Better Behavior Through Food

Dogs Naturally
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The Chinese philosophy of Yin and Yang plus diet can bring your dog’s behavior and emotional health into balance for a healthier, happier, and calmer pet.

I am sure you’ve heard the old saying “you are what you eat.” I have no doubt that this holds true for both humans and our canine friends. Choosing the correct food for your dog can be very confusing, and if you ask five friends and five vets what a healthy dog food contains, you will likely get ten different answers.

Food is a dog’s life force. A high quality, appropriate diet is essential for dogs to flourish and thrive. Processed foods have less nutritional value than fresh, real food, and can wreak havoc on a dog’s body both physically and mentally. Did you know that food affects not only your dog’s health, but also his behavior?

Yin And Yang

If you look at a dog through the eyes of a Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) practitioner, all things are connected, including your dog’s behavior. You probably have heard of Yin and Yang.

The basic idea of the Yin and Yang philosophy is that everything in the universe is a little Yin (feminine, passive, negative, darkness, softness, moisture, inward, consuming, cold and docile) and a little Yang (masculine, active, positive, brightness, harshness, dryness, outward, producing, hot and dominant). Balanced.

The Five Element theory expands on Yin and Yang continuing that all things are connected, they are dynamic and in motion. They are always seeking balance. When there is an imbalance, things can go wrong. Physical and mental illness are two examples of elements that are out of balance. This theory is the foundation of Chinese culture.

So let’s take a glance at the five elements and their five spirits and what they repre.sent, remembering that each element, or a combination of elements, contributes to a dog’s behavior and emotions. All of the elements working together indicate balance. Imbalances in behavior are due to either deficiencies or excess (stagnation).

As you read the five elements and their descriptions, see if you can figure out which one best represents your dog.

The Five Elements

Fire-Shen (Mind)

Most Yang/hot-energetic, very social, active, center of attention

Wood-Hun (Ethereal Soul)

Athletic, outgoing, confident, likes to be in charge, loves challenges, angry when frustrated

Earth-Yi (Intellect)

Laid back, social, peaceful, caring, loves food, tolerant, can worry

Metal-Po (Corporal Soul)

Aloof, independent, can be obsessive, likes having a job, prefers to be clean, doesn’t like change

Water-Zhi (Will)

Most Yin/cold-playful with family, cautious with strangers, may be overly cautious, anxious barking

Understanding the Five Element theory and Yin and Yang helps us in our treatment and dog training program. The goal is to bring the dog back into balance.

For a dog to flourish, there needs to be a balance of giving and receiving. When a dog’s emotions are overpowering, his Heart Shen will shut down, preventing his Qi (energy and life force) and Blood (vitality, nourishment) from flowing properly.

Below are the highlights for the Five Elements and their excess and deficiency traits according to The Practical Guide To Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine. These dogs are not in balance.


A dog who is overly expressive, barking, in your face


Reactive towards other dogs, still until they explode


A dog who worries a lot, has loose stool or vomiting, and easily gets fat


A dog who becomes obsessive


Dogs who are fearful, shy and can snap when pushed out of their comfort zone

Food Energetics

So how does all this relate to food? Food can be used as medicine. Treatment for dogs who are out of balance would include nourishing or calming the Shen to aid in their ability to relax and cope. Having a proper diet and nutrients is essential for their physical, emotional and mental health. Remember, if everything is connected, and is energetically more Yin or Yang, this includes food, too.

Energetically, every food is either on the Yang (hot) side, or the Yin (cold) side. This energetic temperature affects the body and behavior. Think back to the Fire dog. A dog who is energetically, well … energetic! If you feed that dog lots of foods that are energetically hot or warm, then you are adding fuel to the fire. In turn, that dog can easily become more agitated, more worked up and more aroused. On the other hand, if you feed that dog an energetically cooler food, you are easing his fire. But don’t worry, when in balance he will still be outgoing and fun.

Qi is in charge of a dog’s emotional and mental well-being. Your dog needs enough Qi to be able to adapt to new situations. When a dog’s Qi is weak or diminished, he cannot control his emotions. Qi can be increased by foods that are high in Qi.

Table with foods that can balance the Qi

Behavior Example

Let’s look at a behavior problem like sep.aration anxiety. After your veterinarian has ruled out any underlying disease, you start a standard training program. Your training program involves desensitization and counter conditioning. You probably already implement add-ons such as essential oils, tight-fitting shirts, dog appeasing pheromone (DAP – now known as Adaptil) and calming music.

When a dog’s Five Elements are not in balance, it affects his Heart Shen and can lead to anxiety. The Heart Shen allows the dog to be calm and relaxed, something he cannot do when he’s out of balance. So treating separation anxiety would include nourishing or calming the Shen to aid in his ability to relax and cope.

For a dog with separation anxiety or Shen disturbances, a cooling diet (duck, rabbit, cod) is very helpful. Or at least a neutral diet (beef, pork). Other foods to help balance your dog’s nervous energy and boost Qi and Blood include: sardines, sweet potatoes, chicken eggs, seaweed, kelp, apples and spinach. A home cooked and tailored diet would be ideal.

And what about that over-exuberant seven month old Labrador Retriever puppy? Puppies in themselves tend to be active and mischievous, and a working breed really needs a job. But what if you are properly engaging and exercising your young puppy and it still seems like he is just into everything and cannot control his emotions? Your puppy probably has a bit too much Heart Fire and is Yin deficient. Eventually this type of dog will develop stagnation and phlegm, which causes Shen disturbances.

For these over-exuberant hot dogs, a cooling diet with stagnation-resolving, phlegm-transforming and damp-draining foods would be helpful. Foods such as rabbit, clams, beef, duck, pork, apples, pears, barley, kelp, celery, melon and blueberries are generally good choices. You should avoid hot foods such as lamb, venison and goat with these dogs whenever possible.

So the next time you start a training program with your dog, think about how food affects his behavior. You can use food to aid in his learning process, and at the very least, avoid foods that will fuel his fire. Good luck, and soothe that Heart Shen.

Table with foods that can balance the blood


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