Reprinted with permission from Ducks Unlimited Magazine and author, Tom Davis.
An excellent article by Tom about properly feeding a sporting dog based upon the advice and research of Dr. Brian Zanghi, Purina Research Nutritionist and owner of Wildrose Aspen (Deke x Ellie). Brian’s advice is the basis of Wildrose’s nutrition protocols and is shared at each of our workshops across the country. It is the “Wildrose Way” to feed active, sporting dogs.
By: Tom Davis
We all know that a sturdy platform requires three good legs. If any one of them is weak, wobbly, or flawed, it won’t be able to bear real weight. When tested, it’ll collapse.
It’s the same with our retrievers and the legs their performance is built on: training, conditioning, and diet. There’s almost always room for improvement with respect to the first two, and most of us, if we’re honest, would admit that we could do better. When it comes to diet, though, there’s really no excuse for notgiving our dogs exactly what they need, every day of every year, to perform to the best of their abilities.
The thing is, proper nutrition isn’t complicated. According to Purina Research Nutrionist Brian Zanghi, Ph.D., hunting retrievers should be fed a high-protein, high-fat “performance” diet—often called a “30/20 diet” in reference to the percentages of protein and fat, respectively—from the time they emerge from puppyhood to the end of their working careers. And they should be fed this diet year-round, notjust during the hunting season or when they’re competing in field trials or hunt tests.
“Feeding a performance diet year-round keeps your dog’s metabolic engine primed to operate at peak efficency,” Zanghi notes. “If you switch to a maintenance diet lower in fat and protein during the off-season, you effectively ‘de-prime’ that engine and put your dog at a conditioning disadvantage.”
The only variable, stresses Zanghi, should be the amount of food your dog’s allowed to eat. “You want to keep your dog in ideal body condition at all times,” he says, “and to do that you have to adjust the amount you feed to reflect his activity level. That’s what I do with my own Lab, Aspen (a 3½-year-old son of
Deke, the official DU retriever). When we’re not hunting or seriously training, he gets two cups of food a day. When his activity level increases, I up the amount accordingly.” (To determine if your dog’s body condition is where it needs to be, go online, search for the Purina Body Condition System, and compare your dog’s profile to the chart. If he’s not in the Ideal range, you’ve got some work to do.)
While it’s OK to feed an adult dog twice a day if he’s not being heavily exercised—this is what Zanghi does with Aspen, who accompanies Zanghi to his office at the Purina complex in St. Louis—a dog that’s hunting, competing, or training on a regular basis will do better if he’s fed just once a day. “For a dog that’s exercising hard more than twice a week,” says Zanghi, “feeding once a day in the late-afternoon or early evening is definitely beneficial.”
What you definitely don’t want to do is feed your dog heavily in the morning before a hunt, a competition, or strenuous exercise of any kind. We hunters of the two-legged persuasion can’t imagine going afield without a filling breakfast but dogs just aren’t built that way.
“When you feed your dog in the morning,” Zanghi explains, “you trigger digestion signals that run counter to the exercise metabolic signals you want to promote. You’re putting your dog in a rebuilding and nutrient storage mode when he should be in a nutrient breakdown mode. Your dog’s biology is telling him it’s time to take a nap, basically.”
The process of digestion also increases your dog’s need for water—less of an issue for duck dogs than for upland dogs but an issue nevertheless.
In this same vein, giving your dog a mid-hunt snack won’t hurt as long as you maintain strict portion control. “You should keept it small,” says Zanghi.
“For a Lab-sized dog, no more than ⅛-to-¼ cup, whether it’s his regular kibble, a pre-formed ‘dog burger,’ or even part of your sandwich. The goal is to put some nutrients into his blood system but not trigger that digestion effect.”
One question Zanghi hears a lot is when, or whether, to switch an older hunting dog from a performance diet to a senior diet. Most of the latter are around 27% protein 14% fat and have fewer calories per unit of volume. “As long as your dog is hunting actively,” Zanghi advises, “he’ll continue to benefit from a performance diet. When you cut back to the point that he’s only hunting a few times a season, that’s the time to transition to a senior diet.”
Sidebar: The Hydration Factor
Keeping your dog hydrated, especially in field hunting situations where surface water may not be readily available, is an important part of the performance equation. There are a number of products on the market represented as the equivalent of Gatorade for dogs, but do they really help? According to Purina’s Dr. Brian Zanghi, the answer is No. “A colleague of mine published a study comparing the hydration benefits of an electrolyte replacement product versus those of tap water,” Zanghi reports. “What he found was that there’s no additional benefit whatsoever.” To help motivate dogs who are reluctant drinkers to get enough fluid into their systems, Zanghi suggests adding low-sodium chicken stock to their water.