Diet and behaviour

There has been much debate concerning the link between canine diet and behaviour in recent years. Nutrition can certainly affect a dog’s demeanour (both positively and negatively), but it is pertinent to be aware that whilst a change of diet may be beneficial for a dog with a behavioural problem, it is not a substitute for training. It is vital to rule out medical causes of any issues you may be having, especially when a normally good-natured and/or calm dog starts to show irritable and/or anxious traits that have come on suddenly and are out of character.

Sometimes it is not the food per se that is problematic, but the feeding regime. So, when you are looking at diet as a potential cause or contributor, by all means assess what is fed, but how it is fed too.

It is obviously important that the chosen food is nutritionally appropriate, enjoyed and well digested, and if it ticks all of those boxes, before changing your dog’s diet, ask yourself the following questions:

Is your dog naturally neophilic or neophobic?

Domestic dogs can retain certain traits from their wild ancestors (even though their food is generally served, rather than them needing to actively seek it out). Neophilia (interest in new foods) is one such behaviour. In the wild, this encourages the animal to try new sources of nutrition; a useful survival mechanism should the usual food source become unavailable [Bourgeois et al., 2006].

Although dogs are not generally considered to “need” variety (if fed a commercial complete diet), naturally neophilic dogs may benefit from a more varied menu. Within the Arden Grange range, there are a number of products with similar nutrient levels, but a different primary protein source, which can make this very doable since the calorie content and subsequent feed portions are very similar. 

Another advantage is that dogs who are accustomed to several different foods may be less likely to suffer from a digestive upset if an unavoidable, sudden diet change became necessary. Too much variety, however, can lead to fussiness; something our dogs’ wild ancestors could never afford to be. This is very much a modern-day problem and causes include over-feeding (especially of extras, which can deplete the appetite for the main diet) and inadvertent reinforcement of attention seeking behaviour at mealtimes. Consider not only varying the food, but how it is offered. Puzzle feeders can be a useful way to make a mealtime a more stimulating experience.

Neophobia is a natural wariness of new foods. Introducing a new diet gradually can help to overcome this. Our domestic dogs can also develop an aversion to foods they were eating at the onset of an illness. This trait helps dogs to avoid toxic foods and those that have caused discomfort. Even if the food itself is perfectly safe, the brain can still send the message to avoid it as a precautionary measure. It is a useful trait if a dog has developed an allergy or intolerance to one or more ingredient in their diet.

Are you feeding a suitable quantity?

Too little food can result in a hungry dog, which can cause irritability leading to food guarding/competition at mealtimes with other pets in the household, begging, stealing and a desire to eat inappropriate or non-food items.

Too much food can result in an overweight, sluggish dog who is less responsive to edible rewards for training. It is also a very common cause of fussy eating. Overweight dogs are also more likely to display undesirable behaviours including food guarding, food theft, poor recall, fearfulness to walk outside and aggression towards other dogs and strangers. The reasons for this are still being explored [German, Blackwell, Evans and Westgarth, 2017]. Some dogs will utilise the extra fuel for energy. This is common in already exuberant and otherwise healthy youngsters who can then become very easily over-excited.

If you are feeding the correct amount for your dog’s age and activity level, but it is not suiting your dog’s individual appetite and metabolism, then certainly a change to a lower or higher calorie diet (or one with an alternative balance of protein, fat and carbohydrate) may be indicated. 

Tip: Not all dogs with a large appetite are appeased by more volume. Some may be more satisfied with more protein and fat in their diet, even if portions are lower. Dogs with a low appetite may fare better with more concentrated foods, but altering the pattern of behaviour leading up to the refusal of food is often a more effective way of dealing with fussy eaters. This is because some behaviours are learned and reinforced by the familiarity of a routine, so breaking that cycle can help. Try using a different feeding vessel, feeding at different times and/or in different rooms, or utilise another member of the household to prepare and serve the meal.

Does the frequency and timing of feeds suit your dog’s individual needs?

The timing and frequency of feeding, and the effects of full and empty stomachs on mood and activity levels affect dogs, just as they do us. Many owners feed once daily and experience no issues, but it could be that more frequent meals are beneficial for both fussy eaters and greedy dogs because this may promote more stable blood sugar levels. When insulin is low, less of the “feel good” hormones – dopamine and serotonin – are produced. As a result, high amounts of adrenaline are secreted to raise blood sugar levels, and this can result in agitation and reactiveness. It can also cause the food to be rushed through the digestive tract too quickly meaning less time for efficient absorption of the nutrients. “Adrenaline poos” are a very common problem in excitable and/or nervous dogs.

If your feeding regime involves regular mealtimes, but you are observing problem behaviors, a product with alternative nutrient levels may have a more stabling effect on blood sugar and improve “happy hormone” levels. 

Tip: Regular feed times make toilet training easier because most dogs like to evacuate their bowels within about half an hour after a meal to clear the path for the new nutrients making their way along the digestive tract. Eating stimulates the digestion. However, meals do not need to be equally spaced apart. Time them to suit your individual dog’s appetite and exercise schedule. The only rules concerning feed times are that there should be at least 4 hours digestion time between feeds (unless otherwise advised by your vet to help manage a medical condition), avoid heavy exercise too near a meal, try to keep your feed schedule fairly regular, and make sure you have time to supervise feeding – especially if your dog is prone to bloat, fed from an interactive toy, or there is competition in a multi-pet household and the animals cannot be fed in separate rooms.

Does your dog eat anything in addition to his/her main diet? It may not be your dog’s main diet that is causing or contributing to behavioural problems. If a large proportion of the daily calorie intake is supplied by incomplete additions, this could leave your dog lacking in important “brain food”.

You may have selected a diet that meets the ideal criteria for behavioural support, but if your dog is not eating enough of it, he/she may be susceptible to vitamin and mineral deficiencies/imbalances.

Tip: If treats and extras contain a high quantity of simple sugars, artificial additives and/or common ingredients responsible for adverse food reactions, it defeats the objective of feeding a main diet that excludes them. Arden Grange Crunchy Bites and Tasty Paste are hypoallergenic and do not include added sugar, artificial colourings, flavourings or preservatives. 

Have you already recently changed your dog’s diet??

If you have made several recent changes, using diets with very varied ingredients and nutrient levels, to no avail, the problem is unlikely to be directly related to your dog’s food. However, you can still take a holistic approach and choose products that support both body & mind. A better diet may not reap the desired results in terms of problematic behaviour, but it can certainly benefit the brain and other organs and systems of the body.

A diet change may not only have benefits to the dog, but also to the owner, since this helps to improve our positivity by being proactive in our food choices for our dogs. Dogs tend to respond better to calm and confident owners. Tip: If problems are not worsening and you have been feeding the new diet for less than a month, allow a little longer for potential benefits to take effect.

Choosing “brain food”!

All the Arden Grange dry products have a number of attributes that make them popular with canine behaviourists:

  • Naturally preserved with no artificial colourings or flavourings. Some chemical colourants and preservatives have been reported to contribute to learning difficulties and hyperactivity in children, and it is believed that sensitive dogs may suffer from a similar response, although evidence is still largely anecdotal.

  • Highly digestible. The infographic shows the important connection between the gut and the brain.

  • No added sugar, low levels of naturally occurring simple sugars and a balanced ratio of fats to complex carbohydrates. This helps to promote stable blood sugar and a steady release of energy.

  • Hypoallergenic (made without wheat/gluten, dairy, soya & beef). Food allergies usually result in skin and/or digestive problems, but can contribute to behavioural problems if the dog is in discomfort and feeling irritable as a result. In people, “brain fog” is a well-documented symptom of environmental allergies. More recent research has shown that food allergies can also induce alteration in brain inflammatory status and cognitive impairments [Zhou et al., 2019]. The same may apply to other mammals, including dogs.

  • Krill inclusion. Krill is an excellent source of the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA. DHA is a structural component of the brain, whilst EPA provides it with protection via its anti-inflammatory properties.

  • MSM inclusion. Methylsulfonylmethane may benefit the stressed animal due to its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and cell-rejuvenating properties. [Faerber et al., 2004]. The brain is very sensitive to the effects of toxic heavy metals and organic compounds which can accumulate in nerve cells causing severe oxidative damage and resultant neurological disturbances. MSM is one of the few antioxidants which can readily transfer across the blood-brain barrier.

  • Nucleotide supplementation. Nucleotides are the “food” required for the production of genetic material. They are naturally produced in the body, but some cells (including the brain cells) cannot produce enough to cover requirements. More nucleotides are needed to help overcome the negative effects of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, and increase immunity [De Godoy et al, 2016].

  • Bioflavonoid plant extracts (plant pigments with powerful antioxidant properties). Stressed dogs produce more free radicals (unstable atoms that can cause damage to the cells, including those of the brain). Antioxidants are an important protective measure since they can neutralise free radicals by giving up some of their own electrons, creating a natural "off" switch. This helps break a negative chain reaction [Harvard Health, 2020].
Specially selected Arden Grange products for behavioural support
Light fresh chicken & rice

Light  – may be suitable for dominance aggression, territorial aggression (with a tryptophan supplement prescribed by your veterinary surgeon), greedy dogs/those with an indiscriminate appetite, and individuals who fare best on diets with less protein and fat.

  • Low protein (18%) – meaning tryptophan (which helps make serotonin – the happy hormone) has less competition from other amino acids to reach the brain.

  • Low fat (7.5%) – meaning more generous feed portions to help satisfy hungry dogs (hunger can make all of us irritable!)

  • Supplementary L-carnitine – which is more commonly known for its benefit to the heart and as a metabolism booster, but it also benefits the brain in that it helps protect the nerve cells from damage. In people it may improve memory and mental function. Some sources suggest that dogs with behavioural problems shouldn’t be fed starchy carbs, but this is not normally problematic unless an individual is allergic/intolerant to one of the carb source ingredients or the nutrient balance doesn’t suit. Complex carbs can help raise insulin levels, decrease competing amino acid concentrations and cause a diversion so that tryptophan uptake can take place.

  • Less protein means less competition from the large neutral amino acids that are more easily absorbed than tryptophan (tyrosine, leucine, isoleucine, phenylalanine and valine) to cross the blood brain barrier. Arden Grange Light is often a suitable option for dogs suffering from dominance aggression since research has shown a lower protein diet can be beneficial under such circumstances [DeNapoli et al., 2000]. The same study demonstrated that adding a tryptophan supplement to a high-protein diet can also be helpful in respect of dominance aggression, and that adding tryptophan to a low-protein diet can be beneficial in the management of territorial aggression. Hyperactivity was found not to be influenced by dietary protein levels or the addition of supplementary tryptophan.
Adult fresh salmon & rice

Adult Salmon & Rice – may be suitable for stressed dogs, anxious dogs, those with poor concentration and focus during training, and individuals who fare best on diets with a moderate balance of protein, fat and carbohydrate.

  • More tryptophan – to help manufacture serotonin and melatonin (important for mental wellbeing and a good night’s sleep).

  • Extra Omega-3 fats – which are excellent “brain food”.

  • More lysine and arginine – which may influence neurotransmitters involved in stress and anxiety [Lakhan and Vieira, 2010]. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid (i.e. one that cannot be made in a sufficient quantity within the body), and the Adult Salmon & Rice supplies the highest level within the Arden Grange maintenance diet range, with more than double the minimum intake recommended by the NRC/FEDIAF.

  • Tryptophan, however, should not be considered as a single entity because its ratio against the competing amino acids is important too. This is why a simple protein reduction isn’t always the definitive solution. Stressed dogs may benefit from more dietary tyrosine, which is the precursor of catecholamines (hormones including dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline) which are produced by the brain, nervous tissues and adrenal glands in response to emotional or physical stress. The salmon, chicken, eggs and grains in this recipe are naturally rich sources of tyrosine. Tyrosine can also be formed from another amino acid, phenylalanine, which is also found in these ingredients.
Performance fresh chicken & rice

Performance  – may be suitable for over-exuberant dogs, those suffering from physical stress following illness or injury (dependent on condition, but many dogs prone to “adrenaline stools” do well on this product), inappetence, and individuals who fare best on diets with more fat.

  • 3 Additional bioflavonoid plant extracts (grape seed extract, green tea and quercetin) with powerful antioxidant properties – to help protect the brain cells from free radicals (which can lead to illness/accelerated aging).

  • Added taurine – which helps calm the nervous system by reducing stress related adrenaline spikes. This product also includes L-carnitine (the benefits of which have been previously discussed).

  • Extra B vitamins and brain minerals for neurological support. Like the Adult Salmon & Rice, this product also boasts a high tryptophan level. Arden Grange Performance is primarily designed to support the nutritional needs of the working or sporting dog, but the effects of psychological stress on the body are comparable in many ways to those caused by physical exertion. Its higher fat content (18%) and calorific value mean it is often a very good option for dogs who are underweight or have difficulty holding weight due to stress.

Grape seed extract contains gallic acid, which has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective properties. Quercetin too has been demonstrated to show neuroprotective effects. The inclusion of green tea extract is beneficial in a behavioural context since it is a rich source of L-theanine – an amino acid that stimulates glutamate receptors in the brain [Pike et al., 2012]. Glutamate receptors play an important role in learning and memory.

Dispelling the myths concerning maize and canine behaviour

Arden Grange Light, Adult Salmon & Rice and Performance all contain maize; an ingredient which has been unfairly demonized in recent years. The primary reason appears to be misinformation perpetuated by manufacturers who do not use it. Maize is a complex carbohydrate which is a good source of energy, and nutrients including vitamin B3, vitamin B5, vitamin B6, manganese, phosphorous and fibre. Sweetcorn kernels are indigestible when fed raw, but when ground and cooked within an extruded pet food, the digestibility exceeds 85%. Corn is a gluten free grain, and not a particularly common dietary allergen.

As a responsible and ethical company, Arden Grange fully appreciates the caution that must be taken when discussing the potential benefits of our diets. Please consult your vet. This is especially important if your dog’s behaviour has changed suddenly and for no apparent reason, since pain, neurological problems and some hormonal conditions such as hypothyroidism can manifest in aggression and other atypical behaviours. Once medical causes have been ruled out, it is recommended you seek the assistance of a behaviourist.


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By Ness Bird - Nutrition Adviser and RVN CertCFVHNut ©