Click through the gallery to experience an evening of dining with Oscar.
I’m not sure of the exact moment I went from being a person with a dog to a dog person.
Adopting a dog was my girlfriend’s idea. It was a big change overnight. I certainly didn’t expect to suddenly be in charge of a small, white Schnoodle—a Schnauzer-Poodle mix, something that sounded more like a pastry than a pet.
But somehow over the course of the last year I became that dog person.
Maybe it started when I entered my dog in the largest Halloween dog parade in the country (and he won third place). Or maybe it was when I bought him rubber rain boots that matched my own. Possibly, it was when I started to use a “dog voice” to talk to him (slightly less off-putting than the baby voice new parents use, but really, no more defensible). Or it could have been the Twitter and Instagram accounts I created for him in which I make jokes and post pictures in his canine voice.
But if it wasn’t any of these things that tipped the scale, it was definitely the time, last week, when I decided to turn my dog Oscar into a food critic.
Last week, when my girlfriend was away on vacation, I cooked an assortment of “pet-friendly” recipes from Rachael Ray’s website and documented how my dog liked them. I ate the same meals alongside him. It was a week of dinner dates with my Schnoodle.
That’s pretty weird, bro.
Maybe…but maybe not. Pet owners cooking for their furry friends certainly isn’t a new trend, and Rachael Ray’s website seemed to offer something novel: recognizably human meals that dogs and their owners could share. That caught my eye.
Ray, a well-known dog lover who sells her own line of dog food and gives the proceeds to an animal rescue charity she founded, devotes an entire section of her website to pet-friendly recipes, which blend in rather innocently among mainstay human categories like “30-minute Recipes” and “5-ingredient Recipes.” One minute you’re eyeing the Jalapeño Popper Chicken (not for dogs), and the next minute you’re considering meals with punny names like Mini Muttballs and Ditalini.
And so, with the apartment to myself and my girlfriend away, I embraced the bachelor bromance of it all. I set out to make my dog a food critic. The chance to dine with my dog—a thought I hadn’t considered before—now seemed like the only important thing I’d do that week.
Here’s how it went down.
Meet Oscar—food critic, social media expert
Breed: Schnoodle (Schnauzer-Poodle mix)
Age: 13 months
Origin story: Adopted from Animal Haven
Wagat Rating System
Oscar invented the Wagat rating system (as opposed to Zagat, naturally). Meals were rated out of a best possible five tailwags.
Meal One: Cinco de Mayo Mexican Bowl
It was an auspicious start for Rachael Ray and her dog-whisperer culinary skills, because this dish was gone in 60 seconds. Oscar vanquished this meal with visible delight. He ate another half-bowl before I cut him off. As a “parent,” I felt good about the nutritional value of the black beans and veggies (though the rice gave me pause because store bought dog food is often marketed as “grain-free”). For me, the meal was a bit plain, though after adding salsa, it was a satisfactory dinner for a human.
Oscar’s rating: 4.5 tailwags
My rating: 3
Ingredients: Rice, beans, tomato, green bell pepper, cheddar cheese
Time: 15 minutes (but longer if you don’t have a microwave to cook the rice)
Cost: $9.84 (makes three servings)
Meal Two: Croque Monsieur Pour Vous et le Pup
A sandwich for a dog? I was skeptical. It turns out Oscar was too, but his hesitation was more logistical—he wasn’t sure how to get past the toasted bread to the good stuff. I eventually cut the sandwich into bite-size pieces. He obviously loved the ham. But he didn’t touch most of the bread and melted cheese. I might as well have served him a plate of deli ham. But for me, this was one of the week’s tastiest meals. I get the feeling that I appreciated the $11 Gruyere more than my dog. Overall, when you factor in the prep time, Croque Monsieur pour Vous et le Pup was comme si, comme ça.
Oscar’s rating: 2.5
My rating: 4
Ingredients: Deli ham, Gruyere cheese, milk, butter, bread
Time: 25 minutes
Cost: $19.37 (makes four big sandwiches)
Meal Three: Power Pooch Smoothie
Dog food and fruit don’t often go together, so I was curious how this would work out. Oscar approached the frozen smoothie slowly, pawing and sniffing at it a few times before testing it with his tongue. He just seemed confused for a while. As the video shows, it’s clear he liked licking it. (As a young puppy this might have been a perfect teething treat). But after 10 minutes, he moved on and left the fruit block to melt. I enjoyed the smoothie unfrozen. I could have had one every day, but for Oscar, it certainly didn’t suffice as a standalone meal—and it was about as entertaining as a Kong toy. At least those don’t melt and make a mess.
Oscar’s rating: 1.5
My rating: 3
Ingredients: Bananas, blackberries, mango, yogurt, honey, water
Time: 10 minutes to make the smoothie (but freezing will require a patient dog)
Cost: $10.07 (makes a blender sized frozen treat)
Meal Four: Valentine’s Day Sweet Pooch Pancakes
If it were a Valentine’s Day date, I might’ve gone home alone. Pancakes didn’t make any sense to Oscar. It’s ironic that the meal that was most fun for me to make (and the most delicious-looking to the human eye) was my puppy’s least favorite. I could’ve guessed the banana and yogurt topping wouldn’t fly with Oscar. He worked around it to get to the pancakes, which he only managed to eat a few bites of. It was a shame, too: I had Turner and Hooch all queued-up for after dinner. Instead, Oscar napped in his dog bed and I ate my Valentine’s Day pancakes solo (they were delicious, by the way).
Oscar’s rating: 2 tailwags
My rating: 4.5
Ingredients: Eggs, milk, white and wheat flour, baking powder, honey, bananas, yogurt
Time: 20 minutes
Cost: $24.19 (makes a dozen small pancakes, with a lot of leftover ingredients for future use)
Meal Five: Dog Sliders
Burger night turned out to be a win-win for human and dog. Sliders were quick to cook up, relatively inexpensive for the quantity, and they were among Oscar’s favorite foods. He devoured them in seconds (and would have consumed five if I had allowed). Oscar didn’t seem interested in the bun at first—he seemed puzzled by it, even—but when the meat was gone he made quick work of it.
The recipe called for cutting the ground chicken with rice, which seemed to make more sense for my dog than for me. When’s the last time you mixed your burger with rice? It was tasty enough, but it felt like a budget dish you’d piece together in your college dorm if there wasn’t enough meat to go around.
Oscar’s rating: 4.5 tailwags
My rating: 4
Ingredients: Chicken, rice, yogurt, bun
Time: 20 minutes
Cost: $16.95 (makes 3-4 burgers)
Brass Tacks: The Fiscal Analysis
I calculated the cost of Oscar’s store-bought dog food to be $15-20 per week (wet and dry food). For what it’s worth, my girlfriend and I try to buy the “organic” and “byproduct-free” brands, which are slightly more expensive than the big, national brands like Iams and Pedigree.
During Oscar’s week as Rachael Ray food critic, the meals we ate together cost about $100 over seven days. That cost includes my dinner meals that week and the considerable amount of food leftover that I used for breakfast (yogurt and fruit), lunches (ham sandwiches), and snacks. If you divide by two, I can estimate that Oscar accounted for at most $50 in food costs (though because he eats less than a human, the number is probably lower).
But Is It Healthy?
The promise of a healthier meal for my dog was, of course, near the top of my mind. Message boards and comment sections on the Internet are ablaze with opinions about the best brand of dog food, or the worst ingredient to mix in with home-cooked pet meals, and so on. I arrived at those edges of the Internet because I was worried I would inadvertently feed Oscar something unsuitable for a dog.
Some of the ingredients in our meals didn’t strike me as dog-friendly. So I called Oscar’s veterinarian, Dr. Bradley T. Emott, who practices in New York City, and asked him what he thought of Oscar’s foray into food criticism. I laid it all out, describing the various ingredients in Oscar’s Rachael Ray-inspired meals. He laughed when I mentioned croque monsieur, but the idea of cooking Oscar human meals wasn’t as outlandish to him as I might have expected.
“I do have a lot of clients who feed their dogs strictly human food,” Dr. Emott told me, noting that it was a minority of clients but that the number is increasing. He recommends “blander and more balanced” ingredients that are less likely to upset the pet’s stomach.
But some ingredients just didn’t feel like they were appropriate for dogs. Cheese, yogurt, bananas?
He ruled out any of our ingredients as toxic or “bad” for dogs, but suggested moderation.
“Dogs have sensitive GI systems. If you’re going to feed them human food, try to avoid anything rich or too fatty, oily, or spicy,” he said. “Too many people feed things that are too rich for dogs.” He explained that vomiting, diarrhea and other drastic changes are signs that a particular meal isn’t sitting well with the dog.
My mind jumped to the Gruyere in the croque monsieur or the yogurt in the smoothie. Could Oscar eat that kind of thing all the time?
Dr. Emott said the best bet, in his mind, is still the store-bought stuff. “I personally recommend a balanced dog food made by a reputable company because they have the right vitamins and minerals.”
Rachael Ray’s meals didn’t seem wacky to him—but he endorsed a case-by-case basis, as dogs tolerate food differently.
“People are welcome to try those recipes [for their dogs], but I wouldn’t recommend a ham sandwich every day,” he said.
The Tyranny of Choice in Dog Food
It was definitely an attractive notion to wrest control over Oscar’s diet from Big Dog Food. Have you been to a pet store lately? The variety and freedom of choice is paralyzing. I walk the aisles with Oscar, inspecting labels on tin cans as though I know whether he needs sweet potatoes or carrots in his “Cowboy Stew.” Here’s what my small, neighborhood pet store’s dog food aisle looks like:
The promise of a simpler, healthier meal for my dog—a meal made from ingredients that I had control over—made a lot of sense to me. It couldn’t be any weirder than trusting big pet food companies to do it for me. And with veterinary costs in this country approaching $13 billion a year, why not be more involved in my dog’s diet?
Would we do it again?
Of course, the real question is whether the practice is sustainable, and whether Rachael Ray’s recipes really do land in the middle of the elusive human-dog Venn diagram. That part I’m not so sure about—for all the tasty meals (and there were many we didn’t try out), I couldn’t help but feel like I was feeding my dog “pet-edible” human food, not food engineered for a dog’s diet. I’m not convinced the meals on Ray’s site land in the sweet spot between our diets, but I credit her with taking a stab at it.
All in all, the experience was probably more transformative for me than it was for Oscar. As someone whose fridge is mostly ketchup, leftover Pad Thai, and a Brita water jug, the exercise helped me realize I liked to cook—I wasn’t great, but I wasn’t terrible, either. (A twentysomething learning self-truths about growing up by cooking pancakes for his dog? I’ll leave any psychological analysis to a trained professional.) Even more to the point, I thoroughly enjoyed the ceremony of cooking with my dog. Oscar was by my side from store aisle to kitchen to clean plate—barking and sniffing and begging in between. It’s dog-human bonding at its best.
For now I’ll stick to the store bought dog food for Oscar’s regular meals, though I plan to continue mucking around with new recipes. Time spent bonding with Oscar in the kitchen is never wasted time.
Fridays will still be Dog Slider Night.