doggyEveryone’s a critic: one of our panelists gropes for a sniff of biscuit.Photo: Jason Houston

I’ve got a bone to pick with conventional dog biscuits. Like commercial dog food, they are made with un-green or even potentially dangerous ingredients. Surely, they’re unworthy of a companion who greets your return from the mailbox with nothing less than rapture.

But are the spendy, natural and/or organic versions worth the price of reducing Rover’s carbon pawprint? Will your dog eat them, or even prefer them to cheap, commercial Milk-Bones?

dog biscuitOur esteemed critics are ready for their treats. Photo: Jason HoustonTo find out, I grabbed some Milk Bones (for comparison purposes) and higher-quality (even organic!) biscuits to test whether dogs prefer one over the other. Then I assembled a canine tasting panel. For scientific purposes, I went for a range of dogs across age groups and breeds. My four-legged panel includes:

  • Burn: a ten-year-old, painfully sentient, ball-obsessed Border Collie.
  • Lulu: a two-year-old cartoonishly cute Cockapoo with a high-pitched bark that could sever one’s auditory nerves.
  • Sugar Ray: a beanbag-shaped, geriatric Pug with a seriously deviated septum.
  • Austin: a handsome seven-year-old Australian Shepherd with glacial eyes.

The plan was to give each dog a choice: Milk Bone or fancy biscuit?

I also managed to talk the dog’s adult owner-companions into joining in the taste-test. Don’t wrinkle your nose — the “eco” biscuits in this taste-off were of higher quality than most of the stuff found in school cafeterias. Personally speaking, I’ve eaten many dog biscuits on a dare during my childhood, which explains why I have great teeth and a glossy coat.

Our mixed panel of beasts — canine and hominoid — found:

Wagatha’s Super Berry Biscuit

Ingredients: Whole millet flour, dark rye flour, barley flour, oat flour, canola oil, whole eggs, brown rice flour, flax seed, quinoa, sunflower seeds, apples, cranberries, carrots, blueberries, apple cider vinegar, alfalfa, rosemary, allspice, ginger, calendula.

Price: $7.99 for 9 ounces

These small classically bone-shaped, USDA certified 100 percent organic treats from Vermont are pretty much vegetarian, though not vegan. Lulu clearly preferred this treat over the Milk Bone and Austin, the Aussie, consumed it with little chewing. Sugar Ray backed away from the bowl and observed the biscuits from a safe distance. Burn, perhaps searching for her tennis ball, left the room. The humans thought these treats smelled like “berries and bacon” and “tea.” Taste-wise, the humans were pleasantly surprised. “I’ve had things at the health food store that taste like this!” Another taster thought he detected “sundried tomato.” Wrong!

Newman’s Own Organics Salmon & Sweet Potato dog treat

Ingredients: Barley flour*, ground salmon, sweet potatoes*, carrots*, apples*, chicken fat (preserved naturally with mixed tocopherols and lecithin), rolled oats, rosemary extract. (*certified organic)

Price: $4.29 for 10 ounces

Okay, so a few ingredients here are organic and that’s cool, but what’s up with the conventional salmon? I know that Newman’s Own Organics is trying to do the right thing, but surely they know about environmental hazards of farm-raised salmon. The dogs were not impressed with the cutesy heart shape, or, surprisingly, the fishy smell. The Pug could not be enticed even when the biscuit was waved in front of what passed for his nose. Only the Aussie was game (he pulled both bones, the Newman’s and the Milk Bone control, out the dog dishes and gobbled them). Most of the hominid tasters meanwhile were repulsed. Two ran to the sink to flush their mouths. “It’s like the cardboard the fish was stored in!” said one taster. “It gets worse with saliva,” said another. But one taster chomped approvingly and said, “I like salmon!” (It should be noted that, while in Africa, said taster once drank goat’s blood directly from the animal’s neck.)

Mr. Barky’s Vegetarian Dog Biscuits

Ingredients: Wheat flour, whole oat groats, whole ground brown rice, whole ground yellow corn, whole barley, soy flour, sunflower oil (preserved with mixed tocopherols), calcium ascorbate (source of vitamin C), yucca schidigera extract, vitamin E supplement, vitamin A acetate, vitamin D2 supplement (calciferol), D-pantothenic acid, niacin, pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6), riboflavin supplement, thiamine mononitrate, vitamin B12 supplement, biotin, zinc amino acid chelate, calcium amino acid chelate, copper amino acid chelate, iron amino acid chelate, cobalt amino acid chelate, sodium selenite.

Price: $5.99 for 21 ounces

We all know that dogs aren’t vegetarian. What I think is going on with these biscuits is that, by avoiding potentially creepy animal ingredients, owner-companions can assuage their own guilt. Although vegetarian is the greenest way to go for the planet, a veggie bikkie may leave your dog pining for the backyard squirrels. Sugar Ray took an unenthusiastic whiff at this multivitamin-posing-as-snack and hit the ground. Lulu seemed unable to smell it at all. (She wagged her stumpy tail and circled the bowls suspiciously.) True to form, Austin ate it while the Milk Bone was still in his mouth. The human tasters were unenthused, comparing these bix to “straight-up cardboard,” and “Zwieback teething biscuits” and, most damningly, “like Ryvita!”

Harmony Farms Health Bars with Apples & Yogurt

Ingredients: Oat flour, pearl barley, rye flour, oatmeal, dried egg, apples, blueberries, yogurt, oat fiber, chicken liver, flaxseed, salt, calcium carbonate, dicalcium phosphate, chicken fat (preserved with natural mixed tocopherols), carrots, cinnamon.

Price: $4.29 for 18 ounces

Health bars … really? With non-organic chicken liver and fat? And WTF are “natural mixed tocopherols”? At this point in the tasting the Burn started looking despondent and went on a hunger strike. The clearly well-fed Pug lay down again, either out of boredom or because of aching joints. Lulu sniffed, snubbed and cocked her cute little head as if to say, “I do not understand your silly species.” Austin, on the other hand, sniffed at the Milk bone and then clearly chose the Harmony Farms bar. The humans, meanwhile, were ready to serve these with tea. “Almost cookie-like!” enthused one, while another concurred “like an unsweetened graham cracker.” One mother’s comment: “This is like something I’d make for the kids, but without the rendered chicken fat!”

Organix Organic Dog Cookies, organic peanut butter flavor

Ingredients: Organic chicken, organic peas, organic brown rice, organic oats, organic barley, organic chicken fat naturally preserves with mixed tocopherols (form of vitamin E) natural chicken liver flavor, organic natural peanut butter flavor, organic flaxseed, rosemary extract.

Price: $5.69 for 12 ounces

Right off the bat I wondered, why peanut butter flavor and not actual peanut butter? I mean, how freakin’ hard is it to put peanut butter in the batter? The dogs must have wondered this, too. Austin was the only dog who ate this biscuit. Lulu pranced away, Sugar Ray seemed close to death, and if Burn had opposable thumbs she — convinced that she was being subjected to this because she had done something truly horrible — would have committed seppuku. At this point we offered her a choice of all of the biscuits, and she rolled her Jesus-like eyes to the ceiling (Forgive them father, they know not what to eat). The bipeds, meanwhile, agreed on the extremely crunchy texture but deemed this cookie “not peanut buttery” and tasting like “dog food smells.” Zinger: “It tastes like something you’d have at a Super Bowl party in the suburbs.”

Milk Bone Medium Dog Biscuits for Dogs 20-50 pounds

Ingredients: Wheat flour, wheat bran, meat and bone meal, milk, wheat germ, beef fat (preserved with tocopherols), salt, dicalcium phosphate, natural flavor, calcium carbonate, brewers dried yeast, malted barley flour, sodium metabisulfite (used as a preservative), vitamins & minerals (choline chloride, zinc sulfate, vitamin E supplement, D-calcium pantothenate, vitamin A supplement, copper sulfate, ethylenediamine dihydriodide, riboflavin supplement, vitamin B12 supplement, vitamin D3 supplement).

Price: $3.49 for 26 ounces

With the exception of Austin, all of the dogs snubbed these iconic treats. A few human tasters patently refused to put them in their mouths. Those brave enough to try this courtesy-of-the-rendering plant treat were rewarded not with fresh breath, but with something “salty and chickeny” and “like wet fur” and most strangely, “like a taste bomb–an exploding harpoon.”

The Bottom line

Let’s be honest here: Canine taste-tests are for purely for entertainment. Dogs’ taste preferences range from super-fussy to so undiscriminating that they will eat road kill, litter box contents (“Almond Roca”) or even their own feces. That said, the winner of this particular taste test was Wagatha’s, based on the fact that two out four dogs ate them. The humans, meanwhile, seemed to actually enjoy the Harmony Health Bars and the Wagatha’s. (And really, aren’t many of the choices we humans make for our dogs about us, not them? Hence those humiliating dog pajamas, breath spray, canopy-style dog beds, Halloween costumes-need I go on?) The bottom line is that owner-companions should carefully read ingredients, avoid the potentially scary and environmentally bad stuff (the generic meats, animal byproducts, digest and meals that are the consequences of factory farming, HFCS, artificial dyes, preservatives and cheapo grain fillers like corn and rice), and make a choice based on your dog’s fussiness level. Also, consult your vet about your dog’s specific needs.

Lastly (you regular readers know what’s coming) … if you want to save money and avoid stepping into a big ole pile of carbon caused by shipping and packaging story-bought dog snacks, follow Umbra’s advice and bake your own treat.