Going to the dogs to get some answers

Test: Experiment pits store-bought vs. homemade food to prove that hungry barkers will lap up anything.

September 26, 2001|By Christine Kloostra and Stephen Henderson | Christine Kloostra and Stephen Henderson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The experiment: a completely unscientific study to determine if canine subjects prefer homemade dog food and biscuits over store-bought dry food.

The hypothesis: Dogs will eat anything.

The test subjects: Truman, an 8-year-old chocolate Labrador, and Kennedy, a 6-year-old Lab-terrier mix. Canine subjects have never demonstrated discriminating palates, having consumed college diplomas, wicker furniture, books, raw turkey, glass bottles and loaves of bread.

The guides: Barker's Grub: Easy, Wholesome Home Cooking for Your Dog by Rudy Edalati (Three Rivers Press, New York $12) and Gourmet Dog Biscuits From Your Bread Machine by Sondra Macdonald (Bristol Publishing Enterprises, San Leandro, Calif., $10.95). The occasion of the experiment is Edalati's scheduled appearance at the Baltimore Book Festival this weekend.

The parameters of the study:

Canine subjects will not be given food that is of higher quality than their human companions normally consume, so recipes for Dodi Noodles With Lamb or the Blue Moon Salmon Special are out.

All ingredients must be available and easy to locate in a typical grocery store, which rules out recipes that call for amaranth flour, barley-malt syrup, black-bean flakes, flaxseed meal, vital gluten or millet.

Reasonable limits will be placed on the amount of time devoted to preparing the food. Counter to the cookbook authors' suggestions, broth will not be made from scratch, potatoes will not be peeled, bacon will be purchased precooked and dough will not be kneaded by hand.

The shopping list: beef, turkey, potatoes, cottage cheese, bananas, potato flakes, dry milk powder, seven-grain cereal, Cream of Wheat, apple juice, sweet potatoes, bacon, oatmeal, dark corn syrup, cornmeal, oat bran and brewer's yeast at a total cost of just over $50. Items already on hand include fresh dill, Parmesan cheese, olive oil, whole-wheat flour, garlic, cinnamon and nutmeg. Soy granules are omitted after an exhaustive search of the supermarket.

The preparation: Initial plans call for two entrees and two types of dog biscuits. After nearly four hours of a Sunday are spent preparing just one entree and one type of biscuit, the experiment is curtailed, commencing with Moon Dog Mix: Beef and Potato.

The guide calls for 10 minutes of preparation and a 45-minute cooking time. Twenty-five minutes later, 5 pounds of extra-fatty beef and 3 pounds of potatoes have been cubed, the precooked bacon and dill have been chopped and the Parmesan cheese has been grated.

Fortunately, the beef - almost too large to fit in the largest available skillet - and potatoes are cooked within the allotted 45-minute cooking time. Barker's Grub does not include guidelines about the temperature of the food to be given to the dogs, but common sense suggests the potatoes and meat should cool to a reasonable temperature before mixing together all the ingredients (except the cheese).

Each dog is given a serving, which is then topped with the Parmesan. After initial hesitant licking of the Parmesan, the two canine subjects cautiously eat the rest of the food, seemingly concerned that at any moment their humans would realize the error of their ways and remove it. After a human companion is convinced that this would not be his dinner as well, the rest of the food is put in the refrigerator for the remaining week's meals.

It is necessary to emphasize an important point in Barker's Grub: "To make the transition to home-cooked food, don't remove all processed food at once," Edalati says. "His digestive system may need time to adjust. ... If you shift too rapidly, a dog may suffer from gas or diarrhea." After human returns home to an unpleasant surprise the next day, it is determined that the experimenters should pay closer attention to this detail.

The remaining food is served cold in combination with the canines' regular diet of dry food; by the second day, the ordinarily ravenous dogs are willing to abandon an uneaten bowl of kibble to wait next to the refrigerator for the beef-and-potato mix.

The experiment continues with Yes, We Have Bananas biscuits from Gourmet Dog Biscuits. Each recipe in this cookbook calls for the use of a bread machine, which, if you don't own one, seems an unnecessary expense for dog treats. A food processor works just as well; mixing and kneading the dough by hand would also do.

Much like baking cookies (but without eggs), the process calls for ingredients that are mixed together, rolled out, then cut with a cookie cutter. Making dog biscuits in the shape of little men seems somehow inappropriate, so a bear-shaped cookie cutter is used.

Recipes are included for both small and large portions; the large result in approximately 4 dozen average-sized biscuits that last for more than two weeks.

Whether the test subjects are able to distinguish the nuanced flavors in their biscuits - the fruitiness of the banana, with subtle undertones of cinnamon and milk powder, complemented by the nutty texture of seven-grain cereal - is doubtful, considering they chew the treats for approximately two seconds before swallowing. Nonetheless, they sit expectantly next to the cookie jar each morning awaiting their treats.

Conclusions: The test subjects demonstrate expected levels of interest in homemade food and biscuits, but do not hesitate to return to regular diet of dry food. Dogs will eat anything.

And one more thing: Cost-benefit analysis of the experiment suggests investment of time and money in making food for canine subjects may be worth it only for those who have too much of both.

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