Westminster show dogs enjoy unusual treats

NEW YORK — Benjamin is a grand champion English toy spaniel, but he’s not a champ at chow. The otherwise undemanding dog tends to balk at any food after a couple of meals.

The one treat he never refuses? Sauerkraut — and hold the hot dog.

Emmy the harrier is crazy for ice cubes. Dick the Chinese crested isn’t excited by any treat except bits of raw steak (usually ribeye). Stella, an old English sheepdog, savors steamed green beans. Rajah the borzoi enjoys sautéed chicken liver sautéed in butter as post-dog-show reward.

And to get Mikka the bergamasco to eat, consider “Satan balls.”

Come on in to the Westminster Kennel Club, where owners and handlers know how to cater to the eclectic tastes of show dogs competing this week. Can we tell you the specials?

“We’ve got it down to a science,” Mikka’s co-owner, Jane Bass, says of whetting the whistles of a herding breed known for its matted coat, gentle protectiveness and finicky appetites.

Six-year-old Mikka, which made her Westminster debut Monday, came to Bass underweight and tentative after another family gave her up. Mikka wouldn’t eat until one day when Bass arrived at her Easton, Connecticut, home to a weird smell wafting from the kitchen. Her husband was warming lamb kibble, chicken broth and homemade chicken in a skillet for the dog.

“That was the magic formula. That and the couch,” Bass says.

Enough bergomascos are particular about food that owners share recipes, including those tempting “Satan balls”: raw or cooked meat mixed with molasses, oatmeal and peanut butter and rolled into balls, according to Bass.

To cut down on the expense of feeding her five dogs, she prepares a house blend: kibble, chicken and a puree of eggs, egg shells, sea kelp and fruits and vegetables that can include apples, oranges, bok choi, celery and acorn squash.

There’s plenty of high-end store-bought food on show dog menus — indeed, Purina Pro Plan sponsors Westminster — and lots of handlers rely on familiar treats such as chicken or liver. But some find more exotic items appeal to their prized pets and performers.

“He likes it when I do a little fresh garlic and a little bit of Maldon salt flakes” with organic chicken breast, Kim Brown said of her basenji, named Bazinga.

No, she didn’t devise that as a canine chef. The Furlong, Pennsylvania-based breeder happened to make the receipt for herself once early in Bazinga’s training, gave him a bite and noticed his “oohhhhhh” expression. So it’s been their go-to show-ring treat ever since, including in a televised semifinal round at Madison Square Garden Monday night.

From show rings to dog parks, there’s plenty of discussion about what to feed dogs: raw food? Regular food? Organic? Grain-free? Homemade?

American Veterinary Medicine Association President-elect Dr. John de Jong says there’s no one answer, but owners should look to reputable, nutritionally balanced and well-researched brands. He suggests owners who’d rather make their own do research and consult a vet or veterinary nutritionist, as dogs have different dietary needs than people do, and those needs can vary by age, size and other factors.

There are some red flags for dog food and treats, including artificial sweeteners, avocados, chocolate, grapes, Macadamia nuts, onions and fatty foods. And, as with people, moderation is key.

Overall, “be wise, use discretion,” de Jong says. “Use common sense.”

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