By Nancy Carlson • Columnist • 

A list for lazy-ish dog owners

Two weeks ago my February issue of Whole Dog Journal arrived at my home, causing me to ask myself this yearly question, “Should I write yet another article about ‘The List’?”

“The List” is, of course the annual Whole Dog Journal Approved Dry Dog Foods for 2013. For lazy and/or chemistry-challenged people like me, it is a welcome way to avoid having to actually read and, more importantly, understand the myriad ingredients from which dog foods are made. Whole Dog Journal happily sorts the hundreds of brands available into two categories — those WDJ thinks are good for your dog and the far more numerous ones it doesn’t.

The only publication I can think to compare Whole Dog Journal with is Cook’s Illustrated, with which we aspiring “gourmet” chefs are more likely to be on familiar terms. Unlike Bon Appetit or Fine Cooking or some of the slicker foodie magazines, Cook’s Illustrated is a no-nonsense, no-advertising publication whose staff tests recipes and, if they are any good, tells the reader the precise ways to prepare them. It offers very few glossy photos of luscious looking food, no interviews with celebrity chefs, and it’s hard to find Cook’s Illustrated at a lot of magazine stands. You just have to know about it.

So Whole Dog Journal follows in that path. The subject matter — while it all pertains to dogs — is somewhat more varied. Articles include the newest developments in canine health, training, products and nutrition. But there are no pictures of dogs wearing hats, no cute kids’ drawings of dogs, very few of those heartstring-pulling articles about rescued pooches who turn around and make their owners’ lives worth living. If “Dragnet’s” Joe Friday were alive to comment on WDJ, he would say “Just the facts, ma’am. Just the facts.”

Admittedly, this does make for some rather dry reading. However, it also lends a certain credibility to the publication, especially in the area of canine nutrition. I know of few products hyped by the advertising industry as much as dog food. Whether you’re watching TV, cruising the Internet or reading a magazine, it’s hard to avoid being bombarded with ever cuter puppies, happier kids with dogs, ever more loving Labs and goldens, all apparently in perfect health — all, we’re told, because of the brand name dog food their owners buy for them.

I’ve subscribed to WDJ for about 10 years now, and in that time the list of approved dry food has grown from a rather small number, with names you would never see except in a few independent pet supply stores, to a much more robust quantity of products that have recognizable names and can be found in almost any pet store, even the large national chains.

This year, for example, Hill’s Pet Nutrition, Inc., which produces the ubiquitous Science Diet line of dog and cat foods, and Proctor & Gamble, which manufactures the equally accessible Eukanuba brand, both made The List for the first time. Now, not all Hill’s or Eukanuba products made the cut. But Science Diet Ideal Balance did, as did Eukanuba Naturally Wild and Eukanuba Pure Formula, so there’s definitely a trend toward premium food production in even the largest manufacturers of dog food.

Nancy Kerns, WDJ writer and person in charge of The List, gives us discerning pet owners credit for this change and overall improvement in the quality of the pet food industry. Of course, credit must be given to that good ol’ American tradition of recognizing a way to make a buck, too. We pet owners started leaving the more mass-produced and, yes, much more economical bags of dog food on the shelf while we sought out higher quality premium food made by smaller, more transparent companies. When it became apparent that American pet owners were no longer basing their purchases on price and availability, things started to change.

I did my own, not-at-all scientific canvassing of pet stores in McMinnville to see if this was true for our fair city and, indeed, it is. I checked out the five pet supply stores I know of in town for how many of the brands of kibble named on The List they carried. The smaller, locally owned stores had a higher percentage of WDJ-approved brands, but the larger stores had a good selection, as well. In fact, Petco, which is both a national chain and the largest pet store in town, had no fewer than nine premium, WDJ-endorsed dog foods from which to choose.

I should mention that WDJ’s Kern also has an editorial prefacing The List stating her reasons why there shouldn’t be a list. As much as I like The List, I have to admit they are all valid.

First, it would be far better for you and I to educate ourselves about what constitutes quality canine nutrition and use the information to actively find the best diet for our dogs ourselves. Second, no food, no matter how high the quality, can suit the needs of all dogs. Individual dogs have different dietary needs just as individual humans do. Third, there are undoubtedly very good foods that, for whatever reason, WDJ did not consider.

And finally, because stuff happens. As soon as the February issue of WDJ goes into print, there undoubtedly is some dog food company that improves its product or another that changes its product, but not for the better. However, The List won’t reflect these changes until February 2014.

Before I close, I need to say that, although I am fortunate enough (some might say foolish enough) to spend well over a dollar a pound for dog kibble and still be able to pay my mortgage, not everyone is. We need to make sure we don’t equate good loving dog ownership with the ability to pay for exorbitantly priced food.

I have yet to see any legitimate research that says dogs live longer or happier if they eat expensive food. My dogs, for example, do not seem to enjoy the high-priced kibble I buy them any more than they enjoy their occasional forays into the kitty litter box. So we do the best we can, and let our dogs remind us not to take any of this too seriously.

Nancy Carlson can be reached at

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