I've said this before, but it's worth repeating: High-quality hunting dogs are made up of genetics, training and nutrition. If any part of this trio is below par, a dog’s performance will be reduced, particularly at higher levels of work and expectation. Typically, the weakest link in this threesome is training, though some experts hold that long-term nutrition is the most important element. A dog with fine genetics and first-rate training, they say, will not live up to its potential without an appropriate diet to fuel its performance.
An old cliché tells us, “You are what you eat.” Of course that isn’t true, but if we say, “What you eat can alter what you are,” then we have something factual. Optimal nutrition can change an overweight, unenthusiastic dog into a stronger, leaner, alert hunter. And optimal nutrition is achieved via food that provides a balance of critical nutrients: fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and water. But what is a proper blend of nutrients, and how should we feed balanced chow to maximize what it can do for our dogs?
Earlier this year, I attended a writer’s seminar sponsored, in part, by Nestle Purina, the company that produces ProPlan dog food. Prior to this seminar, I fancied myself as fairly knowledgeable about basic dog nutrition. But the presentations by Dr. Brian Zanghi, senior scientist for basic nutrition at the Nestle Research Center, made it clear that I wasn’t quite as smart as I thought. Zanghi, who is also a field trialer and bird hunter, cleared up a good many nutritional points and exploded a few myths along the way.
A fact that we often overlook is that upland bird and waterfowl hunting, as well as the intense training and conditioning that precedes hunting, are strenuous athletic events. Like any extreme physical undertaking, hunting involves a high caloric turnover, which means that a dog must regularly consume enough nutritionally balanced food to replenish what its body has burned to fuel its efforts. And the longer and harder a dog works, the more calories it must take in. Research at Purina’s Pet Care Center shows that hardworking gun dogs have caloric needs up to 50 percent greater than the requirements of less active dogs during non-hunting periods. Even moderately exercised dogs have caloric demands that jump 25 percent over maintenance needs.
Not long ago, a rule of thumb among hunting-dog owners was to boost a dog’s energy during hunting seasons by feeding a “super premium” chow, then shifting to a lower fat and protein maintenance food during the off-season. Although some sportsmen still follow this regimen, Zanghi emphasized that research shows gun dogs, along with field-trial and hunt-test dogs, perform better when they’re kept on a high-quality performance formula year around. By a “performance formula,” Zanghi means foods like Purina ProPlan, Eukanuba and a few other premium brands that contain at least 30 percent protein and 20 percent fat, as opposed to a “maintenance formula” with no more than 24-26 percent protein and 12-16 percent fat. Although I will be talking mainly about fat metabolism, all of the other nutrient groups—especially high-quality protein—are essential for developing and maintaining a healthy overall body condition.
The point to elevating the fat level of food is that fat is the most efficient nutrient source for fueling a dog’s energy requirements and increasing its endurance during sustained activity. Conversely, carbohydrates are a more effective energy source for short bursts of extremely vigorous activity. Dr. Arleigh Reynolds, also a Purina nutrition scientist (Reynolds is a canine endurance expert and winning sled-dog competitor), said that “in a thin, well-conditioned hunting dog, there is close to 50 times as much energy stored in fat as there is in glycogen (carbohydrates).” According to Zanghi and Reynolds, the bottom line is that the year-around feeding of a high-quality diet with high protein and fat “will metabolically ‘prime’ or prepare our dogs’ muscles to better use these fuels during exercise.” On the flip side, switching to a maintenance diet for part of the year “delivers higher levels of carbohydrates … and reduces the metabolic capacity to utilize fats, thus lowering endurance.” Zanghi summed up this situation: “Feeding a maintenance formula in the off-season is the metabolic equivalent to de-training your dog.”
For one thing, it takes 2-3 months from the onset of feeding a performance diet for a dog’s system to “re-prime” itself to optimally utilize the dietary fat delivered in higher quantities, thus to maximize the diet’s benefits. Feeding a performance food year around eliminates this readjustment period and allows you to begin your dog’s conditioning program at a higher level and to achieve top condition faster. From any angle, a performance diet enables a dog to handle hard work longer and better with a shorter recovery time. Keep in mind, however, that to avoid the weight gain potential of a higher fat diet, you should reduce the portion size fed during prolonged periods of limited activity when not training or hunting. Your dog will not suffer any nutritional deficiencies by cutting down on its meals; remember, it’s eating a more calorie-dense food.
In addition to metabolically “priming” a dog’s muscles, feeding a performance diet year around improves performance by increasing alertness and reducing mental fatigue. “In animals, including humans,” Zanghi said, “glycogen is the body’s way of storing glucose for muscle or brain function. Consequently, blood glucose levels that fall during exercise result in fatigue, the body and brain’s way of saying ‘slow down.’”
Although carbohydrate loading is common among human athletes, it’s not an effective strategy for enhancing performance in dogs. According to Reynolds, we can increase the amount of glycogen or stored carbohydrate in the muscle by feeding a high-carbohydrate diet, but all we end up doing is making that dog’s muscles more dependent on this store and actually depleting it sooner. Remember, the point of a high-fat diet is to train muscles to more efficiently utilize fat and to promote glycogen “sparing,” and thus save the limited stores of glycogen/carbohydrate for brain function and intense muscle activity when it’s critical.
Both Zanghi and Reynolds advocate feeding regularly and heavily exercised dogs only once a day, as close as is practical to 24 hours prior to the time they will perform. This strategy will actually improve the performance of most hardworking dogs. Remember that dogs are not like people and are designed to run better in a fasted state. Although a 24-hour fast is the ideal, in the real world it isn’t always possible to give a dog that much time between hunts, which is why Zanghi and Reynolds suggest feeding as close as is practical to 24 hours. Forget that old myth that says a hungry dog hunts better. A fasted dog isn’t hungry; you simply want to give it as much time as possible to empty its digestive track before it hits the ground running.
For a number of reasons, strike the “he-man” breakfast for your dog. Research shows dogs hunted within a few hours of the time they’re fed can run into mechanical and metabolic problems that will impair their performance. Feeding close to hunting increases insulin secretion, causing low blood sugar levels and inhibiting fat release from the tissues, reducing its availability to fuel the muscles. Also, feeding increases blood flow to the gut, thus decreases blood available to working muscles. “It takes quite a bit of energy to digest and absorb food,” Reynolds said. “As this energy is expended, it causes an increase in body temperature. This process may impair performance, especially in hot environments, by adding to the heat load and thus heat stress experienced by the dog.” However, both Reynolds and Zanghi agree that dogs with particular health concerns might have to be fed more than once a day. Talk to your veterinarian if you think your hunting dog might have such health issues.
As a final note, it’s absolutely critical to keep a hardworking dog well hydrated—a dog’s body requires water for all of its functions. Dogs should always have cool water available, and during workouts
water is best given in small, frequent amounts rather than in large quantities. Water maintenance and adequate hydration is always much better than trying to rehydrate a water-depleted dog.
How Much Should You Feed Your Dog?
There’s no across-the-board answer to the question of daily food rations. Purina’s Dr. Arleigh Reynolds says the amount fed depends on the individual dog’s metabolism, its activity level, environment and breed. As an extreme example, a cocker spaniel flushing early season woodcock requires far less food than a Chesapeake Bay retriever hunting ducks in a Northern-tier winter. Note that the guidelines provided on bags of food should be used only as a starting point if you aren’t certain about your dog’s needs. Hunting dog nutritional demands are simply too variable to fit into a rule of thumb.
According to nutritionist Dr. Brian Zanghi, the key to knowing how much to feed your dog during both the hunting season and off-season is to base the amount on the dog’s body condition. In other words, let your dog’s body tell you if you’re feeding too much or too little. Ideally, in most situations, you want to be able to feel the dog’s ribs by pressing lightly—you don’t want to have to probe through an inch of fat to find its ribs—but not have them visibly sticking out when it’s standing or walking. Reynolds says that he likes to see the last rib or two of the dog when it’s inhaling or eating. Another way of judging an appropriate body condition is by looking down at your dog as it’s standing. The dog’s body should have a rough hourglass shape, with a slight curvature inward between the ribcage and the hips.