Yesterday I went to the premier dog show in the world: the 135th Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.  The World Series of Woof.  The second oldest continually-held sporting event in the country.  (Know the oldest?  Put your best guess in the comments.)

I was a man on a mission.  I wanted to talk to dog-owners and breeders who fed their dogs an ancestral diet — more or less what a wolf would eat.  What's great is that you actually get to go "backstage" and meet the dogs.  Many owners let you pet their dogs, and most are happy to talk (the owners, not the dogs).  So I went around interviewing owners and breeders.  And — miracle of miracles — many dog owners and breeders are already on to this paleo concept.  But they don't need to call it paleo.  (That's a term that us highly intelligent humans need to help figure out what to eat.)  They just call it raw, whole prey raw, or BARF.  A species-specific diet.  

   

It's astonishing how many health problems go away when you stop feeding grain-based kibble to dogs.  This list of health benefits is assembled form interviews with multiple owners / breeders:

  • *Much* better teeth
  • Bad breath goes away
  • Healthier and shinier coat
  • The dog stops smelling so "dog-like"
  • Less moody
  • Lost weight (if overweight)

Sound familiar?  I wonder why it works.  I asked them what motivated them to feed their dogs this way, and I heard: "Well, it just makes sense."

Not everybody was a fan of raw.  Here were some difficulties and criticisms:

  • Concern about getting a balanced set of nutrients, particularly as puppies
  • The time required to source and prepare quality food
  • Difficulty when traveling
  • Concern about bacterial contamination of animal products

Most WKC dog show owners simply feed their dog kibble / chow — fairly high-end brands, unsurprisingly.  Many dogs do just fine on it.  But these high-end dog food brands have all been going grain free.  (Dog people, with characteristic frankness, just call it "grain free", not the specific and obscure "gluten free".)

Some of it may vary by breed too — there are breeds that are closer to wolves, like a husky, malamute, or spitz.  (You can spot these breeds because they still have the pointy ears, curly tail, and double coat of a wolf.)  One spritz owner just quarters up a cow and tosses it into a pen of puppies.  They happily devour it.  More domesticated breeds may have a higher tolerance for plant foods — even the raw dogs would seek out some fruit in the orchard, and enjoyed carrots and beets.  With so many breeds, I'd be surprised if there weren't some variability in diet.

At the show, there are well over 100 breeds represented.  Each breed belongs to one of seven groups, more or less based on the function they were bred for:

  • Sporting (retrievers, setters, spaniels)
  • Hound (beagles, dachshunds, greyhound)
  • Working (malamute, great dane, husky, rottweiler)
  • Terrier (scottish terrier, bull terrier) 
  • Toy (toy poodle, shih tzu, chihuahua)
  • Non-Sporting (bulldog, poodle, chow chow)
  • Herding (collies, german shepherd)

What's a little ironic is that despite being grouped by function, they aren't assessed by function.  Why not have a competition, and assess the dogs on how well they retrieve, herd, flush out prey, learn commands, and run?  Functional fitness anyone?  And yes, we can also assess them by how well they cuddle and elicit coos from grown men.

One other thing I noticed.  Dog handlers give treats to their dog in the ring.  And they seemed to briefly put the treat in their own mouth, and then give it to the dog.  What was actually happening, I learned, is that the handlers were storing the treats in their mouths.  Apparently, because it's easier to access.  And ya know what the treats are?  Liver.  Cooked liver.  These professional dog handlers are keeping a bunch of cooked liver in their mouths.  Needless to say, dogs really love liver.  Wonder why.  Maybe more nutritious or something.

Anyhow, it was a cool event and if you're ever in NYC when it's going on, I recommend you go.  And no matter where you are, you must now watch clips from one of the funniest movies of all time, Best in Show.  Or better yet, go watch the whole thing.

—————-

Disclaimer: I do not recommend that you eat whole prey raw.  Unless you're a dog.


39 Responses to “Health lessons from the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show”

  1. PaleoPhil says:

     "Disclaimer: I do not recommend that you eat whole prey raw.  Unless you’re a dog."

     
    Why not? Except for the bones and hide, that’s pretty much what I do now.
     
    My understanding was that at least one of the members of your NYC Paleo group is a raw meat eater, yes? Restaurant steak tartare is a good way to try it. There’s also sashimi, of course.
  2. Hunter P says:

    About a year ago, I read about BARF and how all domesticated dog breed’s DNA differ from the gray wolf by at most 0.2% and so I started feeding my vizsla a raw diet of what I picture a dog would eat in the wild, mostly birds like chicken, whole and raw, and I can’t say enough about how much healthier she is since the switch. People constantly comment on how beautiful and smooth her coat is, how clean her teeth are, and how muscular she looks, which is also partly due to all the running we do together. She’s my running buddy and I think she’ll be running next to me for a long time to come thanks to a raw diet. I have people stop me all the time while we’re running just because they want to see her! (then they ask how am I running barefoot)

     

    For anyone who’s curious about trying it, you need to feed around 2%-3% of total body weight per day. I stick close to 3% since my dog is very active. I usually pick up 2 whole chickens a week from the grocery store and cut them up into whole, weighed portions and store in a container in my fridge. Then I weigh her bowl each night and I might add some extra organs or eggs to bring the weight up if needed because no matter how I cut a chicken leg & thigh off of the chicken body, it’s usually a little under the amount she needs (3%). Also I started giving her some fish oil on top of that because I think that’s beneficial since she’s just eating factory-farmed chickens; I have a squirt bottle of pure alaskan salmon oil (made for dogs) that I order every few months from amazon.

     

    BARF costs me about the same as I used to pay for science diet kibble, which is full of grains >:-( And if you’re out of raw food one day don’t switch to kibble! It won’t hurt your dog to do some intermittent fasting too and I’m sure there’s days that wild wolves don’t catch anything to eat either. Just give them extra the next couple of days so they meet the same amount per body weight weekly. The only time I feed kibble is when we go on vacation and I only buy grain-free brands in that situation. Even Costco has a cheap, grain free dog food, Kirklands healthy-weight dog food. I also found chicken jerky at Costco for dog treats.

     

    I just wish I had known about BARF when I used to have pet ferrets, all 3 of them died from diseases of the endocrine system, which is very common for pet ferrets, and I believe that’s due to the typical ferret kibble and sugary pet store treats that they ate all their lives. I would bet some of the problems my past dogs have had too, cancer, stomach tumors, were also caused by a lifetime of eating kibble. I will never feed another dog, ferret, or whatever anything but BARF (except on vacation ;-)

  3. Donna B says:

    Thanks for the pix-our dog is a lhasa apso and would look like the one in the picture if i put him in a bubble for a week or two-maybe we’ll go to one of your events and bring him!

  4. Arseny says:

     I have a Portuguese Mountain Dog. THey are a giant work/herding breed. Ace is currently 100 pounds.  I feed him Dr Harvey’s Veg-to-Bowl. 

    http://www.drharveys.com/products/show/13-veg-to-bowl

    It’s really simple. Freeze dried vegetables, high quality enough for human consumption according to the package. You soak it in boiling water, add some kind of fat (butter, hemp oil, flaxseed oil, etc) then add protein – eggs, ground beef, chicken, livers, Ace goes BONKERS for ground kidneys. 

    They also have an option that has grain, which they recommend for dogs that need extra carbs because they have high energy, high activity levels, or need to put on weight. They recommend the vegetable mix for adult dogs that only need to maintain their body weight, or fatty fat fat dogs that need to lose it. 

    I’ve even started feeding my cat with their veg-to-bowl mix for cats. I just use tuna from a can. He goes nuts for it.

    It’s definitely a bit of a hassle to prepare – a lot more time goes into shopping for fresh meat than a giant bag of kibble. A lot more time goes into boiling water, soaking the vegetables, mixing in meat and oil than scooping and throwing kibble into a bowl. But at least I know EXACTLY what my animals are ingesting.

    And the effects you describe are definitely evident. Fur is thicker and more lustrous, more energy, they smell better, never have indigestion. My cat had the most noticeable transformation. He just hit 16 years old in November, which is about when i started feeding him this way. He was losing clumps of fur, he was fat,  and never moved except to go to the bathroom and eat – not even to wash himself. Now his coat is full and luxurious, he cleans himself, he’s up and around all the time, asks to go outside and actually hunts things again. Essentially, he’s reverted to his 5 year old self. 

  5. Colette says:

     I know not the same as raw, but I started giving my dogs complete omega supplements and they helped a ton. Especially with my golden retriever, he has serious joint problems and if he doesn’t take the supplements for a while he definitely gets a flair up.  Interesting info.  And that is one of the funniest movies ever, haven’t watched it in a while, think I’m going to have to pull it out and watch it now! I’ve always wanted to go to the dog show after I saw it, great that you went! 

  6. Ken says:

    Is it some sort of rowing event ala the winklevosses?

  7. Anonymous says:

     The oldest, continuously held athletic event that I know of is the Scottish Highland Games sponsored by the Caledonian Club of San Francisco. They started in 1866 and are still going strong. The Kentucky Derby didn’t start until 1875.

     www.caledonian.org/games.html

  8. WyldKard says:

    The irony about showing purebreds at these events and feeding a BARF diet is that many show dogs, because they’ve been bred for aesthetics, are inherently unhealthy. Take the English Bulldog, for example, which has changed considerably over the years. Today, it’s a breed that cannot be birthed without C-section, has huge breathing difficulties, and is generally uncomfortable, if not in pain, for most of its life.

    We’ve fed our dog a raw diet for most of her life, starting just before six months of age or so. The concerns regarding a BARF diet that most people mention are typically cop-outs. Yes, you can prepare your own food, which is a little more time consuming, but you can just as easily buy raw food from good pet stores. Primal and Bravo are two popular brands, but there are several others. These brands usually come in large "sausages" of ground meat and vegetables, or patties that are already portioned. Because these brands are not /just/ meat, they already contain all the nutrients a dog needs.

    We keep all our dog’s food in the freezer, and put a couple day’s worth in the fridge at a time to thaw out. We supplement this food with raw marrow bones, and the occasional raw chicken back or wings. People don’t need to be afraid of their dogs choking on raw bones, because it’s the cooking (contrary to the popular opinion) that makes bones brittle and causing them to splinter. Do wolves not devour raw bones?

    Ultimately, most people introduced to a BARF diet for their dogs who don’t jump on-board either refuse to believe the facts (ignorant) or aren’t willing to spend the additional money on pet food (and should just not own a pet).

    • John says:

      Yeah, I’d think you’d want to have some baseline standard of health for any given breed for it to count in competition. Yeah, I was thinking the criticisms of BARF and raw sounded like cop-out answers (just like in human health), but didn’t know enough to say so.

  9. Anivair says:

     I fed my dog all raw and often whole prey as a puppy.  He had lots of energy and except for one time I accidentally fed him too much bone and he was stuffed up for a day or so, everything was cool.  he loved the diet.  The only reason I’ve moved him to a grain free kibble now is that I don’t have the time to feed him properly.  One day, he’ll go back on raw. 

    • I can relate. We fed our puppy a mostly raw diet – using some recipe ideas from Dr. Pitcairns Complete Guide to Natural Health For Dogs and Cats. He would eat  raw chicken, mutton, and eggs, and we would occasionally use cooked pork for training treats. We supplemented that with bone meal among other things. Now that he’s grown, he eats a grain-free kibble called Timberwolf. The first several ingredients are meat, poultry, or fish based. He still gets a raw meal from time to time, but kibble does save us a lot of time, especially because he’s a large breed (akita).

      • John says:

        Seems like rural folks or those close to a farm have the easiest time of it. And just like humans, you gotta get a freezer chest!

  10. Jenn says:

     It was really sad — when we first brought our rescued beagle home, I made a chicken that night and reserved the liver to fry up and give to the dog as a treat instead of saving it for my breakfast or lunch.  He didn’t seem to realize it was food at first.  I gave him a little piece, and he played around with it for 15 minutes before eating.  He caught on, though; the next piece was gone in 5 seconds flat.

  11. Anonymous says:

    If one wants to know whether their dog retains its ability to perform the tasks for which the breed was developed, there are "performance events," which include obedience, field trials, earth dog competitions, lure coursing, and so forth.  The Westminster show is what is called a "conformation" show, which determines how closely a particular animal "conforms" to the physical standard for that breed.  In other words, it is a beauty contest.  If you are familiar with the different titles (CH., C.D., J.H., and so forth), you’d see that many of the WKC entries have titles to show they have indeed also obtained titles demonstrating their abilities to perform "functionality" tests!  (In the "dog fancy," it is referred to as "getting a title at both ends.")  Folks can find information about ALL titles offered by the American Kennel Club at their web site:  AKC.com.  In 1998, I attended the WKC show and would strongly advise ALL dog enthusiasts to attend if possible!!  And, ABOVE ALL ELSE, I strongly advise enthusiasts to explore the pro’s and con’s of feeding their dogs!  I’ve long been an advocate of feeding my Terrier breed (Min. Schnauzers) a diet based on the foods they would encounter naturally, which would include meat proteins AND grains, fruits, and vegetables.  None of my current generation of dogs has EVER been to a vet except to receive the State-required rabies vaccination, and none has ever been ill.  Without a great deal of research, I would not have been brave enough to try these things, but I DID the research, and it has turned out quite well for the health of my dogs!  Thanks for listening!!

     

    • John says:

      Thanks for the great info. I’ve learned more from the comments of this post than any in recent memory. Now I really want a dog that gets a title at both ends.

  12. Nance says:

    The Kentucky Derby. And wolves don’t have curly tails. Otherwise, interesting post.  

    • JTI says:

      I noticed that the breeds closest associated with the wolf did not include Shih-Tzus but everything I read about them says they are the closest relative to the wolf.  I know, seems bizzare but that’s from the research that I’ve found while learning about my new Shih-Tzu; which could account for why Shih-Tzus have so many allergies.  Maybe they are eating a lot of things in their dry dog foods that the wolf would never encounter or choose to eat.  I’m still learning and leaning heavily on raw food feeding or BARF.  I’ve already begun giving him holistic additives to make up for what he is not getting from his normal food, the very same things he may benefit from by eating raw, like his cousins.   Thanks for not only this site but for how easy reading it is!

    • JTI says:

      I noticed that the breeds closest associated with the wolf did not include Shih-Tzus but everything I read about them says they are the closest relative to the wolf.  I know, seems bizzare but that’s from the research that I’ve found while learning about my new Shih-Tzu; which could account for why Shih-Tzus have so many allergies.  Maybe they are eating a lot of things in their dry dog foods that the wolf would never encounter or choose to eat.  I’m still learning and leaning heavily on raw food feeding or BARF.  I’ve already begun giving him holistic additives to make up for what he is not getting from his normal food, the very same things he may benefit from by eating raw, like his cousins.   Thanks for not only this site but for how easy reading it is!

    • John says:

      Right and right — I got that one backwards!

  13. Mark says:

     The AKC’s mission statement mentions breeding for type and function, but as you noticed they do not require tests for function (there are such tests available, but it is not required).  The spectacle you witnessed was a conformation contest, where dogs are judged against each other and the dog that most closely matches the written ideal for its breed is the winner.  It is quite possible then to have a well-pedigreed retriever with no interest or talent in actually retrieving.

    Moreover, conformation is a double-edged sword due to the human element, i.e.  does this dog conform well, or am I biased because I like the way this dog looks?  Modern Golden Retrievers , for example, are bred to have belly fur six inches long and nearly touching the ground.  Can you imagine hunting over this dog all day and then trying to brush its coat out?  Bulldogs are now delivered by c-section because the breeders have selected for head size so long that bulldog pups can no longer be delivered vaginally.

    There are other registries out there, like the UKC, that stress "the total dog."  This means that the dogs are expected to have some ability and talent, not just good conformation.  UKC events also don’t allow professional handlers–you own the dog, you handle it.  At AKC events most handlers are professionals because it is thought that handling is beyond most owners’ abilities.

    Welcome to doggie politics.

    After discovering Cordain’s The Paleo Diet, I also discovered BARF for the dog.  I feed my dog Bravo, but purists will give their dogs hunks of meat with bones.  You can get chicken backs for free, or nearly free, at grocery store butcher shops since these are typically thrown away.  Although I have not witnessed it, some people feed raw chicken backs, or whole chickens to their dogs bones and all (NOT cooked, as chicken bones are brittle when cooked, but pliable when raw).  I’m too afraid to do this for fear of choking the dog, but people say it’s not a problem.  The Bravo food has bones in it, but it’s ground very finely.   It also has organs, supposedly in the same proportion that you would find in an actual carcass.  In other words, it’s an attempt to replicate the ancestral diet of dogs.  

    As far as bacterial contamination of dog food goes, the BARFers retort that the dog’s digestive tract is shorter and more acidic than a human’s, more carnivore-like, and this concern is overstated.  But the traveling concern is a problem, as this raw food is typically frozen until just before feeding.  In that case, I use Orijen brand food, which is basically BARF kibble (and not raw).

     

    Love the blog and post.

    • John says:

      Ha, thanks for the intro into doggy politics. I didn’t have any idea what I was getting into. Yeah, a few of the owners I spoke with said the bacterial contamination was just wrong. That a healthy dog can eat a maggot-infested meat and be just fine. And what you need to watch out for is kibble that has been accidentally poisoned or lacking some vital nutrient.

  14. Jared says:

    As something of a dog nerd, I’m glad to see you post on this.

    Part of what influenced my decision to finally go paleo was its similarity to the BARF diet I’d raised my Ridgeback on. I’d seen firsthand the difference it made in my dog’s diet – shinier coat, less dental plaque, more muscle tone, more energy, among other things, all from just giving her a raw quarter-chicken every night. Species-appopriate diet worked like gangbusters for her, so I gave paleo a shot for me, with similar results.

    Incidentally, if you want to learn more about BARF, hit up Dr. Ian Billinghurst’s "Give Your Dog A Bone." It’s the definitive text.

    And yes. Conformation shows like Westminster are essentially beauty contests, the goal being to judge which animal most closely conforms to the breed ideal, as spelled out in a document called the Breed Standard.

    Conformation shows aren’t the only dog competitions out there, though. There are also herding trials, obedience, agility, endurance (if you’re hardcore), and other events that value function over conformity. Sighthounds can do Lure Coursing, for example, which tests more what they were bred to do. And it’s way more fun to watch.

    • John says:

      SO AWESOME. Now those are some HAPPY dogs. Damn, I want a dog so bad…really wish I didn’t live in Manhattan sometimes. Thanks for the reference on Billinghurst, I’ll pick it up.

      • Sid says:

        Not that you asked, but I’ll be the devil on your shoulder and chime in with a breed recommendation for small-space/city living: whippets. They have very few congential issues. They don’t shed much/are easy to groom. They’re very mellow indoors and amazing athletes outdoors. There are many good breeders that breed for both conformation and sporting ability (e.g., http://www.sportingfields.com/).

        Though most people with whippets do straight-racing or lure coursing (for fun only, not money like greyhounds), in England (http://www.thewhippetforum.com/ - you have to join but the pics of "working" whippets are amazing) and some areas in the US (http://www.nofca.org/) they are still used for hunting/open-field coursing. Also, the original frisbee dog was a whippet named Ashley (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S52gGJY2wcQ) so they enjoy a range of non-hunting/killing activities as well.

        Ok, I’ll stop the whippet-geek salespitch now.

        • Jared says:

          Nobody asked me either, but I thought I’d jump in and agree with Sid a hundred percent. You also might want to consider greyhounds, for many of the same reasons. There are several groups who adopt out retired racing greyhounds to good homes. Despite their ridiculous top speeds, greyhounds have relatively low space/activity requirements. They’ll run flat out for fifteen minutes, then be content to snooze on your couch for the rest of the day.

          • John says:

            Thanks, Sid and Jared. My stupid building doesn’t allow dogs at the moment. But I’m so dog-starved that I’ve offered to take some friends’ dogs for runs in the park. I’ll take a look at greyhounds and whippets if I get one.

  15. Angela says:

    Hi John,

    Researching raw/species-appropriate diets for dogs is how I came across species-specific diets for humans (paleo and all the variations). I was sitting there, reading about how dogs evolved from wolves, which eat such-and-such, and thinking about how to switch from kibble to raw for my next dog–and it hit me: what is the species-appropriate diet for humans?? And maybe a proper human diet would bring some of the same benefits as a proper canine diet?

    So began my endeavour over the last year and half to figure out how to feed myself…

    Dogs love liver. And tripe. Both items are smellier than just dried meat, especially when wet. I think that’s the main reason dogs will do nearly anything for either. And in the show ring, where there are 1001 distractions and noise and applause and lots and lots of other dogs… you need something that will keep your dog’s attention because you have approximately 2.5 minutes to impress the judge. Every second counts, so you do what you gotta do, even if it’s keeping liver in your mouth :)

    Cheers,

    Angela

    • John says:

      So cool, Angela — I wonder how many other folks have come to a healthy human diet through their pets. It’s a hell of a lot easier to feed a healthy diet to your pet than change your own eating habits.

  16. Chris says:

    Your point about functional fitness is made by others in the "doggy community" as well.  Especially, breeding for looks creates health problems for some animals.  I’ve always thought this was funny since, basically, breeding for looks in people leads to increased fitness.  If dogs could choose all their own mates, would they eventually turn back into wolves? Stay within their own breeds?  And if dogs chose who their owners could breed with, how would they assess us?  Obviously, selective breeding of people by dogs could result in a quite different standard of beauty than the ones we are currently used to!

    • John says:

      I’ve read that mutts do revert to more wolf-like looks (pointier ears) and behavior, but that’s because these purebreds have been taken so far in certain directions. They wouldn’t turn back into wolves…just get back to the “average domesticated dog”. Funny to think about what dogs would breed for in their owners.

    • Angela says:

      Breeding for looks creates health problems by ignoring functional fitness. Look at any breed that has split into "conformation/show" and "working" lines. The conformation lines will often be unable to do the job they were originally bred for. Examples include: herding dogs that cannot trot all day due to poor structure, gundogs that are too sound-sensitive to withstand gunshot noise, toy dogs who cannot reproduce without surgical assistance, terriers and hunting dogs (sight/scent) whose coats are too soft and long to run through brush after their prey. Those animals are not functionally fit, in the broadest evolutionary sense of the word. And, that’s leaving aside outright medical issues, which responsible breeders will test for before doing a breeding, if a test is available, and use the best information they can to determine if non-testable conditions exist in the bloodlines otherwise (eg. epilepsy).

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