With so many dog foods, supplements and energy products on the market, there is a lot of confusion from dog owners about what foods and products they should be using in their hunting dogs. The scenario is further confused when you throw into the equation the fact that we do so many different activities with our dogs: the dog chasing western prairie birds will have different needs than a dog hunting timber mallards down south, the grouse dog of the northeast or the pheasant hunting dogs of the Midwest. The truth of the matter is that there isn’t one formula that works for all dogs. Instead it is important to be able to understand your dog’s needs, what is available for your dog and how the products may work in your situation.
For the purpose of discussing sporting dogs, there are three major categories of nutrition to evaluate: overall nutrition or the food you feed every day, in-the-field supplements and replenishment products. Each category needs to be examined individually and in the context of what you will be asking from your dog. By far and away the most important category is the overall nutrition you give your dog every day. If you are feeding a low-quality food, the other two categories are not going to matter at all. Pet foods are a source of great confusion for veterinarians, people in the industry, and especially pet owners. Too often we fall victim to slick marketing techniques or strict labeling regulations. Many times two products will have similar ingredient labels, while the products in the bag couldn’t be further apart on the quality spectrum. Unfortunately you can’t just look at the bag and make this distinction. You will need to understand ingredients and the companies behind them when deciding what food to feed your hunting partner. When evaluating foods it is important to look at a few key items: a good animal-based protein as the first ingredient, along with a high-quality fat source. In addition you’ll want quality sources of carbohydrates with a mixture present to help keep blood sugar levels consistent. Grains get a bad reputation; however, when used appropriately as quality carbohydrates, they are beneficial.
The problems arise when the same type of grain is used in multiple forms to add carbohydrates, plant protein (instead of animal-based proteins), and fiber. Lastly ensure a good fiber source is used to help with intestinal health. In particular beet pulp has been shown to be a silver-bullet when it comes to intestinal health. In addition to the core ingredients, most quality dog foods will contain added benefits to complement the core ingredients. This list will include additional Omega 3 & 6 fatty acids, glucosamine and chondroitin, quality minerals and vitamins, and antioxidants. Some foods will contain others, and it is important when evaluating these added extras to determine if they are present in amounts that will benefit the dog or are purely present for the marketing benefit and of no use to the dog. One note on overall nutrition, it is important to feed measured amounts of these quality products. Because of their higher quality it is easy to overfeed, which can result in weight gain or digestive issues. By feeding measured amounts you will be able to keep your dog at a healthy weight, and it will make the food more economical to use in the long run. Don’t get set on one amount and feed that same amount throughout the year. Your dog’s activity varies throughout the year, so should the amount you feed. Feed to the individual dog at the unique times of the
Next up are the in-the-field products, and here again there is some confusion as to what dogs really need Many of the products on the market are promoted as electrolyte products, when in fact, dogs do not have a need for electrolytes when exercising like people do. In fact, pure electrolyte products can actually cause stomach upset, as they pull fluids into the digestive tract. The two things a dog needs while in the field are energy and hydration. Many of these energy products also contain electrolytes to aid in absorption of the water and energy, but the key difference is that they are primarily designed to administer energy and hydration. Evaluate what the product is trying to do for your dog—energy and hydration are good, pure electrolyte replacement may not be. The biggest advantage of the inthe-field products is the ability to deliver energy in the field. The brain’s only usable energy source is a simple sugar called glucose. A hard-working hunting dog can certainly blow through the body’s stores of sugar, and this is where the in-the-field products can shine, particularly for those hunters who hunt hard and for multiple days in a row. This is where you need to evaluate your dog, as they are particularly useful for an upland dog that is in the field for long periods of time, and field trial dogs duringtraining. These dogs will benefit from the sugars pre-exercise (i.e. around 10-15 minutes prior to the start) and then every 30 45 minutes during the exercise. As I mentioned earlier, the brain needs simple sugar. By providing this to the working dog, it allows the stores in the muscle to last longer. You won’t necessarily see these benefits at the start of the performance, but the longer the run gets, the more the benefits of these supplements shine through. It will help provide the dog with that extra kick at the end of the day, and where I thinkit is greatly beneficial is keeping them mentally sharp. When we think a dog is ignoring us, bumping birds, patterning poorly, or just plain making mistakes, a lot of this could be tied to fatigue, and particularly mental fatigue. The key with these types of products is that they are “in the moment” products. They are not going to have long-term impact on the dog, but rather are being used at the time of activity to aid in the performance of the dog. The in-the-field products are here today and gone by tomorrow, making them much different from the other two nutrition categories. The last category is the replenishment product. Here is where a lot of people have been advocating using the maltodextrin products. These are used to start the replenishment of the muscle sugar stores (glycogen), which will impact the performance the next day by ensuring the dog is starting with a full tank of sugars. When this replenishment is followed by the end of the day meal (once the dog is calmed down and recovered), you are optimizing your window of recovery on all fronts. There certainly is an overlap between the in-the-field products and the recovery products, with many of the products on the market fitting into both categories.
A couple of notes on the sugar source for the in-the-field products and recovery products: a lot has been made of the sugar maltodextrin, because it is a medium-chain sugar. This is a quality ingredient to use in many of these products, but it is not the only sugar that will work in these situations. One of the claimed benefits of maltodextrin is that it won’t cause a blood sugar spike and then crash, which you can get with some of the simple sugars. These claims are true when looking at an inactive dog, but with an athletic dog in the field, the body’s rules change and it is able to effectively use the simple sugars without causing a spike and crash. This may make the products with several sugar sources a better choice for keeping the blood sugar levels at a consistent state during exercise. So far we have just touched on the products and not even mentioned which dogs will benefit from their use. The key is to decide how hard your dog is working and when you could use and see the benefit of these products. All dogs can benefit from overall quality nutrition, so that one is a nobrainer. The other two categories are somewhat variable. The hard-working, hard-charging dog that is asked to work all day, particularly multiple days in a row would benefit from both in-the-field and replenishment products. The dog that works hard all day but just for a day could use the in-thefield products and may get enough replenishment in between hunts with multiple days off in a row. The dog that works all day but in short bursts, like a non-slip retriever, may not see the benefit of the in-the-field product but would benefit from the replenishment product. As you can see there isn’t one recommendation that is going to work for each dog. The key is to educate yourself about what is available, understand what the products do, be aware of quality differences, and most importantly, understand how they will work for and benefit your individual dog in your individual situation.