one that catered to dogs, though mostly in the form of snacks like peanut butter bones, no bakes, and stuffers for treat dispensers. It was also the only recipe the dogs didn’t quite get. This had more to do with the fact that the dish was frozen: They got around to eating it once it melted a little in their bowls.
According to experts, dogs who have been on a kibble-only diet for their entire lives can’t just switch over to human food overnight. "If your dog has only been eating one thing all of their life, their body gets adjusted to that food," Woodford says. Yet after a slow transition into the new food, dogs can enjoy a varied diet as much as humans do — or maybe more. Woodford’s recipes are made in large batches meant to feed a dog for multiple meals throughout the week, rather than the once-in-a-while approach taken by many other cookbooks. And dogs may seem like they’ll eat anything, but when they have multiple meals to choose from, they develop preferences just like people. "Not every dog can handle the same thing or like the same food," Woodford says.
Though he still makes homemade meals for his pets, Woodford doesn’t believe that there’s just one way to feed a dog well. "Instead of telling people they have to do something, it’s important to show people what they could do." If people aren’t ready to make a meal, they can crush up extra blueberries and throw them on top of their dog’s food or mix in a can of sardines. "I always say to start with teaspoons and tablespoons, not cups and handfuls."
Though Mesa and Bandit continue to haunt the kitchen, their days of dual-species meals may be behind them for one simple reason: there’s another human around I can share my food with. I’ve always hated cooking for myself and might turn to a canine dinner companion in a pinch, but I’m not convinced they will ever appreciate the other aspects of eating. Dogs wolf down kibble as fast (and happily) as macaroni and cheese, stew, cast-offs from dinner, or unwanted leftovers. There is literally nothing they won’t put in their mouths: When she was a puppy, Mesa chewed up an entire razor blade and ate it (somehow she made it out of the terrifying-for-me event entirely unscathed). I might enjoy beautiful plating but, for a dog, all that matters is that there’s food on the plate.