Fad diets and advertising affect our dog food choices as much as they affect what we eat ourselves. Add in cryptic foods and a few tricks that can be played with ingredients lists and it can be hard to know what’s best to feed your dog.
If you just want the really short answer go to Dog Food Advisor and pick the highest-rated food you can reasonably afford. They’ve already done a whole lot of math and ingredient analysis to make it easy to compare different foods while accounting for things like moisture content and poorly digested supplements. Unless your dog has allergies or other special needs, you should be good to go.
What else should you consider? First, ignore fad diets. Right now raw and grain-free are the “in” diets for dogs. Allegedly this is because wild dogs/wolves eat grain-free and raw, but probably it’s because people want their dogs to be gluten-free or raw with them.
The Nutritional Advisory Group to The Association of Zoos and Aquariums recommends commercial dog food as the base diet for captive populations of wild canids, like wolves and coyotes. Raw meat, bones, and other “natural” foods are used for environmental enrichment or to supplement the diet for species with slightly different requirements. Those species aren’t the ones most similar to our pet dogs. Reputable zoos with in-house veterinarians and whole departments devoted to feeding and nutrition for their animals can’t beat commercial dog food.
There also isn’t any evidence I can find that grain-free is any better than similar quality foods with grains. Some dogs are allergic to specific grains, but they’re more likely to be allergic to a specific meat. Low-quality diets tend to be mostly grain-based because those ingredients are cheap, not because they’re inherently unhealthy. Corn isn’t a good base food to dominate a dog’s diet, but using it to bind together a bunch of other good stuff into a nutritionally complete kibble is fine.
I’m not the dog food police. Any food that’s AAFCO-approved is better than a homemade diet that’s missing something or has a dangerous amount of certain vitamins or minerals. That said, there are quite a few foods that are expensive due to excellent advertising rather than the quality of their ingredients. Read the labels of some foods in your price range and try to pick the one with a higher meat content and more calories from protein.
If you and your vet are both happy with your current food, you’re not obligated to change. If you are changing your dog’s diet, do it slowly by mixing the new food with the old in gradually increasing amounts. You can’t really evaluate how your dog is doing on a new diet if their system is upset by a rapid change. Once they’re acclimated, you should look at their poop. Intestinal parasites or disease may be causing problems, but diet can definitely be the culprit and it’s going to vary from dog to dog. My dog Bramble has never had a healthy poop on a grain-free diet, but the other two seem equally healthy on everything we’ve tried. Please remember that a healthy coat is good, but it’s not a magic indicator of your dog’s health or the quality of his diet. Some dogs have dry skin or are just naturally silky no matter what they eat.
If their poop looks good, you can go on to evaluate their body condition and you’ll probably need to adjust the amount you feed to maintain a healthy weight. Reevaluate periodically because as dogs age, their activity level, metabolism, and ability to absorb nutrients may change, and a different food may become better. If your dog develops any health conditions, he may be put on a prescription diet. If that happens, your dog’s new needs supersede any other considerations, and you should listen to your vet.
If you’re involved in the dog world there can be a lot of pressure to feed the “right” food. Usually the “right” food changes depending on who you talk to. Try to remember that you’re the one taking care of your dog and you’ve probably already got a handle on what works for him. If you’re having diet-related problems, try to opt for diets backed by science rather than anecdotal evidence, and find what’s right for your dog.