Hello Readers, it sure has been a long time since I posted! Many of you know I had to take time earlier this year, for medical reasons, some of which continue but the most serious has been resolved, and I am working full-time, with clients and students, again. I’m planning to add a post here and there, despite the popular concept that “blogging is dead” – I’m not so sure I agree. There’s no question that 30-second videos have replaced blogs in some circles, but there are still those who enjoy and can take in a good read, who appreciate detail, and who check in with their favourites regularly. I have a full page of potential topics to share with readers; some go in the Newsletter, some on The Hub (membership group on Facebook), some are being worked into e-booklets and yep, some are going to be shared right here.
Let’s start today with a topic I hear about, and am asked about all the time: What advice do I have for those starting out as canine nutritionists?
Almost every day I’m asked how fast a student can get “certified” (a whole blog entry right there) can they “do what I do” after they finish my courses, and how much can they expect to make. Less frequently, someone asks me about the actual work itself – questions that pertain to the skills and tools of a dedicated nutritionist/herbalist, and that always warms my heart and reminds me not everyone is learning or doing this work as a way to become well-known and popular but as a true Calling.
I walked that Path right from the start, it never once occurred to me how commercialized the job would become and how much time I’d need to spend promoting myself. My focus was and is, learning as much as I can, even now, every day, about a wide variety of topics – like most things, it can never all be known, but keeping a focus on learning is critical.
Truth be told, I continue to lack marketing skills of even the most basic kind, and while I do advise newcomers to take at least short courses in marketing and learn how to promote their business, I don’t really suffer too much from my lack of skill in that area. At least half of my clients are referrals, some from a lively Facebook presence, and still more from people just Googling. I often have more clients than I can keep up with and need to refer some to colleagues – the reason for that is not multiple, cute 30-second reels, but the depth of my knowledge and experience – hard-earned and nowhere near completed. This entry is all about various areas of study and some core concepts I have found essential in my many years in this work.
I hope it will be helpful for everyone who writes to ask how quickly they can get certified, as well as those who request a list of other courses I recommend and have taken, and just really want to learn, expand, and grow into excellence. This entry is inspired by a piece my friend Jesse Wolf Hardin wrote for his wonderful publication Plant Healer Magazine – it is aimed at the many, MANY people who wish to pursue canine nutrition professionally and should know that it is much more than using a Formulation tool and marketing yourself effectively. Inherent in this article too, is what prospective clients should look for in a practitioner. Your beloved dog needs someone whose skills are developed in nutrition and herbs, not marketing. Bigger and more popular distinctly does not equal better.
So – you want to be a canine nutritionist. You are entering such a fiercely competitive field! Herewith, are ten things I feel strongly about, that are essential for SERIOUS students to focus on, integrate, and work with. Focus on these instead of endless selfies, and you will succeed, because this is what makes you good – and the good ones will always outlast the fluff.
1. Understand the requirements
The bottom line of nutrition for any species is – to learn about nutrients! As obvious as this may seem, it’s the basis of nutrition and has recently become, strange as it sounds, contentious, at least in popular holistic circles. In any formal nutrition program, the study of nutrients – what they do, which foods contain them, how much we need to get in our diet – is not “micromanaging” or “fear-mongering” but the very basics of the topic. I’ve had so much opposition to this concept that I started a series – initially featured on my Newsletter but moved, recently to the Membership group on Facebook – and we do a deep dive into each essential, every month. Again this seems ridiculously obvious but in social media circles we hear the opposite, every day – just feed a lot of variety/fresh food, and over time, everything will balance out. This is demonstrably not so – and please remember, if you give shoddy advice to a client, suggest they can get all their Vitamin D from sunlight or that plant foods are good sources of iron, it may well come back to haunt you. Anyone who calls themselves a nutritionist should be able to answer any question about any nutrient, anytime. It’s not the totality of nutrition, but it definitely is the foundation. How are you going to feel if a client’s dog develops thyroid problems related to the fact the diet wasn’t supplying an adequate level? Or if the skin issue you tried to fix with a lot of fish oil needed a source of a different fatty acid? What if the low zinc levels led to a failure to reproduce, for someone’s prize stud dog?
The public at large tends to take individual nutrient issues lightly, until a serious issue arises, such as taurine-responsive cardiomyopathy, or copper storage disease…two nutrient-responsive conditions most everyone has heard of. The reality is that some imbalances may be less dramatic but still impact health over time and that some can be extremely deleterious to health. I hear a lot of negativity about earning the essentials – what a dog needs, how much is ideal, and which foods supply them – and this is a huge mistake. Nutrient content and balance are by no means the only elements of nutrition, but they most certainly are, foundational.
2. Study (and keep studying) food composition
And by that, I mean: know your ingredients. ????
Anyone who frequents social media will attest to the emphasis placed on ingredients in dog food, and of course, these are foundational too – but not always in the way you might think. There are two core problems with thinking about foods in terms of ingredients only – and they’re significant.
One is, that when we highlight a specific aspect of an ingredient, for better or for worse, we overlook other aspects of that food and how it may still be used advantageously.
One example might be “Never use organ meat with kidney disease, it’s high in phosphorus” …and that is generally speaking, correct. However, some renal diets may be so low calorie and low phosphorus already, that we struggle to get the amount UP, and a little organ meat can raise the intake and supply important amounts of selenium, copper, and Vitamin A …we always have to look at the context of the whole – diet and individual dog. A food that is touted as “miraculous” may be poorly absorbed by dogs, contain high levels of oxalates, or be too fatty for some dogs. Sweet potato is for sure a great source of potassium, but also sodium, so if you want to boost sodium without raising potassium too much, rutabaga is a better choice. Again, on social media, most people are ingredients-focused and will provide a long list of foods they can access and believe that if you feed enough variety, all the nutrient needs will take care of themselves. This is demonstrably, and significantly, not the case.
Again, more in-depth knowledge will be needed by anyone who intends to work with therapeutics, but all dog owners, not just those studying nutrition, should understand some of the conditions and health challenges domestic dogs typically face.
Kidney disease, IBD, heart disease, pancreatitis, bladder stones, and diabetes are common conditions that are nutritionally responsive, so it’s essential to know what these conditions are, how they develop, and how the vet diagnoses them.
This knowledge should come from primary sources (some of which I will list at the end of this article) and NOT from marketing sites, selling products, or any place at all promoting a radical dietary approach and nothing else.
Don’t go to flashy online mags that hire journalists to write pieces on health issues (designed to sell products): remember you will be playing an extremely important role in the health of the dog, so read the actual science, read it all, MASTER it, before deciding you know better and providing a diet that could be all wrong for the dog. This can truly have tragic outcomes; make sure you are acquainted with the current scientific approach to nutritional management, and have a working knowledge of the tests dogs should have to make the diagnosis.
4. Conventional Treatments
This is a lifelong learning process; as treatments change in the world of veterinary science, it’s up to the practitioner to know what they are and how they may impact the health of dogs. This is critical knowledge for the herbalist, as herbs and drugs can and do interact; even with nutrition only, it’s important to know the side effects of commonly used meds –
- Does the drug promote constipation?
- Increase hunger or thirst?
- Need to be taken separately from food, or with food?
- What about meds that increase weight gain?
To work effectively with nutrition and herbs, you need to know the most popular meds and their potential interactions and be ready to look up anything you don’t know.
5. Theories of Energetics
With the rise in popularity of TCVM, Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine, plus the many popularized, watered-down versions of it, many dog owners are now including some form of food energetics in their assessment of diets and want to throw in a little along with a mostly Western protocol for conditions such as dermatitis or IBD.
It can be frustrating for the practitioner to deal with client concerns about whether the one protein their dog can tolerate is, in fact, “hot”, and takes time to explain that a recipe based on the NRC and Western veterinary insight is different from an Eastern version.
To do so, any practitioner has to have a solid understanding of Western energetics; it takes on average twelve years for a student to train in Chinese Herbal Medicine and those are the people I would place trust in if a Chinese Medicine approach is desired; many of the folks I’ve seen practicing some form of TCM have taken at best, a one or two year course, and often much less (a couple of weekends here and there).
The Western approach is often confused with allopathy; Western herbal medicine is nothing of the sort, but it is less well-understood in general. I have a Handout I give all clients who are asking for a little TCVM tossed into a very sophisticated and holistic herbal protocol, that explains the difference in systems, and why it usually doesn’t work to just mix it up UNLESS the herbalist is trained thoroughly in both traditions. In my own work, I focus primarily on the nutrient content of foods, finding which ingredients work and applying Western energetics to the herbal formulations I create to go with the diet. Others will do it differently, but again I stress, that you need to know Energetics at least at an Introductory level to help your client wade through the confusion.
6. Methods of Food Prep
Well, this one is a no-brainer! But I mention it because it’s always a mistake to think everyone cooks or knows how to cook.
Clients will ask about nutrient loss, cooking materials, and if it’s ok to brown the meat first, use a crockpot, or what oil to use – remember that with a raw diet, we don’t have to know as much, but now you are cooking the food, it’s essential (and so many therapeutic cases need to be cooked). For me, the easiest thing has been to prepare and send a Handout with basic info and links to more detailed sites. Saves a lot of the time a client has paid for, if you don’t have to repeatedly answer the same questions over and over.
7. Breed Pre-Disposition
This is another no-brainer – especially if you plan to do Wellness Consults, troubleshooting for potential issues ahead. Is the dog predisposed to specific bladder stones? To thyroid disease? Specific cancers?
It’s become popular now to say “dogs are individuals” and of course, they are – something I’ve been saying for over 20 years now, mostly in reaction to those who claim all dogs should be fed the same way (nope). The only way to test individuality is to feed a diet and see how the dog does. But to start, familiarize yourself with breed predispositions, and bear them in mind when selecting foods for your recipes.
8. Look Beyond the Breed
Think outside the box, only when you have mastery of what is in it! Individuality within dogs, breeds, and litters is very much the norm, but you do need to approach this with the benefit of some experience behind you.
Start with learning breed tendencies and then use your detailed Intake form and client communication to make decisions about where the individual fits and what ingredient/nutrient choices you will make for them. There will always be that Lab who can’t keep weight on, the Yorkie who has eaten an oxalate-laden diet for years without developing stones, the Ridgeback not so interested in food (ok, maybe not that one), and so on. Knowing breed predispositions is critical but should not mean you become rigid in and formulaic in your formulations.
9. Careful Selection of Sources
Discretion and discrimination! I send a Handout to each client describing what to look for in a site –
- are they selling products, pushing them all the time?
- Are the articles written by people who work as nutritionists?
- What kind of citations do the articles provide?
…and a list of reliable sources. I’ve already covered this but it needs to be said again; take info from established, primary sources. It’s critically important not to rely on marketers and opportunistic journalists for your health and nutrition info.
It’s also so important to keep your eyes open for issues that can arise suddenly with a trusted brand – food or supplements. Just last year, Consumer Lab featured news about the high levels of cadmium in whole flax seed – I personally had been taking 2 Tbsps. or so every single day of freshly ground seed. Lead has been found in turmeric, some olive oil is heavily adulterated…we want to ensure clients are using not only whole fresh foods but from safe sources; I recommend a membership at Consumer Lab and regular check-ins.
10. Know Your Limitations
This is also critical once you are actually doing the work – all professionals MUST know where their boundaries lie and stay within them.
We are not vets, but we do need to understand some bloodwork; we may have strong opinions about treatment options, but it is never our place to persuade a client, just lay out the pros and cons. I think it’s also ok to say, “If this were my dog, I’d opt for such and such, but stress always that dogs are individuals and choices are personal. When we see diet and herbs helping dogs so powerfully it can make us a bit zealous, especially in the beginning, but professionalism dictates we are very clear about what we can and cannot do.
I hope I have not made this sound like becoming a canine professional nutritionist is so daunting, it will consume your whole life and involve far more study and knowledge than you expected…but, this is a serious job with the potential for both helping a dog immensely or doing a mediocre, software-generated recipe that may not cause harm but is not as skillfully done as possible – in extreme cases, we can see damage if essential nutrients are extremely low or high.
If you have just done, say, one foundation course, it is not wise to start taking advanced therapeutic cases – work with proactives and maybe some simpler therapeutics – above all, enlist the help of someone willing to mentor you, or at least answer a few questions as they arise. Enjoy the work – the learning, the journey – and whatever you do, don’t burn out trying to do everything RIGHT NOW – excellence takes time and you need to pace yourself. Don’t try to live on the income right away; find your niche and allow for marketing to be part of it, but never the majority of your life. Never stop learning – this field changes all the time and there is always more to know.
Sound like a lot? Well yes, it is – but, if this work is truly your calling, it will be worth every hour of extra time put in and every day you feel frustrated or overwhelmed. And I hope that means many of you because this field needs all the good, committed, knowledgeable practitioners we can get.
- TPC – my two foundational courses, one is auto-marked with an essay and the other is mentored and marked by me personally. https://thepossiblecanine.com/basics-of-canine-nutrition-courses-updated-information
- CASI – One of the very best, CASI is where I did my diploma – and shifted my understanding of nutrition from popular knowledge to much more science-based. I couldn’t do what I do without these courses. https://www.casinstitute.com/
- Linda Case – terrific Introductory courses, taught by one of the most knowledgeable people we have – check her books as well. www.thesciencedog.com
- University of Illinois – https://ansc.illinois.edu/academics/certificates/companion-animal-nutrition-certificate-nonstudents
- Anatomy course – this is one of two I did; there are others but I found this program very through and useful. https://e-trainingfordogs.com/canine-anatomy-and-physiology-course/
- Herbal Energetics – a course not specific to dogs but will teach you the principles of Western Herbal Energetics: https://wildrosecollege.com/product/western-energetics/
- Canine and Feline Nutrition – THE best beginner’s book I know: https://www.sciencedirect.com/book/9780323066198/canine-and-feline-nutrition
- SACN – Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, 4th edition – the Big Blue Book – available online – free! – here: https://www.markmorrisinstitute.org/sacn5_download.html
- Dog Food Logic, Linda Case: https://thesciencedog.com/books-by-linda-p-case/
- National Research Council – Nutrient Requirements of Dogs – this is required reading for aspiring professionals, and provides all the requirements for dogs and cats during growth, pregnancy lactation and much more info. https://nap.nationalacademies.org/catalog/10668/nutrient-requirements-of-dogs-and-cats
- Merck (online) – https://www.merckvetmanual.com/
- Plumb’s – https://plumbs.com/buy-the-handbook/
- Breed Predisposition – https://vetbooks.ir/breed-predispositions-to-disease-in-dogs-and-cats-3rd-edition/
- ConsumerLab – about 50$ a year and worth every penny. CL tests and reports on the safety and efficacy of various foods, herbs, and supplements – so you can select the very best for your clients. Indispensable. https://www.consumerlab.com/
- Linus Pauling Institute – in-depth information on nutrients, I use this site all the time: https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/
There are many more texts you will want – and this list doesn’t go into herbalism aside from the energetics course – but it does provide a solid background for the aspiring nutritionist. And for those seeking a non-DVM nutritionist, these are a few areas your professional should be fluent in. This work is important, and important that we practitioners provide excellence for every client.