For everyone of us that has ventured afield with a canine companion, we know the value of having a well-bred dog that has strong hunting desire, is healthy, and well trained. All of these traits contribute to the overall performance of the dog in the field. Yet, there is one underlying factor that can undermine or optimize all of these traits either directly or indirectly, and that is the food the dog eats and the nutrients it receives.
I think you would all agree that the ultimate goal with any hunting dog is to optimize its performance, which can mean learning faster, hunting longer, finding more game, or many other things that lead to hunting success. We all know that hunting success with our dogs is intricately linked with training and conditioning of the dog, along with time in the field hunting. What may not be obvious is that our hunting dogs are essentially elite canine athletes. Lets briefly think about what they do during a hunt; they willingly run prolonged distances, possibly up, down, and across difficult terrain, over and under obstacles, sprint periodically or often, swim periodically, and occasionally carry something in their mouth, likely while running. The only thing that is missing is bike riding, but then it would be called an Irondog event. Strenuous exercise is inherent in hunting and training and can be physically and mentally challenging to the dog. Therefore, one strategy for addressing these physical and mental challenges is to "optimize the nutrition", which can optimize endurance and ultimately promote "optimal performance".
We hear everyday that if we eat "better", we can be stronger, leaner, healthier, and/or more alert. This logic can be applied to our dog's well-being and hunting performance, but what does "better" mean? When you think of "better" nutrition, think of optimizing nutrition. This is the consumption of key nutrients in an optimal balance that provide optimal benefits. The six basic nutrient groups are water, protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, and minerals. They can all be found in any dog food, but the optimal levels and balance of these nutrient groups are what separate different types of dog food for targeted applications. For example, a maintenance food is different from a senior food is different from a weight management food, because of differences in the balance of nutrients and nutrient groups. Likewise, performance food for hardworking dogs is different than a maintenance food, and for a variety of reasons.
For this discussion, I am defining a performance food as a formula with 28-30% protein and 18-20% fat, compared to a maintenance food that has 24-26% protein and 12-16% fat. A dog can adequately hunt and live an active and healthy lifestyle with the maintenance food, but the key here is optimal performance. With a performance food, some examples that are worth discussing are how protein and fat optimize endurance, optimize mental alertness, and promote optimal body condition.
Nutrition studies with dogs have shown that feeding a food with higher levels of fat will result in more fatty acids being present in the blood before exercise, and these levels will increase more after exercise compared to a food with lower fat and higher carbohydrates. Fatty acids are important for hardworking and hunting dogs because these are the nutrients that are critical for endurance based exercise. Ultimately, more fatty acids in the blood means more nutrients to promote endurance metabolism, as they are present and ready for use by exercising muscles.
These fatty acids get used by the muscles to make energy for movement, which occurs in the "furnaces" of the cells called mitochondria. In dogs fed a high fat food, their muscles have more mitochondria, which means more capacity to use or "burn" the fatty acids. Finally, dogs on high fat foods also have a greater capacity to metabolize oxygen, which also occurs at the mitochondria. Elevated dietary protein complements the benefits associated with the increased fat metabolism, as a greater abundance of protein building blocks (ie. amino acids) from the food promotes a state of muscle growth that enables increased mitochondrial biosynthesis and increased vascular capacity. For prolonged endurance, efficient use of oxygen is critical, which is why is it called aerobic-based exercise. If you have ever watched a marathon, you don't typically see any runner breathing very hard, primarily because they are conditioned, but equally important is that they can efficiently use the oxygen they are breathing at the moderate speed and intensity that they are running.
So what does all this mean? That a performance food can deliver more fat and protein nutrients, promote an increase in capacity to metabolize the fat, and promote a higher oxygen use capacity, all to increase metabolic capacity and energy generation. In short, this means that the food can "metabolically prime" our dogs to promote optimal endurance.
Now, let's flip this rational on its head and describe why feeding a performance formula all year long is optimal. For some of you reading this article, dog training and conditioning may be a year-round process, so feeding performance all year may be part of your regimen. For others, training/conditioning may begin in August or September to get the dogs ready for the upcoming season.
If having our hunting dogs on a performance food during the hunting season provides the metabolic benefits for promoting endurance, then switching to a maintenance food in the off-season will reverse the effects. So, when February/March rolls around and a person decided to make this switch because the dog is not hunting or training, this is basically "de-training" your dog metabolically. This is in addition to the fact that the dog is likely not as active as in the hunting season. It is worth mentioning that this process of metabolic transition takes about 2-3 months. Therefore, anyone that decided to start training again in August and made the switch back to a performance food at that same time, optimal metabolic endurance may not be achieved until the end of September or October. This is 2-3 months of sub-optimal training, and if the food switch occurred later, then this could possibly overlap with part of the hunting season, depending on where in the country you are located.
We have all had dogs that have gone beyond their limit during training, and focus and trainability are reduced. Our goal is to avoid this and provide opportunities to help the dog retain its focus and trainability. No food ever takes the place of proper training and conditioning, but having a feeding strategy of using a performance food all year can allow the dog to be metabolically primed and at a better starting point once training/conditioning begins.
Now, every strategy comes with a condition and this is no exception, but it is easy and critical for success. Like every person, every dog is an individual. Therefore, the amount of food to be fed should be directly related to the individual dog's body condition and adjusted based on the calorie needs. When dogs consume excess calories, they gain weight. When they consume less, they lose weight. The key is to feed an amount that is appropriate to maintain a healthy body condition, and thus stable body weight during the hunting season and in the off-season. So, that is the bottom-line to the "strategy". In the off-season when your dog is less active, hunting less, sleeping the summer days away...feed less performance food to maintain an ideal body condition. To determine your dog's ideal body condition, I suggest you discuss this with your veterinarian, who will likely have Nestle Purina body condition charts or literature for you to take home. In addition, I have included a website that provides an overview of how to assess your dog's body condition -(http://www.longliveyourdog.com/twoplus/RateYourDog.aspx) There are simple things you can evaluate and regularly monitor to ensure that your dog is getting the right amount of food to maintain a healthy weight.
Finally, performance formulas can also provide a benefit to promote optimal mental alertness, and is another way to get a little more out of early training sessions or keep them going stronger towards the end of the hunt. One of the ways fatigue sets in with people and pets is the depletion of blood glucose levels during exercise. Glucose during exercise mostly comes from body stores of glycogen in muscle and liver. Glucose released from the liver is critical for brain function. As blood glucose levels start to decline, fatigue sensation occurs and mental alertness is reduced. To address this, the foods with higher fat promote a situation where the body stores less and uses less glycogen from the muscles during exercise. Therefore during exercise, the blood glucose from liver glycogen is more readily available to support brain function for promoting mental endurance, whereas the fatty acids from the performance food are available for the muscles to promote physical endurance.
Performance formulas give our dogs those extra calories they need during the hunting season when working hard and temperatures drop. But, there are many more benefits than just providing the extra calories. Optimizing these benefits all year long can help to make every hunt and every season the best it can be for you and your hunting buddy.