One of the problems with discussing the feeding of active or working dogs is deciding just what is a working or active dog – in other words, defining our terms. One pet food company famously announced that all dogs are working dogs – even the couch potato pooch who barks when someone comes to the door is working as a guard dog. However, this was mainly to justify the labelling of their food as a ‘working dog food’ which they could sell as VAT free for all dogs, be they ‘resting’ or ‘active’.
Another problem is that the majority of research on performance dog nutrition has been conducted on endurance sled dogs, the nutrition of which bears little resemblance to that of the average working or hunting dog which takes part in fly ball, activity trials or just long walks and ball chasing.
So for the purposes of this article I’m going to concentrate on what the experts call the ‘intermediate athlete’ which is a dog not involved in endurance sled racing, but maybe goes hunting, regularly trains for flyball or activity sports, or is taken daily for long runs in the countryside. Working sheep dogs rarely come into this category as with some exceptions they only work flat out for a short period of time, and not necessarily daily.
Basic requirements for a diet containing balanced quantities of protein, fats and carbohydrates are the same for all dogs, whether they are active or not – it’s the percentages that maybe need to change. Most commercial working dog foods contain more protein, fat and carbohydrate than a normal adult diet, but product comparisons are not easy because of the variation between diets, both on protein and fat percentages.
1) I need a high protein diet for an active dog.
A) Not really. Traditionally it has been assumed that there is a high protein requirement for human and canine athletes, and there is evidence that requirements do rise for increased performance, but other constituents also need to be raised so that protein is not used preferentially for energy, but rather for tissue building and replacement. Very low protein levels increase the chance of injury. So a moderate increase in protein (over the normal maintenance diet) is recommended.
2) High carb diets are the way to go
A) Human athletes load up the carbs during training, eating lots of pasta, but dogs are not humans (you may have noticed!) and their requirements for carbohydrates are not so high. So, if carbohydrates help people, why don’t they help canine athletes?
The reasons are complex and involve differences in gait, cardiovascular physiology and energy metabolism. Dogs and humans just have differences. In fact, in the early seventies, it was observed that sled dogs fed high-carbohydrate rations actually had poor endurance and even a stiff gait while racing.
In fact, it is fat that is the main requirement for good performance. Dogs fed on a higher fat diet are better able to utilize oxygen, and this has been demonstrated by detecting an increased number of mitochondria in the muscle cells of dogs fed a high fat ration. These are the furnaces of the cell.
Using a complete commercial diet makes life a lot simpler. Home cooking or raw feeding are perfectly possible but may cause problems because they are less likely to offer the energy dense diet that is recommended. For the purposes of this article the following recommendations would seem to be appropriate.
a) A highly digestible food which is nutrient dense (look for high quality ingredients) so as to allow for adequate supply of energy in a small volume of food (look at the feeding guide for the food on the bag)
b) Moderately high protein, of good quality and higher fat content (when compared to normal maintenance diet)
c) Good palatability (the dog must like the diet!)
d) An appropriate balance of micro-nutrients (vitamins, antioxidants, minerals)