Although I had a dog as a child, it had been fifteen years since I shared my life with a dog when I adopted Jackson. Charlie, our childhood black poodle, lived his life under a different standard; he was allowed to roam around the neighborhood until we moved and then was confined to the backyard. The only time he saw a leash was when it was time to go to the veterinarian.
His food was a smelly, gloppy mess that came out of can.
We loved Charlie, played with him, he slept on my bed and he was a member of our family. Three decades ago, dogs were just treated differently and it seemed our standard was no better or worse than other people we knew with dogs. We were just regular dog owners.
Upon his arrival, Jackson's routine only varied out of necessity.
At 85-pounds I'd be opening cans all day to keep him fed, so Jackson was fed a commercial dry food that today is ranked one star on dogfoodadvisor.com. Without a yard, walks were required so that Jackson could relieve himself. Jackson's Cujo-like aggression at other dogs filled our walks with stress so they were less recreational than task minded.
Although curious about each other, there wasn't a lot of trust on either side.
Jackson raided the garbage at regular intervals and attacked me if I got to close to his food bowl while he ate. We started training classes but after a couple of sessions were told that we were no longer welcome to group classes. In an effort to tire him out, we started running together.
When Jackson jumped up on the counter to snag something, I swatted him hard on the butt. It was the same thing we would have done to Charlie. Jackson, however, wouldn't have it and snapped back at me. I paused for a moment and apologized, "You're right. Buddies shouldn't hurt one another." We sat down in the kitchen and Jackson laid beside me while I rubbed his ears. Our exchange was never forgotten, but it was forgiven.
Jackson rarely had "human food" and when he did, it was mostly cheese or due to his vigilant countertop surveillance.
When Jackson stole half a blueberry pie off the counter I didn't appreciate that he was getting his antioxidants, instead I grumbled about cleaning blueberry stains off the floor. In an effort to curb Jackson's shedding I moved him up a couple of stars to a higher quality food, and I grumbled about the price as well. It didn't seem that feeding a dog should be so expensive, even if it was costing me less than two dollars a day.
Over time Jackson and I became buddies due to thousands of walks, hundreds of runs and scores of hikes. We developed games to play in the house and at Jackson's insistence he shared the foot of my bed. He was my constant companion and one of the best friends I ever had.
When Jackson developed a lump in his throat, we started a long odyssey of veterinary visits.
Jackson slowed down and his kibble was often left untouched. His rapid decline meant he was no longer interested in runs, walks, playing or even food. Curled up in a ball day after day his misery infected the entire household. When the oncologist called to confirm the latest round of tests I was in a grocery store stuck in the only part that I could retain cell-phone reception; across from the butcher's counter.
"Jackson has lymphoma and his prognosis is nine months, maybe a year if he responds well to treatment."
I went through the checkout with two steaks and tears running down my face.
(I think the clerk must have thought I was a vegetarian that decided to call it quits.) That night Jackson ate timidly, but at long last he finally ate.
Spurred by a successful meal and a clean bowl, I started throwing food together and mixing it in with Jackson's dry food.
His clever tongue often picked around the kibble, preferring instead the mixture of turkey, greens and yams that I cooked. Some research on diets for dogs with cancer and Jackson's weight gain showed that I had no idea what I was doing so I did what I do when confronted with plenty of data and no solution; I built a database. Comparing the nutrient requirements of dogs with the the nutrient values in food I formulated a better diet and emphasized the nutrients that would assist Jackson's cancer; fish oil and proteins, selenium, along with vitamins A, C & E.
Jackson's energy returned and we started running together once again. My old buddy was back.
Then the doorbell rang. A neighbor's dogs was diagnosed with cancer and was hoping I could help feed her dog as well. I had just left my full-time job and decided that I could feed her dog and many others and decided to start Dog Stew. Another similar company started up in Portland at the same time but there was a striking difference between our foods; while the other company served spaghetti with meatballs and burritos, Dog Stew delivered meals that were a cross between a casserole and a stew. In addition I was grinding up vitamins and minerals to ensure that dogs received all the nutrition they needed to stay healthy. Customers raved about the food and dogs all over Portland started dancing before meal time.
Eighteen months after the oncologist's ominous phone call, we returned to the office to hear unexpected news; "I rarely get to tell people this, but you don't need to bring Jackson back."
I explained it was the food and she told me, "I doubt it, you don't know what you're doing." Since she hadn't seen the copious amounts of research that I had done, I felt confident in replying, "No, you don't know what I'm doing. I'm doing this like you'd want me to." Regardless of our difference in opinion, we were both pleased by the good news.
Jackson and I celebrated that evening with a long run and scrambled eggs in his bowl.
I hand-made and delivered thousands of meals each week to dogs throughout Portland and was repeatedly called, "The Dog Food Dude" even if I preferred Rick. I loved hearing people tell me how much they appreciated the food because it made their dogs so happy. As the recession started, I found myself at a tipping point that left me unable to scale up the business any further.
I closed the business and decided to write a book to help make providing better nutrition easy for other pet owners.
Feed Your Best Friend Better, and am proud to have written something that's accessible, easy and as full of research as it is common sense.
Four years after Jackson's diagnosis, he passed away at the age of twelve, not from cancer – simply from old age.
Sure, I spend 30 minutes in the kitchen every week making a big batch of food, but I consider it a fair trade off because it gave me three extra years with my best friend that veterinarians said I would never have.
Today our dogs go for plenty of walks and we feed them half commercial food and half dry food. It's the best of both worlds; the dry food is heavily supplemented so we know that they are getting enough nutrition and I know with fresh foods included they're getting additional nutrients that are not included in the "complete and balanced" equation.
As my understanding and affection for Jackson increased so did my desire to feed him not just what was convenient but what would keep him happy and healthy.
I was a pretty crappy pet owner when Jackson showed up at my door, but I loved him and he loved me so I changed.
I'm no longer a pet owner, I'm part of a family.
“The Dog Food Dude,” is an expert on pet nutrition and wellness. He is the author of Feed Your Best Friend Better: Easy, Nutritious Meals and Treats for Dogs (available for purchase on Amazon), a comprehensive collection of simple and nutritious recipes perfect for the busy pet parent on a budget and that you're pet will love.
You can also find Rick on Twitter and Facebook.