Sure, you love your dog. But do you love your dog as much as Alton Brown loves his dog? Enough to taste-test her food, for instance — is that too much to ask?
Not for Brown, it isn’t. After all, this is a man who once revealed that his favorite ice cream is a recipe he concocted with his daughter involving gin, Welch’s grape juice, prunes and gummy bears — except the green ones, which “throw everything off in a really bad way.” The celebrated chef and Food Network star is famously willing to put his taste for adventure ahead of... other tastes.
But right now, there is less booze and sugar than usual in Brown’s life. That's because he is on a diet, and the reason is the same one that bedevils us all, particularly at this time of year, when cozying up with comfort food seems all too appealing.
“I have always self-rewarded liberally," Brown, 59, told TODAY by phone, laughing. “And from time to time I have the elastic pants to prove it.”
So, what to do? Many experts recommend having a weight-loss buddy to keep you accountable. But Brown’s four-legged ally isn’t exactly a model of self-control: She steals his food and has bad table manners. She’s gotten over the mange that plagued her when Brown and his wife, Elizabeth, adopted her three years ago. But she still bears the name they bestowed on their new dog during that unfortunate period: Scabigail.
“She was a rescue that had been heavily neglected; she weighed just 7 pounds and was covered in scabs,” Brown recalled. “She would eat anything — small rocks, insects — because she’d been starved. She was so malnourished that the vets weren’t able to figure out how old she was because everything was so underdeveloped. But that’s the problem: Nutrition changes everything. If they’re not fed properly when they’re puppies, nothing’s quite right.”
For a hungry puppy, Scabigail sure hit the jackpot. Being rescued by a famous chef has its perks, and she is not shy about making the most of her good fortune.
“On the set of ‘Good Eats’ one time, there was a turkey leg on a table and Scabs jumped up on the banquette, jumped from there up to the table, and was gone out the back door. The only reason we knew what happened is that there was a grease spot left on the table where the turkey leg used to be,” Brown said, marveling at the stunt.
“We, uh... we had to have words.”
By this winter, such appetites had caught up with them both. “I put myself on a diet and her on a diet at the same time,” Brown said. “I’m probably going to fail at my diet. I’m not good at self-denial, especially if I get home and I really want a cocktail, but I’m only allowing myself cocktails on the weekend. It’s hard to break habits; we reward ourselves too — ‘I had a really long day; I didn’t yell at anybody.' But I’m a human and I can make decisions and reason with myself that I don’t like the way these pants fit.”
For Scabigail, the indicators were more subtle. Brown knew she was, as his wife puts it, “curvy,” but it was her loud snoring that served as a literal wake-up call. Their research led them to a tool on the Hill’s Pet Nutrition website to help crunch some numbers. According to Hill’s, 90% of people with an overweight pet don’t realize it.
“There are a lot of tools on their site — the body assessment tool is especially strong — but you can’t leave your vet out,” Brown said. “I’m a big believer in vets; the rest of us think we’re experts and we’re not.”
The stark math revealed the regrettable truth: Scabigail was overweight. Brown asked the vet how much she needed to lose to be the optimum weight and got a number — one he sensitively declined to share with TODAY. Thus began a joint weight loss journey between man and man’s best friend.
“As someone who’s as into food as I am, I had not given a lot of thought to what a dog/pet needs; there are very specific things to maximize their metabolism and overall health and keep their weight down,” said Brown, who has now partnered with Hill’s Pet Nutrition, a subsidiary of Colgate-Palmolive. “Keeping weight down is as important for animals as it is for humans. Investing in the right food is the same as investing in your dog’s health.”
Switching up Scabigail’s food was the first step. But as a chef, Brown takes a personal approach to quality control. So, yeah — he ate the dog food. “I don’t feed my dog anything I haven’t tasted. Both the kibble and the canned food — I couldn’t resist. I need to know what it tastes like. I had a big ol’ spoonful.”
He added, joking: “I think that if I was going to live on the canned food, I’d probably heat it up, though.”
A spokesperson for Hill’s stated that the company does not recommend any pet parent eat pet food.
The new diet earned human as well as canine approval. “Hill’s puts considerable energy into building the nutrition in the food and also they know that if the animal doesn’t want to eat it, it’s not going to make any difference,” said Brown.
“I don’t feed my dog anything I haven’t tasted. Both the kibble and the canned food — I couldn’t resist. I need to know what it tastes like.”
Like many devoted pet owners, not to mention celebrity chefs, Brown has experimented with homemade dog food and dog treats in the past (“They tasted pretty good!”), but ultimately decided to leave the nutritional choices to the experts. “I can cook up sweet potatoes and chicken, but at the end of the day, it’s very complex, keeping an animal running at peak condition, getting a dog’s digestive tract to really absorb the nutrition properly.”
“That healthy gut — we can’t provide the probiotics that a dog needs or a cat needs,” he added, “so it’s well-meaning and it’s lovely to think we can cook special food for our animals, but I do not believe we can.”
After getting Scabigail’s diet right, there were other challenges to reckon with — namely, that Brown brings his dogs to work with him every day. “We’ve got a relatively large test kitchen and Scabs knows how to work it. She’s fairly adorable; she’s got a blue eye and a brown eye and she’s got favorite spots to hang out. She knows who’s most likely to drop something off the counter,” Brown said. “Scabs gets a lot of food that hits the floor. A 1-ounce piece of cheese is enough calories for her for a whole meal, but not much actual nutrition.”
Test kitchen antics aside, Scabs is doing well on her diet. “It’s only been a few weeks and she’s already lost some weight and is acting a lot more lively. Being able to make a commitment towards dieting with your dog, it feels good to see your dog want something and give it to them — it’s an endorphin rush, but that should probably end with snuggles or play” instead of treats, Brown said. “We’ve upped our play. She used to get tired after five minutes of tug of war — now it’s 15. Now she’s the one wearing me out!”
As most pet parents know, the bonus of keeping pets healthy is that increased activity is good for us, too. “It makes me stop in my day, reminds me to play. Dogs are nothing if not present,” said Brown.
The new regimen has even improved Scabigail’s manners: “She really likes the food a great deal. Because it’s got higher fiber, it’s keeping her full longer and she’s not begging as much. She was a really bad beggar, jumping up on me all the time. I suspect the fiber is keeping her more satisfied.”
Brown’s final tip for pet owners is one familiar to parents of small humans: Don’t let them play one parent against the other. “Dogs play both hands along the middle — if I’m not getting treats from Mommy, I’m going to try to get them from Daddy. Dogs learn systems and they learn habits. If the habit is Daddy’s going to reach into that drawer and give me a treat at 3 p.m., then that’s what they expect. But that’s actually good because we can use that to our advantage and their advantage.”
In the Brown household, that now means portioning out treats from Scabigail’s daily food amount at the beginning of the day and agreeing that when they’re gone, they’re gone.
“We give treats because we like giving them, and then people say, ‘My dog’s getting old’; ‘They don’t play like they used to play’; or, ‘They sleep all the time now,’” Brown said.
“Maybe your dog is just overweight.”
CORRECTION (Feb. 3, 2022, 5:43 p.m.): An earlier version of this article stated that Hill's estimates that 99% of people with an overweight pet don’t realize it. Hill's revised its estimate to 90%, not 99%.
CLARIFICATION (Feb. 8, 2022, 9:55 a.m.): A spokesperson for Hill's clarified that the company does not recommend people eat pet food, as noted in this updated article.