Misconceptions Part 3: How the Meals are Designed

Wow!  You’re still here!  How awesome is that!

In Part 1 I told you about where the design of The Barkista meals started:  Ignoring AAFCO and going straight to the source, the NRC.

In Part 2 I told you how The Barkista meals were tested.

Welcome to Part 3:  How the meals are designed and mixed. Blessedly, this section is much shorter and less head spinning.



Rather than work from a recipe, The Barkista meals are worked from the dog.  In our home, we don’t have ‘a’ dog, we have an infestation of dogs ranging from 10 to 90 pounds. Preparing individual mixes would take every waking hour, and then some.  So I had to find a happy medium.  That happy medium, in our home, was 31 pounds, the absolute average of the weights of our dogs.  Just to make the math easier, I rounded it to 30 pounds.

Next, a nutrient profile was calculated for the hypothetical 30 pound overlord, couch hogging, house dog was created.  The calculations had to be tweaked to take into consideration that the end consumer was not specifically bred and confined to a laboratory, but living in a home.  (I still have nightmares about exponents!)

Blood tests were taken, adjustments made, more blood tests done, and voila!  eventually the General Mix Barkista meals were born.   That I got it right the first time, using 30 pounds as the target, was just pure dumb luck.

How I felt then the blood tests were consistent using my best guess of 30 pounds as a starting point.   This is Barkista Dog Sarah, a/k/a Sare Bear, who left us on Christmas Eve 2015.  Nutrition couldn’t stop her degenerative disc disease, but it bought her more time.

So here it is in a more detailed nutshell:

Once the target nutrients, pursuant to the NRC Recommended Allowance were calculated, the next step was to create the meal.  To do this, I use USDA, UN and WHO nutritional databases.

The first step is to meet the protein requirement, actually, it’s the amino acid requirement (more on amino acids later).  Dogs need animal source proteins.  Animal source proteins are the only source of all essential amino acids in a single bite.  The amino acid target is reached using all meat/organs listed on The Barkista ingredient label.  The egg is used solely to provide the gap between the essential amino acid requirement and the crude protein requirement (more on crude protein later).

Once the animal source contributions are measured, vitamin and mineral contributions are subtracted out.   This gets tricky since many vitamins are denatured in the cooking process, so how the meats are prepared is crucial.  The resulting totals, usually requiring more vitamin than mineral, are then matched with fruits and vegetables, properly prepared for digestibility.



Except in mixes with ground chicken bone, the meals are usually a little short on Calcium, which is why when you see “Whole Egg” on the ingredient label, you get whole egg, including the shell.  An egg shell is at least 95% calcium, in a form more useable by dogs (and humans, incidentally) than laboratory created calcium used in supplements.

Fats are not measured because despite the vast nutritional content databases, there is too much variability.  Dogs actually have a very large tolerance to fat (yup, more on that later too), so other than to remove most of the poultry skins or trim excess fat off other roasts (pork requiring the most), I don’t worry about it.

EFA’s are a different story altogether, but they, like the amino acids, are present in muscle as well as adipose (fat) tissue, so a fair +/- range is possible using weighed animal source proteins working from the nutritional databases.  To feed a dog requiring consistently higher than required levels of additional EFA’s is as simple as sticking to the poultry and fish meals.

Believe it or not, by this point, the Recommended Allowance is pretty much already in range, but the actual food amount may not be enough to fill the stomach of the average dog.  Enter rice or rolled oats.  I’ll say what the giant pet food companies won’t:  I add these to help satiate hunger.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t afford to feed grain free, even if it involves more fruits and veggies, to nearly 500 pounds of dogs!  That said, I still don’t add nearly as much grain as you find in your average kibble.  Grain is not the enemy.  Excessive amounts of grain is.  Excessive amounts of a single grain is worse – which is why I switch mixes between white and brown rice and rolled oats.

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Now here comes the fun part:  The same ingredients may not be available to me on any given day, so each time a change is made, calculations start over.  Also, the absolute content of the animal source/fruits/veggie ingredients will influence how much grain (rice or oats) is added.  Too much grain and I’ve just reduced the essential amino acid content.  Too little and.. well, there really  isn’t a nutritional detriment when that happens.

In conclusion (yes, there really is an end coming), there is no recipe for The Barkista meals, be they General Mix or customized for a specific dog.  There is only the currently available, provided by research, nutritional requirements, more specifically, the Recommended Allowance.  Where ingredients may be negotiable depending on availability, i.e. a little more organ meats here, more muscle meats there, the calculations are written in stone – at least until research provides evidence that any value should be changed.


Do you remember the original misconception I was trying to disprove?  It is the common belief that The Barkista meals, General Mix or custom, are treats.  Hopefully we can all agree now that is not the case.  Yes, the Run A Munchies are treats, but the meals are food.

If you want to feed dog food, go to the pet store.  If you want to feed your dog, contact The Barkista today!








Misconceptions Part 2: How it was tested

In my last blog post, to start dispelling the misconception that The Barkista meals are treats, I took the wind out of the sail of The American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) by describing to you how that entity has absolutely no capability (or as some would say, care) in determining the nutritional requirements of a dog.

Rather than settle for the outdated, un-researched information provided in the AAFCO Official Publication (OP), I went to The National Research Council, which objectively compiles pure research and provides the most up to date information as to the nutritional requirements of the dog.  I wasn’t interested in fun recipes.  If I was going to home-make the sole nutritional input for my dogs, it had to be done right.  But how could I be sure I was on the right path?

First let me tell you what AFFCO considers the tell-all prove-all for dog food.

Did you know anyone can put together a mix of ingredients, call it “Dog Food” and sell it?  The only ‘requirement’, assuming the state the food is sold in has adopted AAFCO guidelines, is that a guaranteed analysis appear on the packaging. That’s it.  Makes sense now why so many celebs are getting into the game doesn’t it?

If, however, someone wanted to make a claim about their dog food, such as “For All Life Stages”, “Large Breed”, “Puppy”, etc., a feeding trial must be done.   To it’s credit, AAFCO insists on feeding trials prior to any claim.

In a nutshell, the feeding trial protocol as outlined in the AAFCO OP:


8 dogs must start, but only 6 dogs must finish, a 26 week feeding trial in which representatives of the target group (large breed, all life stages, puppy, etc.) can eat only the food being evaluated.

All dogs receive physical examinations both before and at the end of the test period.   None of the dogs finishing the trial can lose more than 15% of their pre-trial body weight.

At the end of the 26 weeks (but not at the beginning), 4 blood values; hemoglobin, packed cell volume, ALKP and serum albumin are checked for each dog.  If the results of every dog who finishes the feeding trial are within an acceptable range – which, believe it or not includes an acceptable measure outside of normal – the heavens part, the angels sing, and the food appears on your local pet store shelf bearing the claim that it is whatever the manufacturer ‘proved’ through the feeding trials.

The dogs subjected to the trial for the claim “All Life Stages” are usually beagles bred specifically for laboratory feed trials.  During the 26 weeks, these dogs are kept in strict laboratory conditions.


Though I learned about the AAFCO protocols later on, I had no knowledge of them for the first couple of years of Barkista meal testing on my own dogs.  If I had known in the beginning, I believe I would still think what I do now:

26 weeks, using  a specifically bred, single breed dog, many probably genetically related, kept under strict laboratory condition, where 25% of the test group can fail out, gives me pause.  Of the dogs completing the trial, as long as they haven’t lost more than 15% of their starting body weight and as long as 4 blood parameters are within acceptable ranges, which don’t even have to be normal, that food is marketed, and promoted by veterinarians, as the only food a dog will have to eat for life. Think about it!

Now, here is what I did here at The Barkista, starting before I even knew about AAFCO Feeding Trial Protocols:

I mentioned in the previous blog post my DASH! was the original Barkista dog.  DASH! was testing a meal, specifically formulated for him using NRC calculations for the Recommended Allowance.  Though I saw subjective improvements, most notably an increase in weight, better appetite and complete cessation of his digestive issues, I still couldn’t be sure if the food was safe.  To have his blood checked was the only logical next step before I tested the food on another dog.


And so began my irritating visits to various veterinarians asking for blood work for ‘personal reasons”.  Some were simple pre-surgical panels, many were Total Body Functions, every one inadvertently covering the “AAFCO 4”, every one looking at many other parameters as well.  (These lab results, incidentally, all posted for the world to see on our Facebook Page  try to get THAT from your typical commercial dog food company!)

When DASH!’s results started coming back with consistent gold stars, meaning the calculations worked, I converted 2 more of my small dogs, and blood tested them while continuing to test DASH!  Then came the last of the small dogs, add on our then Super Senior 70 pounder as well as one of the medium dogs, and the rest eventually followed.

That sucking noise you heard but couldn’t place over the last several years was my checking account draining away in lab fees!  But I had to be sure what I was doing was safe for my dogs.  Subjective improvements mean nothing if systemically the dog is getting sick.  Not even a veterinary physical can detect as much as a lab report.  Turns out, the calculations and formulations worked!


Barkista dogs Emmi (l), Morty (c) and Slugger (r) getting their splash on.  Can you believe AAFCO would have you think that nutritional adequacy for confined beagles would be appropriate for these 3?


Being 1 obsessive dog nutrition specialist in a home infested with dogs (13 at the time), with a day job and a husband, individually formulating for each dog was an impossibility.  After staring at the wall of post-its with calculations, weights, measures and target lists, I decided I needed to come up with a happy medium, and so was created a formulation for a hypothetical 30 pound dog, the absolute average weight  of the dogs in my home (10 to 70 pounds with many weights in between).


Sorry, had to do that to get your attention back.  What follows usually causes listeners’ eyes to glaze over, but it’s important:

Using the base calculations from the NRC, as well as exponential variables to take into account the hypothetical dog would be living in a home, not a laboratory, a single target value was determined, the meals were made and they were then fed to all my dogs, and to carefully monitor the effects, blood draws were (and continue to be) done.

Remember, the Recommended Allowance is a higher nutrient profile than the Minimum Requirement.  Even for the smaller dogs who’s relative nutrient requirements are higher than larger dogs, the numbers came in, though lower than the Recommended Allowance, still significantly higher than the Minimum Requirement.  Consistently spot-on blood work showed the formulation worked!


As of the writing of this post, The Barkista diet plan has been fed to my dogs for durations ranging from 2 to 4.5 years, and their blood work supports the safety and nutritional added value.  Our Super Senior passed away, but another, larger Super Senior as well as a small dog moved in and were started on the diet plan.  And of course, blood draws continue.

And this is the same formula used today to craft The General Mix Barkista meals sold from our web site.

Just seems to be an awful lot of work and testing to go into a product often mistaken for a treat doesn’t it?

The General Mix is intended for healthy adult dogs and can be fed as the sole nutritional source, provided main ingredients are rotated – thus the several entree offerings on the The Barkista web site menu.

Senior dogs may require adjustments.

This formula has not been tested on puppies and should only be fed along with a commercial puppy food until the puppy is considered an adult.

Stay tuned for Part III where I compare my data sets to those required by AAFCO.


Misconceptions Part 1: Where it Starts

A common misconception about The Barkista meals is that they’re treats.  For that reason, it’s difficult to create an understanding about the diet plan.

Let’s clear up that misconception, shall we?

Unfortunately, there is no simple explanation, but rather an evolution of where The Barkista meals came from.

Let’s start at the beginning: The blue print for the design of The Barkista meals and diet plans.

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Arrrmando (the second ‘r’ is silent) never really thrived to begin with, which meant additional vet visits.  This is why he was one of the rare instances of a confirmed death due to a pet food recall. He had been to the vet shortly before his death and showed no symptoms.


Most people are aware of the American Association of Food Control Officials (AAFCO).  The near unanimous belief is that AAFCO is the entity involved in determining the nutritional requirements of dog.  They aren’t.  AAFCO’s modus operandi  would be to spend years debating the agreed upon definition of the word “The” and how it could be used on a dog food label.

The primary function of AAFCO is to determine what words can or should appear on a label and what claims can be made.  OK, so that’s over simplified, but still, AAFCO isn’t as grand as most people believe.  In fact, nothing published in it’s Official Publication (OP) is binding on anyone.  It’s up to the individual States to determine whether  or not to adopt AAFCO’s guidelines as gospel.  It just happens most do.

But wait, you say!  AAFCO determines the minimum nutritional requirements for dogs!

No they don’t.

For the Minimum Requirement, AAFCO publishes the findings of another organization, The National Research Council (NRC).

The sole purpose of the NRC is to compile all available research on whatever topic they are directed to, published and unpublished, from the private, public and academic sectors, and summarize it.  It has no opinion on any matter, their function is simply to collect and summarize.    Dog nutrition for the dog as a companion rather than a lab animal became a viable topic in 1965.

DASH!  The original Barkista Dog.  DASH! was plagued with GI problems his whole life.  It was not until I got DASH! healthy and off his medications, with consistent positive blood test results, that I started converting my other dogs.

The original NRC Nutritional Requirements of the Dog publication was a small pamphlet.  In 1974, it was updated (I have yet to be able to get a copy of this one), and within the document was a table which listed the then agreed upon Minimum [nutritional] Requirements for dogs.  It is from this table, and through no research or professional knowledge on the part of AAFCO, that the Minimum Requirements showing on your dog food label was born.

The NRC published an update in 1985, but problems within the research itself caused controversy over whether or not the updated nutritional requirements should be used.

The next update occurred in 2006.  By that time, research into dog nutrition had exploded, and the problems revealed in prior research were corrected.  As a result, an updated table was published containing the 3 levels of nutrition:  “Minimum Requirement”, “Adequate” and “Recommended Allowance” – these items listed, and pay attention here –  in ascending order.

Now let’s think about what this means.  The Minimum Requirement is a level less than Adequate.  I don’t know about you, but I want the best for my dogs! AAFCO doesn’t even promote “Adequate”!  Who benefits the most from the Minimum Requirement, the least amount of nutritional value required to keep a dog in an OK state of health?  It certainly isn’t your dog.

Marcy was born to a stray and grew up feral her first year at the city/desert interface.   Given her expert (and annoyingly persistent) hunting skills, she was more hunter than scavenger.  Her enamel shows she survived distemper.  Marcy came to us, the picture of health 3 years ago, somewhat ate commercial for a few weeks, then converted to The Barkista diet plan.   Marcy made herself strong and healthy.  The Barkista diet plan just keeps her that way.  I would love to do a study comparing health status of wilderness feral vs. city feral dogs.  The implications could be huge in nutritional discoveries.

That 3rd and highest tier of nutritional requirements on the NRC table – the Recommended Allowance – experts outside the pet food industry agree is the closest we  have to the true nutritional requirements of the dog.  That level, if fed, should keep more dogs healthier.

But the Recommended Allowance does not appear in the AAFCO OP.  Indeed, it wasn’t until December 2015 that AAFCO met to increase the Minimum Requirements from 1974 to 2006 NRC values. Granted, there were problems with the 1985 update, so I get it.  But I take serious issue with the fact that defining the words “Natural” and “Holistic” were more important than raising the Minimum Requirements, forcing dog food manufacturers to make better food irrespective of the fact that the current Minimum Requirement still isn’t even Adequate!  It’s still better than the levels established 40 years ago!

Separate from all that, and the part I really get excited about:

Little known fact about the NRC publications, and what The Barkista is based on:  The NRC provides the means to calculate the EXACT nutritional requirements, for an invidividual dog.  These calculations are worked using the dog as a starting point, then creating the food (nutrition) to fit rather than the other way around. These calculations are not based on content per 4000k/cal or percentages, but on the exact amount of each nutrient.

Can you all give me a collective “Wow!”.

2 options  – a more appropriate nutrient level, higher than the Minimum Requirement, AND the ability to design a diet for the specific dog, both proven through research, and no one even knew.

Whether it’s shooting for the Recommended Allowances or feeding to the requirements of an individual, The Barkista can feed your dog better.

Stay tuned for the next installment:  How The Barkista meals, and more importantly, the diet plan, was designed and tested.