If the food on Julie Winkelman's kitchen counter hasn't already gone to the dogs, stick around. It will.
The owner of Alpha Canine Academy is fussing with her “mis en place,” dicing away at vegetables from the garden, adding a bag of frozen zucchini from last year's bounty. Uniformly chopped chunks of sweet potato sit in a bowl next to diced raw chicken, ready for the stew pot.
Soon the searing will begin. Then, a smidge of chicken bouillon will be tossed in for seasoning. Today's stew will have the antioxidant benefit of blueberries and will be finished with a handful of crunchy pecans.
Four-legged guests are lining up around the corner, politely waiting to take their place for dinner.
Let the feast begin.
The dog food du jour at Winkelman's house, a stone's throw from the training room on her 40-acre training facility on County Road 234, might come from the freezer, cooked and frozen a month ago, but it will be homemade.
Her Aussie/sheltie and Australian shepherd/border collie crosses, who have mastered every trick in the certified dog trainer's book, don't seem to mind. Still, they offer only a penetrating gaze when I ask if Winkelman is as good a cook as she looks to be. The only difference I noticed between today's canine Brunswick stew and what I serve my husband is that she replaces onions and corn with blueberries and pecans.
Is that why her fur babies offer kisses of gratitude at the end of every meal?
“I'm not cooking for my dogs because I have to,” Winkelman said. “I work 12 hours a day, four days a week. I cook for them because I want to see them have a long life, and I want them to have a reduced possibility of getting cancer.”
Winkelman and her assistant trainer, Toleda Cluff, are serious when it comes to feeding their dogs. Both say that in the past they have watched pets suffer with disease because of what they think was either poor nutrition or the uncertainty of what could be in packaged, commercial dog food, also called kibble.
Both admit that if “someone controlled my diet like I control my dogs,” they'd be in a lot better shape. “I give my family a balanced diet. Why would I not do the same for my dogs?” Cluff, a certified trainer with the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, said of her passion for feeding her pets the best food that she can.
She's nursed underweight dogs back to health and successfully trimmed the weight off dogs that were obese. It's as much science as it is common sense, she said, and she remains skeptical of what could be in a bag of commercial dog food.
“There are better foods now than what used to be,” Cluff says, but the pet food industry still can't compare to what she can do in her own kitchen. Adequate nutrition can help calm a dog and help with food allergies.
Winkelman, who holds several certifications in pet training and has taught obedience training and behavior modification for more than a dozen years, agrees.
“Not all dogs are food-driven, and they do have their individual preferences,” Winkelman said, but she strives for a balance and variety of what she knows is good nutrition.
Pet food recalls over recent years have made consumers wary. Many do not accept that commercial dog food labeling is reliable or accurate. If they cook using the ingredients that they know are nutritious, they have more confidence their dog is getting the nutrition it needs, Winkelman said.
“Labels on commercial dog foods can be confusing,” said veterinarian Jennifer Schoedler of Alpine Animal Hospital. “What does 'crude protein' actually mean?” she asked.
“The hardest part of cooking for your dog is getting at the correct nutritional balance. It can be much trickier than we think.”
There are differences between human and pet nutrition and metabolism. The required amounts of vitamins and minerals differ, she offers as an example.
“Dogs can make their own vitamin C. Humans cannot.”
Schoedler says pet owners can learn a lot by being conscientious observers.
“Look at the dog's skin and hair. Observe his energy levels. How does he move?”
Joint problems, skin rashes and a dog's overall energy level and behavior can be clues to his nutrition, she said.
“Once you find food that works, don't think you need to periodically change things,” Schoedler said, adding that dogs are creatures of habit, not likely to demand a cafeteria of choices.
The surge in pet owners cooking for their dogs is because “it makes us feel like we're doing the best we can,” she said.
Schoedler said beef, chicken, corn, wheat and soy are the main ingredients in most bags of commercial dog foods, some of which are packaged and endorsed by celebrities to compete in the $45 billion-a-year industry.
“There's higher quality dog food than ever before, but just because it is really expensive doesn't make it necessarily good,” Schoedler said.
“Big manufacturers merely see a market niche, and they are trying to fill it.”
Schoedler and Winkelman agree that pet owners need to avoid feeding their dogs a strictly raw food diet.
“It can be dangerous to owners and their animals,” Schoedler said, citing cases of salmonella and septicemia when dogs have ingested raw poultry.
“Well-intentioned pet owners think raw is a connection to nature because coyotes and wolves eat that way, but dogs have been domesticated for more than 10,000 years,” she said.