The hunting dog diet: nutritional needs of the working dog

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A good hunting dog changes everything. Well-trained dogs work hard for their human partners. They are canine athletes trained for speed, endurance and discipline and genetically predisposed to enjoy human companionship.

New research has found that year-round specialty diets can keep dogs in peak performance condition, and dietary supplements can prepare muscles and cardiovascular systems for explosions of energy use and post-exercise replenishment.

Canine nutritional physiologist Brian Zanghi said the summer training season, when temperatures can reach the 80s and above, can be a difficult time for four-legged hunting partners.

“We all know working dogs will burn more calories,” said Zanghi, a research scientist with the Molecular Biology Group at the Purina company’s Nestle Research Center. “What we’ve learned in the last 20 years is that the formulation that a dog eats — the amount of protein, fat and carbs in a dog’s food — can play a big role in its overall health and ability to perform.”

PG graphic: Man vs. dog
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Generations of selective breeding created in hunting dogs the propensity to have special capabilities and skills. For millennia, dog owners have understood that size, speed, sight, scent perception, intelligence, discipline and affinity for working closely with a human master are among traits that can be fully capitalized upon or enhanced through good training. Zanghi said new research shows that high-performance dietary formulas can enable dogs’ bodies to take full advantage of the training regimen.

“Humans get most of their energy from carbs,” he said. “We’ve found that dogs, particularly working dogs with a high level of athleticism, get most of their energy from fats. These dogs have higher nutritional needs. Nutrition drives the ability of the muscles to adapt to the exercise regimen, and performance formulas have more fat than maintenance formulas.”

A high-fat diet can be beneficial, even for dogs that get little exercise. The research shows that when less active dogs are put on a performance diet for a several months, their muscles become primed to adapt to exercise metabolism. Zanghi, owner of beloved retriever and co-founder of a retriever club in Kentucky, said hunters shouldn’t wait for September to start their dogs on a new performance formula.

“The old paradigm was that hunting dogs are less active in the summer and spring and need fewer calories, so you feed them less food,” he said. “We’ve found it’s better to give them a [high-fat] performance formula all year long, altering the serving size in the offseason. I regularly get feedback from hunters [who’ve tried it and] say they’ve seen changes in their dog’s performance.”

The key to helping a canine athlete reach peak performance is in maximizing the muscles’ ability to burn oxygen. Year-round feeding on a performance diet primes the muscles to use oxygen more efficiently, said Zanghi, who helped Purina to develop its Pro Plan Prime and Refuel bars, nutritional supplements that help the muscles to rev up before exercise and replenish afterward.

“They’re not treats — that’s a very important element to share with readers,” he said. “Treating a dog as a reward for performing some skill should be done with very small kibbles or training treats. These bars are specific nutrients given before and after a dog goes on extended exercise.”

Carb loading is standard practice among human athletes, but it can actually impair performance in dogs. Even eating a typical meal before exercise can slow a dog down.

Pre-exercise supplements, given 30 minutes before intense exercise, are better at putting extra proteins in place and sustaining them while the dog is active.

Post-exercise bars, said Zanghi, are formulated with rapidly digestible carbohydrates that don’t trigger a sugar spike. They work best when given to the dog during the window of opportunity for recovery and replenishment, 60 minutes following significant exercise.

“If the recovery nutrient is delayed two hours after exercise, the degree of replenishment is reduced by 50 percent,” he said.

Unlike their human handlers, dogs don’t sweat or use large amounts of electrolytes, which control how the body processes waste and absorbs vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Watering is vital for working animals. While many hunters periodically share a bottle of water with their dogs, Zanghi said they often don’t provide the amount of hydration required by a high-performance canine athlete.

“If you let a dog drink until he’s through, a lot of times he won’t drink enough to thoroughly hydrate himself,” he said.

Zanghi recommended that hunters and dog trainers add water to the dog food a day in advance of the exercise. During the outing, bring water that’s just for the dog and hydrate the animal every 15 to 20 minutes.

“You might have to bait the water to get the dog to drink enough,” he said. “Ideally, use something like low-sodium chicken broth, or put some kibble in the water to encourage him to drink. You might have to pour water into the side of his mouth, or use a tube to get the water in there.”

Dry gums, excessive panting, the seeking of shade, fatigue and lethargic behavior are symptoms of dehydration. Stop the exercise and get the dog to a cool location, preferably in the water.

A hour after the hunt or training session is a good time for feeding, said Zanghi.

“A lot of people feed their dogs twice a day, but for hard-working dogs it’s advantageous to feed them once a day,” he said. “When a dog has fasted it has better endurance potential than a dog that eats before exercise.”


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