Many studies have shown the direct correlation between diet and academic performance in children to the point that no one questions that a good diet equates to improved grades.  Though less scientific research has been done on the relationship between nutrition and dog training, there is ample anecdotal evidence that the relationship between eating and performance is no less true and what research that has been done is convincing enough that dog trainers and behaviorists should not ignore the connection. 

An animal’s diet affects its ability to learn because its diet impacts the efficiency of its brain, especially the efficiency of the body’s neurotransmitters.  Neurotransmitters are electric chemical secretions that transfer instructions from cell to cell.  There are several different types of neurotransmitters and they each have a different effect on the behavior of the animal. The dog produces neurotransmitters with the help of important nutrition obtained through its normal diet. Dopamine and serotonin are two key neurotransmitters. Dopamine is used by the dog’s body to help coordinate motor skills, attention, reinforcement and reaction time and it has an impact on the brain’s mood area where “good feelings” originate. Serotonin helps regulate arousal levels and helps regulate moods and the sensation of pain.

If animals have a poor quality or inadequate diet, especially if they are malnourished, the body becomes stressed. Dogs can actually become undernourished even if it receives ample quantities of food if they are fed a low quality diet.  Poor quality foods use Ingredients like corn and fillers which can decrease the level of serotonin in the brain because of low tryptophan and high tyrosine.  The body needs tryptophan to help manufacture serotonin and dopamine while tyrosine inhibits the manufacture of serotonin. It is also important that an animal is fed a high quality and nutritionally complete diet to ensure all essential amino acids are available to the body.  Amino acids influence synthesizing neurotransmitters. If neurotransmitters become imbalanced then the chemical balance in the brain is affected which in turn affects the animal’s mood, impulses, reactivity and impulse control.

Dog Trainers need to understand that if the neurotransmitters are transferring too much dopamine then an animal can become agitated, impulsive and over reactive.  On the other hand, if dopamine levels are too low an animal can become under reactive.   Likewise, too little serotonin can result in anxious behavior, obsessions and difficulty in learning and can also reduce an animal’s impulse control.  Low impulse control can lead to frustration. When animals are frustrated they are less able to inhibit aggression. Studies show that reduced levels of serotonin can actually increase aggressive behavior.

So when training a dog, especially when consulting on a behavioral problem, always consider the whole dog, a holistic approach.  Consider its diet, environment, general health and any other factors that may influence its behavior.  And by ensuring that your client is fed a high quality food you can reduce that possibility that diet is working against you.

Niki Tudge is the owner and founder of The DogSmith, America's Dog Training, Dog Walking and Pet Care Franchise. You can reach Niki via email at or through the company website