23 July 2011

How do I stop my dog from ...

Training a dog to stop an undesirable behaviour can be hard work and time-consuming, particularly so for behaviours that are enjoyable, are well-established habits, or are stress reactions.  I uphold the view that a dog’s home, including the garden, yard and car, should be the ultimate haven – a safe environment that holds no nasty surprises or areas of tension between dog and owner – and as such, the use of aversive training tools and techniques to stop undesirable behaviours in the home is not something that I subscribe to.  However, many unacceptable or potentially dangerous behaviours can be easily resolved via a bit of management on our part – not with training tools or techniques, but simply by preventing the dog from doing the behaviour in the first place.  Preventing unacceptable, habitual behaviours also plays a vital part in the training of alternative behaviours, if indeed an alternative behaviour needs to be trained.  But sometimes, there is no need to train an alternative behaviour.  Sometimes, all that is required is to go with the obvious solution and leave it at that, provided of course that the dog is clearly having its needs met in other areas.  The obvious solution is not a cop out, and more often than not comes with a 100% guarantee of immediate success!

The following are my top 10, genuine questions from clients that I get asked on a regular basis, along with my answers ...

12 July 2011

Mood Food

The right nutrition can play an important role in helping to resolve certain behaviour issues. On the outside, even a dog fed on the lowest quality ‘complete’ dry food can look the picture of good physical heath, but a cold wet nose and glossy coat aren’t necessarily indicators of good mental health.  Very often, problems such as fear, aggression, compulsive behaviour and separation distress can all be improved through changing or adding something to the diet.

Using food to influence mood can speed up and enhance the training process too – think about it, if the brain’s neuro-chemistry is out of whack, what chance does training alone stand to change behaviour for the better?  Like the body, the brain needs the correct nutrition in order to function well.


Tryptophan.  Tryptophan is the dietary, protein amino-acid pre-cursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin, commonly known as the ‘mood-enhancing hormone’.   Serotonin and another brain hormone, dopamine, work in balance in the brain, but are often out of balance in all of us to some extent.  Whereas dopamine is the ‘excitatory’ neurotransmitter responsible for desire and addiction (and strangely, also aversion), serotonin is the mood enhancing, emotion balancing neurotransmitter. 

Compulsive behaviour, anxiety and aggression are common symptoms of low serotonin.  Excitability and impulsive behaviour are common symptoms of high dopamine.  Increasing serotonin levels in the brain has a positive effect on mood, counters the effects of high dopamine, and stabilises emotional response.  Serotonin is also important for the control of sleep cycles and in the neurochemistry of stress. 

Dietary sources of tryptophan include lamb and turkey.  Feeding a diet high in lamb or turkey will therefore provide a high level of dietary tryptophan.

Tryptophan is a valuable dietary addition for dogs with compulsive behaviour (including acral lick granuloma), anxiety, aggression, excitability or impulse control issues, and separation distress syndrome (see below).

.  The digestion of casein, a phosphoprotein found in milk products, produces peptides called casomorphins.  Casomorphins release naturally occurring opioids that are absorbed into the bloodstream and have a relaxing, mildly sedative effect.  

Milk powder and cottage cheese in particular contain high levels of casein.  For baby mammals, mother’s milk is naturally high in casein with the percentage depending on species and time of lactation – mid-lactation, casein accounts for around 85% of the proteins in cows milk, 75% of the proteins in canine milk, and 50% of the proteins in human milk.

Casein is a useful dietary addition for dogs with fear and anxiety issues.  Dogs with separation-distress-syndrome (SDS) often have a decreased availability of naturally occurring opioids and serotonin.  Opioids help to reduce separation-distress behaviours associated with care-seeking, particularly distress vocalizations (e.g. barking, whining).


Essential Fatty Acids.  Essential fatty acids or ‘EFAs’, commonly known as the omega oils, are necessary for healthy brain and nervous system function.  The best source of the EFAs EPA and DHA (omega 3), and GLA (omega 6) and the non-essential fatty acid OA (omega 9) is oily fish. 

Although commercial pet food manufacturers are not legally required to include EFAs in dog food, many are now doing so as the benefits of EFAs are becoming common knowledge, however, in pet food manufactured using high temperatures and extrusion, the inclusion of EFAs boils down to a superficial selling factor, because excessive heat and processing denatures or destroys EFAs.

Because the body cannot make EFAs from other fats, EFAs are an important dietary addition for all dogs. 

Including into the diet a portion of oily fish such as sardine, mackerel, herring or pilchard a couple of times a week can help maintain a good level of EFAs. 

If using a fish oil supplement, ensure that it is ‘EPA’ fish oil, not cod liver oil.  EPA fish oil comes from the body of the fish and is not the same as cod liver oil, which, if given regularly or excessively, can cause a toxic excess of vitamins A, E and D.

Olive oil.  Olive oil is a rich source of oleic acid (OA), the nutritional precursor of oleamide, a psychoactive lipid.  Oleamide appears to play a significant role in sleep induction and the modulation of serotonergic neurotransmission.

Olive oil can be a useful dietary addition for dogs with fear and anxiety issues, including separation distress. 

The olive oil must be ‘cold-pressed’, usually indicated on the bottle by the statement ‘manufactured by mechanical means’.  As with excessive heat in pet food production, this is because processing olive oil with heat destroys much of its beneficial properties.


The body converts carbohydrate into glucose.  The digestion of glucose, as well as providing energy in the form of calories, invokes an insulin release, and when carbohydrates are fed alongside a high-quality protein source that is rich in naturally occurring tryptophan (lamb, turkey) this helps to give the tryptophan a ‘priority pass’ to the brain.  The insulin does this by binding up some of the other protein amino-acids in the blood stream making more blood-brain transport molecules available on which the circulating tryptophan can hitch a ride. 

Simple carbohydrate sources such as those found in sweet potato, butternut squash, berries, fruits (not red or white grapes, raisins or sultanas – these are all toxic to dogs) and raw honey are useful additions for dogs requiring a diet high in tryptophan. 

As well as glucose for energy, vegetables, fruits and berries provide a valuable source of  various vitamins, anti-oxidants, minerals and trace elements.

Complex carbohydrates (cereals and grains) on the other hand can contribute to excessive energy levels resulting in hyperactive and stimulation seeking behaviour.  This could be due to the diet consisting of large quantities of complex carbohydrates (not biologically appropriate for dogs), a complex carbohydrate source that has a particularly high calorific value (e.g. oats), or a complex carbohydrate source that causes an allergy or intolerance (e.g. wheat, maize or soya).  A diet high in complex carbohydrates can also lead to unhealthy weight-gain and diabetes.


Vitamins are either fat-soluble or water-soluble.  Water-soluble vitamins are not stored in the body and need to be replaced regularly.  The vitamins that have the most influence on behaviour are the B-complex group of vitamins. 

The B-complex group of vitamins are water-soluble and as well as playing an important role in cell metabolism, B vitamins are implicated in emotional and mental well-being.  B vitamins are found in varying levels and quantities in meat, however, because B vitamins are heat sensitive, they are largely destroyed by food manufacturing processes that use high temperatures and extrusion.

Vitamin B1 (thiamine).  Vitamin B1 helps to maintain the peripheral nervous system.  Vitamins B1 deficiency can give rise to restlessness and irritability.

Vitamin B3 (niacin).  Amongst other things, Vitamin B3 is needed in the manufacture of stress-hormones.  Vitamin B3 deficiency can give rise to fear, depression and impaired cognitive function. 

Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid).  Vitamin B5 helps to support nervous system and brain functions.  Vitamin B5 deficiency is implicated in depression,

Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine).  Vitamin B6 is needed in the manufacture of serotonin, melatonin and dopamine.  Vitamin B6 deficiency can give rise to all manner of psychological disturbances.  Vitamin B6 is the most heat sensitive of the B vitamins and is destroyed at a temperature of 85 degrees Centigrade.

Vitamin B12 (cobalamine).  Vitamin B12 is vital for nervous system health.  Vitamin B12 deficiency can give rise to brain damage and neurological disorders, and can be a causal factor of aggressive behaviour.  An insufficient level of B6 will disrupt the absorption of B12, as will the medical condition, pernicious anaemia.


Raw lamb meat provides an excellent source of all B vitamins and manganese (see below).


Minerals and trace elements are important to mental health and emotional stability.  The three with the most influence over behaviour are calcium, magnesium and manganese.  

Calcium.  Depletion of calcium affects the central nervous system, and low levels of calcium cause nervousness and irritability.  These days, calcium deficiency is very rare in dogs and for those fed on any ‘complete’ formula there is no need to supplement with extra calcium, however, owners who feed a home-cooked or raw diet that does not include bone need to ensure that calcium is being supplied at a sufficient level.    

Magnesium.  Magnesium deficiency can result in impaired cognitive function, anxiety, nervousness, and unpredictable behaviour (as well as a variety of physical problems).  Stress contributes to magnesium depletion within the body, and an imbalance of gut flora directly affects magnesium absorption.  Spinach is a good source of magnesium (and calcium).

Manganese.  Manganese is needed for effective utilisation of the B-complex vitamins (see above) and vitamin C, and in the production of the hormone, thyroxin.  A low level of thyroxin can cause lethargy and irritable aggression.  As with magnesium, intestinal gut flora needs to be balanced for manganese to be absorbed effectively.


Although not food, hard chewing (e.g. of bones or nylon chew toys) invokes an insulin release. 

As with the digestion of simple carbohydrates, this insulin release will provide any circulating tryptophan better access to the transport molecules that move protein amino-acids across the blood-brain barrier into the brain.

Feeding raw meaty bones such as lamb ribs as a meal is the ideal way to provide a dog with a healthy dose of chewing.

For dogs fed on kibble and soft diets, providing a nylon chew after meals can work well too, and many kibble-fed dogs have a natural desire to chew after they have eaten. 

Ultimately, changing behaviour for the better is all about changing what is going on in the dog's brain - improving mood, emotional response and the ability to learn and retain training - and just as a cold wet nose and glossy coat provide a picture of good physical health, a well-behaved and emotionally balanced dog reflects good mental health.  Feed for the brain, as well as for the body!