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What are the best dog snacks for your working dog and what should you avoid?

Dog snacks have become a massive market, and there’s a huge range of natural varieties. David Tomlinson weighs up the healthier choices

dog eating hot gammon

Hot gammon is the ultimate motivator if your dog is struggling with recall

I was recently asked what dog snacks and rewards I give my dogs, a question that, perhaps surprisingly, I’ve never been asked before. Twenty-five years ago I would have replied with the word biscuit, but these days they are rarely given a biscuit — instead, they get a wide variety of more natural products that hopefully do them more good. (Read about energy bars for dogs here.)

The best dog snacks

Every morning, after their walk, they are fed a raw chicken wing. You should never feed a dog cooked bones, but the bones in raw chicken wings are soft and pliable, don’t splinter and are easily digested by the canine stomach. I buy chicken wings, sold for human consumption, from my local supermarket. These wings come from chickens that have been slaughtered at just a few weeks old, so the bones are softer than older, mature birds. I’ve tried my dogs on the wings from old chickens, but they weren’t so keen. (Read more on raw chicken wings for dogs.)

Dr Ian Billinghurst, in his book The BARF Diet, rates chicken, together with turkey, as one of the easiest of raw, meaty bones to source, explaining that “the ratio of flesh to bone, cartilage and fat is usually ideal in wings”. Some people favour giving just the wing tip to their dogs as treats, but my dogs get the whole thing. These tend to vary widely in size, even from the same supplier and in the same box. If I’m roasting a whole chicken for my dinner, I always chop off the wings before the bird goes in the oven. There’s not much on a wing for a human, but there’s lots for a dog.

dog snacks

Munching on a chicken wingd

The benefits of chicken wings are many. Most dogs have to chew them before swallowing, so the raw wings are natural removers of plaque, and much more effective than so-called dental chews. They are a great source of glucosamine and chondroitin, both of which are important for canine health. It’s also worth noting that you can feed them straight from the freezer, too, as mature dogs are quite capable of dealing with frozen meat (in winter, Arctic wolves eat it all the time).

My springer Rowan was weaned on raw chicken wings, which she was introduced to at five weeks old. It takes puppies a long time to chew one, so it keeps them happy for hours, but wings also provide a healthy dose of calcium that’s great for a growing dog. I have never had a single problem feeding chicken wings, while the fact that Rowan is now approaching her 17th birthday suggests that a daily wing has helped keep her healthy during such a long life.

One simple treat some people swear by is rabbit ears, which you can buy online but certainly won’t find in your local supermarket. They don’t have the goodness of chicken wings, as they lack most of the ingredients that make the latter so nutritious, but they are claimed to be a natural dewormer, the fur on the ear allegedly brushing the intestines and helping remove parasites in the gut. That’s an interesting theory which I’m not convinced by, but I am sure that most dogs will happily snaffle a rabbit ear given the chance.

Widely available

A specialist treat I’ve never tried, though widely available from specialist dog-food providers, is chicken feet. Like chicken wings, chewing on a foot helps keep a dog’s teeth clean, and they are a natural and healthy snack — though they may look unappetising to us.

Pigs’ ears are another widely available treat. They are usually air dried and are not only a good source of protein but also good for dental health. However, they can be fatty, so are not good for dogs that are prone to putting on weight. On the plus side, most dogs love them, and they’re much better than the standard rawhide chews that most pet shops sell. They’re not cheap, but if you bulk buy it works out at less than £1 an ear.

In the past I’ve given my dogs rawhide chews, but not any more: there are much better products for dogs to chew on than these. Rawhide chews are made from leftovers from the leather industry and typically carry a surfeit of nasty chemicals. The hide itself is indigestible and can lead to choking, or blockages in the digestive tract. (Read more on volvulus in dogs.)

Another chew to avoid is antler. Dogs love them, but they are so tough that it’s not unusual for dogs to chip or even break teeth as they gnaw on them. They are also prdone to splinter, which can have serious consequences if swallowed.

One treat my dogs really enjoy is dried salmon skins, sold in crunchy cubes. They look unappetising, but the dogs relish them. Low in fat but high in protein and both omega-3 and omega-6, they are easy to digest and proven to be a great skin and coat conditioner. They are also free from artificial additives. Highly recommended.

With such a variety of snacks and treats available for dogs, it’s difficult to know what to opt for. Most dogs will be keen to sample anything you offer them, and I’m sure they enjoy variety. However, there’s no doubt about the ultimate treat: hot gammon. If recall is your problem, hot gammon is the answer.