The Dog Food Dude dishes nutritional wisdom

Rick with his pack (l to r): Baxter, Raleigh, Duncan and Chloe.  All photos by Alicia Dickerson-Griffith of Four-Legged Photo.

Rick with his pack (l to r): Baxter, Raleigh, Duncan and Chloe.  All photos by Alicia Dickerson-Griffith of Four-Legged Photo.

Rick Woodford’s personal collection of canine cookbooks has steadily grown over the years.  Between friends and family and his own proclivity for researching the subject, Woodford owns dog-themed cookbooks dating back to the ‘70s.  Ironically, he found every one of them lacking.

“All these cookbooks, even those written by veterinarians, had recipes for a 30 lb. dog,” says Woodford.  “And, maybe I’m sensitive to it, but I don’t have just a 30 lb. dog, I have an assortment.”  Woodford and his partner Gregory currently live with four dogs, two with special needs, so he kept returning to the same question:  how can food prep be made easier?  Five years later, he delivered the answer with what he calls his “dog food manifesto” in Feed Your Best Friend Better.

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The Portland, Oregon native’s foray into cooking actually began well before he ever considered writing a book.  Several years ago Woodford’s beloved Belgian-Malinois/Lab mix Jackson was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and given one year to live.  His appetite waned and he was growing weak.  Woodford began cooking turkey and vegetables to “lure him back to the bowl.”  It worked, and as Woodford continued cooking all of Jackson’s meals he saw his friend grow stronger and more active.  Jackson lived four more vibrant years, mostly cancer-free.

Woodford’s success with Jackson compelled him to cook for other sick dogs.  He started Dog Stew, a home-delivered dog food company, and began teaching others how to care for and nurture their dogs with healthy, homemade meals.  He eventually closed the business to focus on the book, driven by the passion to spread the word about the power of healthy nutrition, especially for dogs who are ill.

“The first reason I wrote the book was for the ‘Warm Nose Meals’ section,” says Woodford, “because when I closed down Dog Stew I wanted to make that information readily available.  I kind of kick ass when it comes to feeding a sick dog, and they seem to do so much better on my food.”  The key, says Woodford, is that he provides real food that dogs want to eat.   

“I also wanted to write it for the ‘Foods to Share’ part,” he continues.  “People tend to cook for their dogs when it’s too late and their dog is already sick.  I’m hoping people will do it sooner, including things like vegetables and fruits in their diet.”  Woodford speaks knowledgeably about how the body can absorb antioxidants and phytochemicals in a way that fights disease.  “Those foods seal the deal on long-term health,” he says, encouraging people to provide variety to their dogs “right off the cutting board.  Apples, carrots and green beans, in the right amount, are snacks too.  It can be really simple.”

Woodford loves simplicity.  However, while that’s exactly what he aimed to give his readers, the five years he spent researching and writing . . . wading through nutritional databases and veterinary manuals, and studying amino acids, minerals and vitamins  . . . was anything but simple.

“I want people to be able to say, ‘Oh, this has five instructions and five ingredients — how hard could that be?’  In my [book] proposal I cited the two types of books currently available on the subject:  very technical veterinarian books, and boutique books that say, ‘And this is how you make a sugary frosting for your dog’s cupcake.’  I’m like, ‘Oh no, no, no; you’re not putting frosting on a dog’s cupcake, you’re using mashed potatoes.’”

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Feed Your Best Friend Better is filled with recipes that at a glance seem like simple comfort food you’d prepare for your human family.  Woodford smiles and acknowledges that he hears that frequently, adding that in fact it’s fine for people.  “Just add some salt and pepper.  I did use very simple, familiar preparations and techniques.  I didn’t want to alienate people by requiring special skills.  I mean, it is dog food . . . you don’t have to garnish.”

Woodford fell in love with the kitchen early, watching his mother cook.  “When I think of myself as a young kid I think of myself like this,” he says, cupping chin in hand and gazing lovingly upward, “watching my mom cooking.  She would be cooking and I’d be watching and talking, or reading my schoolwork to her.  I always loved being in the kitchen.  It was me, my mom, and the dog . . . always in the kitchen.”

His mother’s own culinary skills came from his paternal grandmother, says Woodford.  “Until she was 18 my mother never had a fresh tomato, but after my parents married, my grandmother said, ‘Sit down.  You’re going to eat some stuff.’  I’ve realized that when it comes to feeding my dog, I trust the wisdom of my grandmother as much as I trust the education of my veterinarian.”

Turning his thoughts to Jackson, still a sensitive topic, Woodford says the two met after a series of failed adoption attempts had him ready to give up on getting a dog.  Then a friend shared that a family who was relocating needed to rehome their beloved dog.  Woodford connected with them but nearly lost out to another family.  A final plea and in-person meeting later, Jackson was on his way home. 

The bond wasn’t immediate though, says Woodford.  After the initial greeting, there were days when neither quite knew what to do with the other.  “We were really just staring at each other,” he recalls.  “That got boring so I started doing weird things like hide so he would hunt me down.  As crazy at is sounds, I would climb up on the washer and dryer, shut the closet door and whistle to see if he would find me.  We turned into buddies.”

Woodford was in the throes of the book when he lost Jackson.  “I went into hyper drive after he died,” he says.  “I called in sick and said, ‘My dog died.  I can’t come in for a week; I need to work on my book.’  I was just a fiend.”  His fervor at the time was born of grief, but he also wanted to finish and get the book published.  “I wanted to honor my dog who gave me so much.” 

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Among the more burdensome tasks involving the book, Woodford says, was frequently having to make 12 batches of a cookie recipe to get it just right, or to woo potential publishers.

“The worst was when my agent would call and say, ‘Okay you need to make more dog cookies.’”  While his cookies for dogs are simple squares, his gift packages are filled with delicate shapes and designs.  “So I was cutting out moons and fish and Xmas trees, and people would come over to help and they’d say, ‘This isn’t really fun when you’re grumpy.’ I would yell, ‘I hate shaped cookies!’  Woodford is quick to point out that he does recommend a simple pizza cutter when filling the pups’ cookie jar.

A favorite task was creating recipes and naming them.  The book is filled with dishes with smile-inducing names — Good Girl Gizzards . . . Mutt Loaf . . . Tiny Tuna Noodle Casserole.

As to the book’s content, despite all the research and dedication to nutritional detail, Woodford’s work hasn’t been unanimously accepted by the traditional veterinary community, though it’s slowing growing, he says.  Jackson’s oncologist had a hard time appreciating Woodford’s efforts, even after the dog’s health improved.  Eighteen months after the doctor issued Jackson’s grim prognosis, she said one day, “I don’t often get to tell people this:  I don’t know what it is, but you don’t need to bring him back.”  Woodford insisted it was the homemade food he was providing.  “The doctor would say, ‘No, you don’t know what you’re doing,” says Woodford.  “I’d say, ‘No, you don’t know what I’m doing.’”

As to what might drive such pushback, Woodford says, “I don’t know.  I mean, if your husband is diabetic, you’re allowed to cook for him.  If your child has kidney disease you’re allowed to cook for your child . . . but you can’t cook for your dog?  I don’t get it.  I think they’re worried that people won’t do it right and won’t do everything they need to.  But I could never imagine a pediatrician saying you must only feed your child commercial foods and a vitamin — it would incite a riot.  I think it’s because home-cooked nutrition for dogs, even to veterinarians, is a still a little bit of a mystery.”

Not surprisingly, Woodford’s research into nutrition for dogs has informed his own eating habits which now include much more vegetables and whole grains and much less meat.  He was struck by the impact of food on Jackson’s recovery, and the other dogs in his Dog Stew network.  He says he came to realize “food is kind of amazing.”

Rick with Jackson (l) and Raleigh

Rick with Jackson (l) and Raleigh

Woodford has frequently taught cooking classes for dogs at In Good Taste in Portland.  One evening he received an email from a student who lauded his work.  “I said, ‘It’s not me; it’s really the food that’s amazing.’  And people who love their pets enough to cook for them?  That’s amazing to me.”

“Food and love are the currency in our contract with dogs,” it says in Feed Your Best Friend Better, conveying Woodford’s passionate view of the relationship between people, dogs and food.

“If you have a treat in your hand you can actually get a dog to behave because they are saying ‘that’s important to me,’” says Woodford.  But I feel sometimes we take the easy way out of paying our bill by saying ‘oh, here’s your scoop of plain old boring food.’  Or we overdo by saying ‘I’m going to pay you in gold pieces of cheddar cheese’ (I always tell people, don’t over cheese your dog!).  There is a middle ground.  When I pay my bill to the dogs, I want them getting something good that is also good for them.”

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Woodford is proud that his book addresses a range of needs and doesn’t lecture at the reader.  “This is not a book saying what you must do,” he says.  It’s saying there are a lot more options — let me lay them out for you.  I just wish people could get this book when getting a puppy — and I hope people discover how much food can do sooner rather than later.  Because when it’s later, sometimes it’s too late.”

Woodford says he has worked to make advice from respected veterinarians and veterinary journals more accessible. 

“And my Grandma,” he says, “‘Cause Grandmas made us eat our vegetables.”  He smiles and adds, “The first thing my mom said when she saw the book was, ‘Your Grandma Crist would be so proud.’  And I think she would be proud . . . especially since I included her recipe for Dutch Baby Pancakes.” 

Learn more about Woodford and his work, check out his blog and find nutritional analyses of all the recipes in his cookbook at DogFoodDude.com.

Watch Rick whip up a batch of those Dutch Baby Pancakes in this fun video: