Using treats is a great way not only to train your dog and reward him for good behavior, but also to supplement his diet with nutrients for his individual needs. At the same time, you don't want to add to his waistline. The best way to control the ingredients, fat and calories in his treats is to mix up a batch yourself. Diet dog treats are easy to make and let you keep rewarding your pup without putting on needless pounds.
Find a Base
Making treats healthier and lower in calories is very easy once you find the right base ingredients. To stay gluten-free and increase healthy fiber, the best way to get a good consistency is with the right grain. The best is rolled oats (at least a cup or two), either whole or ground a little finer for easier mixing. If you find a recipe you like, you can substitute oats for any type of flour. Then you'll want an egg (or two), or 1/4 to 1/2 cup of applesauce to help bind your mix. A tablespoon or two of molasses or honey will provide some sweetness, and some flour or cornmeal (1/4 to 1/3 cup) will help with rolling the dough. For an easy and healthy protein source you can use sunflower seeds, peanuts or low-fat peanut butter (1/3 to 1/2 cup). Add water, low-fat dairy milk or unsweetened almond milk as needed to work the mixture. Preheat your oven to 300 degrees while you are getting the ingredients together.
Boost the Nutrients
What else you add will depend on your dog's individual needs. Bananas, carrots and blueberries are great for dogs of all ages and sizes. They are high in nutrients, antioxidants and heart-healthy fiber. One ripe or slightly overripe banana or 1/2 cup of ripe or soft blueberries or shredded carrots is easy to add and mix. For younger dogs who could use extra calcium, 1/4 cup of low-fat plain yogurt is a perfect and delicious addition. Pumpkin is a dog superfood. It is a known stomach soother for dogs of all ages. The high fiber helps with weight loss or control and it even supports healthy urinary tracts. Just a few tablespoons of canned pumpkin (not the pie filler) will give your dog all of these benefits.
Add Some Oils
For dogs with skin problems or allergies, a tablespoon of sunflower or safflower oil will help them feel better and be more resilient to irritation. A tablespoon of coconut oil will boost the immune and digestive systems and help heal abrasions while making for a shinier coat. The omega-3 fatty acids in a tablespoon of fish or flaxseed oil will make the treats more palatable while working as anti-inflammatories, boosting immunity and brain function and preventing skin and coat problems. Any of these will add healthy fats and keep dogs on lower-calorie diets satiated as well.
Mix and Bake
Mix all the ingredients together by hand or on a slow mixer speed. Add oats or liquids as necessary until the dough is firm enough to be handled. Then roll it out and either shape it into small balls and flatten or cut with a cookie cutter. (Many dollar stores and pet supply stores carry bone- and paw-shaped cookie cutters.) Bake in your preheated oven for 30 minutes. Let cool, serve and store. Since you've included no preservatives, keep your treats in a sealed container. Be sure to adjust your dog's food on days when he is training or otherwise getting an excessive amount of treats.
Do not be afraid to try different ingredients or amounts. Work with whatever you want to add to your dog's diet while keeping the nutrients and fiber high and the fat and calories low. If you are in doubt, call your veterinarian and ask about a particular ingredient. Play with different fruits and vegetables (no onions, grapes or fruit pits) until you get a mix that you and your dog both like, so training is fun for you both. Your pup will surely be a willing taste tester for the different recipes you cook up.
Kat Toland has worked with animals for over 20 years. She's been employed in the pet industry, but more significantly has been involved in all aspects of rescue, working with cats, dogs, horses, even spending time with rescued wolves. She currently volunteers with a group that runs with shelter dogs.