Currently, there are approximately 30 breeds listed as hunting dogs, though two-thirds of them are hard-pressed to find their food bowls, let alone game birds. If we trim the list to the dozen or so breeds that are realistic field dogs, it still represents a fair number. Add bloodlines within those breeds, and we end up with a substantial variety of pointers, flushers and retrievers. Indeed, working gun dogs come in a range of sizes, shapes and hunting styles, but across this broad spectrum, one factor remains constant: the need for high-caliber nutrition.
I've said this before, but I'll say it again: Topnotch hunting dogs are the sum of genetics, training and nutrition. If any part of this bottom-line threesome is neglected, a dog's performance, particularly at higher levels of demand, will be diminished. Perhaps predictably, of the three fundamental elements, nutrition is the most commonly neglected, yet it's the most cost-effective and easily handled piece of the gun-dog puzzle. To be sure, if you hope to get peak performance from your hard-working gun dog, there's more to feeding it than tossing out bargain-basement chow once a day.
Good nutrition is as critical to a dog's life—daily performance, overall health and longevity—as it is to its owner's well-being. That said, the nutritional needs of dogs are different from those of humans. As one example, on the whole, our diets emphasize high-fiber and low-fat, while proper operating nutrition for gun dogs reverses that ratio. (Note that an appropriate level of dietary fiber is necessary in a nutritionally balanced dog food.)
According to some estimates, the American dog food industry offers approximately 80 brands—comprising more than 500 formulas—of dry dog food alone. Those numbers are likely conservative and don't include all the small-time dog food producers and animal-feed mills that make their own food concoctions for local clients. Altogether, dog food is a billion-dollar-plus annual business.
Making The Right Food Choice
So, given the bewildering array of available foods, how do you make the right decision on what to feed your hunting dog? That sounds like a simple question, but the reality is that selecting the appropriate food for a working gun dog is a relatively complex subject without a one-food-fits-all answer. For our purposes, let's broadly define a "working gun dog" as a dog between 2 and 8 years of age; pups and geriatric dogs present different cases. Further, let's say our dogs are healthy, active and in decent physical condition; health problems, obesity or chronic weight-loss add additional considerations.
As a baseline to proper nutrition, keep in mind that for a portion of every year, hunting dogs are high-level aerobic athletes with working patterns involving hours of endurance activity or shorter periods of intense sprinting, running or swimming. Add to those daily demands dogs that are hunted frequently throughout a season, and the stress placed on our animals' bodies can be excessive. The "glue" that holds these canine athletes together is the food we give them.
It might seem obvious, but a commonly ignored factor in canine nutrition is that individual dogs have different needs. Serious exercise has a profound impact on the amount of energy required to maintain body condition. In that sense, what works for cocker spaniels in small woodcock coverts might not meet the needs of pointers sprinting after prairie ringnecks. Although high nutritional quality is an across-the-board necessity, the devil is in the details—such as balancing a dog's physical needs and caloric requirements with the energy provided by three primary dietary sources: fat, protein and carbohydrates.
These dietary energy sources are offered in three types of dog food: canned, semi-moist (also called soft-moist) and dry. These three products vary widely in a number of characteristics, particularly the amount of nutrition delivered per pound of food, as well as palatability, cost and moisture. (Moisture is important because as water content increases, the amount of protein, fat and other nutrients decrease, which means a dog must eat more high-moisture products for needed nutrition.) Canned foods are lower in protein and fat, and higher in moisture, palatability and cost per serving. Semi-moist foods have a bit more available dietary energy than canned rations, but they're also expensive and have high moisture content. These two types of foods are rarely, if ever, used as primary hunting dog diets.
That leaves dry food, the form of energy delivery used by virtually all owners of active working dogs. Most of the best maintenance-level kibble contains 20-27 percent protein, 12-18 percent fat (performance foods are higher in both categories), suitable carbohydrates, low moisture content and high utilizable calories per pound of food. They're by far the most nutrient-dense and cost-efficient food types. Dry kibble also has a low spoilage rate, making it easy to store and transport on hunting trips.
There are three categories of dry foods—super premium, premium and nonpremium—based on such distinguishing characteristics as cost, nutrient quality and density, palatability and digestibility. We can get a rough idea of the nutrient levels of these product categories by reading the labels on dog food bags (see "Web Extra" on reading labels). For example, we can compare a food that lists protein at 22 percent with another at 30 percent and conclude our dogs will receive more protein by eating the higher percentage product. However, that isn't the whole story. What we aren't told, at least directly, is the type and quality of that protein. A food brand might list "chicken by-products" as its primary protein source; the problem here is that by-products can be any animal tissue other than striated muscle (flesh). Some animal by-products are usable by dogs, while others are nondigestible protein like feathers, beaks and feet. Yet the food containing the latter could still list protein at a higher percentage. Low-cost dog foods also use vegetable matter, mainly grains, as a primary source of protein rather than more beneficial, but costlier, high-quality animal protein sources.
You Get What You Pay For
In a nutshell, sportsmen concerned with their hunting dogs' welfare and performance are better off opting for higher end foods. These top chows initially cost more per serving, but when they're fed appropriately they pay for themselves or actually save money in the long run: Working dogs eat less of better foods to gain the same, usually higher, nutrient levels; stool production, thus clean up, is reduced; costs related to health maintenance and injuries are reduced; and performance on a per-hunt and season-long basis is measurably improved.
Top-tier performance-level foods geared around hard working dogs typically contain 27-35 percent protein and at least 20 percent fat. These percentages might seem high, until we understand dogs don't have fat and cholesterol problems similar to humans; that they run faster and farther on high-fat diets, and that sufficient dietary protein must be available to rebuild worn muscles of dogs that are worked continuously. Contemporary endurance-animal nutrition research has shown a high-fat diet "trains" a dog's metabolism to more efficiently mobilize fat as an energy source and provides greater energy output than does a reliance on carbohydrates. This fat-burning strategy conserves—for periods when very intense effort is essential—the body's limited carbohydrates (sugars) stored in the form of glycogen, which, when depleted, leads to muscle exhaustion and an overall drop in performance (see "Web Extra" on performance supplements). Glycogen depletion causes the phenomenon that marathoners call "hitting the wall." By the way, the distance runners' tactic of carbohydrate loading isn't an effective endurance/performance enhancer for dogs and, according to Purina Nutrition Scientist Arleigh Reynolds, D.V.M., Ph.D., can "actually impair the dog's stamina by increasing the rate of glycogen depletion." Hunting dogs perform better with fat as their primary energy source.
As a case in point, nutrition researchers with The Iams Company—producers of Iams and high-quality Eukanuba—conducted a 2-year study of the quail-hunting performance of 23 pointers fed two different commercial diets. One of those diets was Eukanuba Adult Premium Performance Formula containing 30 percent protein and 20 percent fat, while the other diet had 26 percent protein and 17 percent fat. With all other factors controlled as much as possible in a field study, the results showed the pointers fed Eukanuba's performance diet fared better throughout the seasons. Body weight and condition of the performance-diet dogs were maintained (the nonperformance-diet dogs lost weight) with lower food intake required, they were impacted less by heat stress, had better overall blood chemistry and of significance to hunters, "demonstrated superior hunting performance based on total finds per hunt and on the number of birds located per hour of hunting." For the season, dogs fed the performance diet had an average of 55 percent more bird finds.
Does this mean every gun dog owner should be feeding high-fat and high-protein chow? Not necessarily. If you use your dog for little more than an hour here and there a few times each season, in all likelihood it'll get along fine on a high-quality premium maintenance diet with somewhat lower levels of fat and protein. On the flip side, the nutritional message for sportsmen who train, trial or hunt their dogs regularly and intensively and expect consistently good results is to feed top quality performance-level food year-round.
Let's take a brief look at several other important food-related issues. You can give food to a dog in one of three ways: free feeding, putting out a large quantity of food and allowing your dog to eat whatever it wants whenever it wants it; food-limited feeding, putting out a fixed amount of food that your dog eats when it wants it; and time-limited feeding, putting out a fixed amount of food and allowing your dog 15-20 minutes to eat it before taking it away. The time-limited style is standard among hunters and trainers who need to control their dogs' food consumption. The other two regimens can lead to obesity or create a finicky nibbler that picks at its food throughout the day; a dog that eats on its schedule and not yours. You should pick a limited feeding schedule and stick with it, otherwise you have no idea how much food your dog's eating or when it's eating it. And that doesn't work for hunters.
Ideally, hard-working dogs should be started on a calorically and nutrient-dense high-protein, high-fat performance food at least 6-8 weeks before the onset of stressful endurance efforts such as intense or prolonged hunting. If you switch foods, do so over 5-7 days, gradually mixing increasing portions of the new food in with the old.
I'm not convinced the dusty old chestnut that says humans are what they eat is always true, but it's an undeniable fact for hard-working gun dogs. We can own the most finely bred dog in existence and give it the best training available, but without high-quality nutrition, that well-bred, well-trained dog won't live up to its potential. Hunters who feed their athletic dogs top-tier, nutritionally balanced food reap the benefits in many ways, most obviously by increasing their animals' overall health and performance.