We do a lot of research and testing here at Bird Dog Life. Some things work out well. Others, not so much. Over the last couple of years we have put a lot of time and effort into finding what we feel are the best techniques for feeding and hydrating our hunting dogs to enable them to perform at the highest levels possible.
- Make no mistake that the single most important factor you need to address when training or hunting your dogs is hydration. -
However, the title of this post is “Canine Performance Nutrition Techniques” so we’re going to assume you’re on top of the hydration game already. If not; please check out our other posts related to hydration.
Timing is key
Before we get into the “Hows” of hunting/training nutrition let’s cover some of the bases of information that help us to understand the “Whys” that make it work. For starters, imagine you’re getting ready to go out and run a marathon (or maybe just a walk around the block for some of our readers.) How do you think you’d feel if you ate a big bowl of pasta and then went out on your run? You probably wouldn’t put in your best time, would you? Not to mention the 4-5 close calls and port-a-potty stops along the way! Yeah, I know, a lot of us have been there and done this with our dogs doing their business all over the field instead of chasing birds. You wouldn’t do this to yourself so why would you do it to your dog?
The canine digestive system is that of a carnivorous mammal which means it is far shorter and simpler than that of omnivorous humans. Thanks to their wolf ancestors dogs are designed to gorge which allows them to eat big meals and then go lengthy periods of time without eating again. Hold your horses… we’re not advocating that either here. Without going into a lot of detail on the subject; dogs hold ingested food in their stomachs for 6-10 hours before being slowly released into the intestinal tract where the food is then harvested of it’s nutrients and energy value rather rapidly before moving on. What this boils down to is that a dog at any given moment is operating on energy it is deriving from food that it ingested 6-12 hours or more ago. You’ll see shortly how we use this knowledge to our (and our dog’s) advantage.
Unleaded? Diesel? Super Premium? Water?
Now that we know a little about the timing of canine digestion let’s learn a little about the intricacies of just what nutrition our dogs get from their meals. Research performed by the good people at the Nutrina labs suggests that not all proteins are created equal. Do you know what kinds of proteins are in your pups kibble? It turns out that various sources of protein have varying levels of usefulness in terms of generating energy and supporting normal life systems within your pet. It has also been proven that proteins derived from animal sources rank much higher in biological value than plant sources. Furthermore, chicken (eggs especially) and fish products rank among the most useful and efficient sources of protein our dogs can ingest. The moral of the story here is stick with a quality performance dog food with proper protein and fat sources. Bargain basement foods will get you bargain basement results.
Do dogs like Gatorade?
In a pinch you can feed your pup Gatorade. However, the people version of Gatorade is not ideally suited to our four-legged friends. Several vendors are quickly picking up on a secret our sled-dog friends learned some time ago. Gatorade works for people… Why not dogs? In reality your canine superstar is working his/her butt off for you in the field. Their energy expenditure during field work can increase on the order of 100-150% They not only lose water but valuable nutrients that need replacement. Studies indicate that the best of these supplements offer two important items. The first of these is protein. Not just any protein but highly efficient and valuable chicken or egg based proteins are the cream of the crop here. The other big ticket ingredient is maltodextrin. Not all maltodextrin compounds are the same so do your homework here and get the best combinations you can find. Why maltodextrin? This sugar compound is the closest glucose equivalent substance that testing has found to date. It’s use prevents your dog from having a quick surge of energy and then crashing; much like kids do after drinking soda. Maltodextrin does not cause the insulin spike and resulting carb crash that more complex and lower efficiency energy sources do.
So what are you trying to sell me?
Here it is folks. The results of all of our research and testing for you to use to get the most out of your field companions. On any given day we feed our dogs twice a day. Once in the morning and again in the evening at least an hour or more after physical activity has ended for the day. Doing so provides the dogs with steadier distribution of digestion and helps to prevent bloat and twist.
In our camps preparation for a high exertion event begins the day before. The morning feeding takes place as usual with the pups receiving just a little (maybe 10%) extra food. The evening feeding consists of another increased calorie meal. This meal is generally 30-40% higher in calories than normal. We typically achieve this by switching in or augmenting their normal feed with a higher energy feed. The key to doing this is to find higher energy feeds with extremely similar protein, fat, and carb sources. Doing so greatly reduces the gastric strain on the dogs resulting in less loose stools, flatulence, and general upset.
The morning of the event our dogs DO NOT EAT. That’s right. Research has shown and our own testing has proven that the feeling you get when running on a full stomach is the same cause of gastro-intestinal upset and marked decreases in endurance and overall performance of your hunting dog. As previously mentioned, your dog is running on food he ate hours ago; probably the day before. Now, although we do not feed the dogs in the morning they are given a ration of supplemented water (carrying protein an maltodextrin) to consume before leaving the house. The amount varies but you want to cram as much water into that dog as you can. After some practice at this you should be able to get four to five or more cups of water into your dog in the morning. This step is paramount to proper hydration and sneaks some liquid energy into them for later in the day at the same time. If your pup is reluctant to drink water for breakfast you can toss a small amount of kibble into the bowl as well to coax them to drink. If that doesn’t work you can also crush the feed into a powder form and mix it with the water. After a while it’ll turn brown and the water will taste just like their food.
The dogs then run all day at maximum performance. Be sure to hydrate them every chance you get. It is virtually impossible for a dog to get too much water while working under these conditions. When your day is done let the dogs rest up. DO NOT feed your hunting dogs for at least an hour after they’re done running for the day. Make sure they look rested and calmed down from the exertion of the day. At that point depending on the time of day and whether the next day holds more work or rest we do one of two things. If the pup is to run again the next day we get a small meal into them as early as feasible. This aids recovery and helps to build up tomorrow’s energy stores. After 5-6 hours we then feed again in the same manner we did the night before in preparation for tomorrow. If the pup is to rest the next day we generally just feed a normal meal at normal times; giving them a small amount of feed if that time is more than a couple hours away.
There you have it. This regimen has worked well for us with multiple dogs over multiple seasons now. Careful timing and application of a high quality performance feed will produce the best results possible. Bear in mind that you will have to adjust feed quantities and other things for individual dogs and diets but this process will get you on the path to helping your hunting buddy be the best he can be for you in the field. Isn’t that why we’re all here in the first place?