Feeding sporting dogst


Proper training is an essential part of preparing a sporting dog for competition or even for non-competitive sports. But all the time and effort spent on training sessions that the owner can often find tedious will be wasted if the dog does not follow a very specific diet. Proper nutrition is a vital part of a sporting dog’s preparation, which can prevent many problems.

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Nutritional requirements

In general terms, there are three factors which have significant impact on the nutritional requirements of sporting dogs.

- Energy expenditure, which can vary greatly, although the quality of the energy source needs fundamental attention.

- Stress of training and competition, insofar as they necessitate nutritional changes.

- Dehydration, which can largely be prevented by good nutrition.

With this in mind, food adapted for sporting dogs must fulfil a number of criteria:

- Provide optimal-quality energy in sufficient quantities.

- Minimise the volume and weight of the chyme (partially digested food in the stomach).

- Help maintain proper hydration.

- Where possible, act as a buffer for metabolic acidosis caused by running.

- Help optimise the results of an appropriate training programme.

- Make up for any physiological deficits caused by stress.

It is quite simply absurd to feed a racing dog the same way as a hunting dog, or a SAR dog the same way as a sled dog, if the goal is optimal performance and prevention of medical problems and traumas.

Nutritional specifics

The quantity of energy the dog needs to take in is first and foremost influenced by the intensity and duration of effort. Generally speaking, the goal should always be to maintain the dog at its healthy weight through regular weighing – preferably every week – and a tailored diet in stable quantities.

Scientific data can be used in some cases to tailor the approach. A Greyhound’s energy requirement, for instance, rises just 5% of its maintenance requirement when it races, whereas a 20-kg sled dog’s energy requirement can increase sevenfold (to 12,000 kilocalories a day) in extreme conditions, such as the Iditarod in Alaska, where they cover up to 125 miles a day in temperatures plummeting to –50°C. In simple terms, an hour of work increases a dog’s energy requirement by about 10%, which would necessitate a 40-50% increase in its daily intake. Changes in temperature also need to be taken into consideration, because dogs need extra energy to cope with temperatures below or above their “thermal neutral zone”, which is about 20°C.

The quality of energy is vital here, which is why criteria have been established for optimal energy intake for sporting dogs. In addition to the nature of the nutrients, there are two main qualitative concerns:

- The energy must be readily and quickly available precisely where it is needed (muscle cells).

- The energy ingredients must be balanced in such a way that their consumption entails minimum waste, maximum efficiency and no risk of metabolic blockage.

The more sustained the effort demanded, the higher the fat content of the food should be, ranging from 16-20% for dogs needing to generate effort in short bursts, to 35% for dogs needing to demonstrate endurance (20-25% is the optimal fat content for work falling between these two extremes).

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Adapting dietary fat … Good news and bad news

In 1970, a team of competitive sled dogs was brought to me at the small-animal hospital at the University of Pennsylvania. The dogs were becoming tired too quickly, just a few miles into the race, and the best of the university’s medical specialists could find nothing wrong with them.

Although I was specialised in dairy cows at the time, I conducted a thorough visit of these dogs’ kennels. I saw dogs eating their own excrement, noted that the food had too high a starch content and took blood and urine samples. The problem was eradicated simply by putting the dogs on a diet of whole chickens (to see what would happen). Within a few weeks the dogs on this fatty chicken diet were running faster and farther than the others.

This is where the idea of adapting the fat in dog diets came from. It was subsequently developed scientifically for sled dogs, by myself and later Professor Arleigh Reynolds in the United States and Dominique Grandjean in France.

These sled dogs also served as a model for my long term research on horses at Virginia Tech. Just like dogs, albeit on a lower scale, horses that consume fats use less glycogen when they run and so are hardier, calmer and paradoxically lighter (less undigested food remains in the digestive tract). For this reason, adapting the animal to fat consumption eradicates a traditional sports muscle problem known as exertional rhabdomyolysis (destruction of muscle fibre linked to the accumulation of lactic acid).

However, other muscle problems do emerge (the bad news), because these dietary fats weaken the body’s antioxidant protection systems. In the 1980s, I observed that levels of vitamin E and C (antioxidants) in the blood fell sharply in sled dogs during periods of physical effort. Research work by the teams mentioned above now focuses on this problem, with the aim of determining the most effective levels of nutritional antioxidant supplements.

Professor David S. Kronfeld
Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, Doctor of Sciences
Diplomate of the American Colleges of
Veterinary Nutrition and Veterinary Internal Medicine
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University,
Blacksburg, (USA)

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Feeding and performance in hot environments

Many sporting dogs compete and train in hot environments which can cause considerable dehydration and stress. A few concepts in feeding and hydration management may be able to help combat these potential problems. When we examine substrate used during exercise, three substrates are used for energy; protein, carbohydrate and fat. These substrates have the ability to create heat due to digestion and metabolism, as well as create a certain amount of water. Typically, protein has the greatest ability to create a higher basal temperature, while fat is the least thermogenic thereby creating less metabolic heat. Although this has not been directly observed in working dogs other than anecdotally in previous studies in beagles, work in cats has shown that basal metabolic temperature is considerably higher on very high protein diets.

Additionally during the metabolism of protein, carbohydrate or fat there is water formed as a byproduct of metabolism. Water production is greatest when the dog burns fat. Therefore higher fat diets may allow dogs to exercise at a slightly lower temperature and creates more metabolic water, slightly altering hydration status. Hydration status is very important when dogs are working in hot environments but as long as dogs are panting they can tolerate very high temperatures for short periods of time. Limited evidence in dogs, but considerable evidence in humans, suggests that in very hot climates the use of glycerol in drinking water can promote a higher total body water retention for short periods of time. This is an interesting concept which some competitive sporting dog trainers use in the field to promote better hydration.

However, the use of glycerol should be done judiciously (only 1% of the drinking water i.e. 1 ml/100 ml of water) as excessive glycerol has been associated with GI cramping and headaches in humans which can negatively affect performance, proving to be a very controversial issue of benefit versus detriment.


Professor Joe Waschlag, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, PhD
Clinical Nutrition
Cornell University, (USA)

To ensure energy is readily available and can be quickly used by the body during effort, it would appear essential to select highly digestible, specialised, complete dry foods which can be eaten in small volumes and produce less faeces. This can be evaluated simply by comparing the faecal volume with the quantity ingested. The optimal ratio for a sports dog is 45 grams of faecal matter per 100 grams of dry matter ingested.

Short-chain fatty acids (copra oil, for instance) are very beneficial for dogs which need to work especially hard. They are found among the nutrients of a specialised food, and negate the need for biliary salts for digestion, are transported to the muscle cells faster and l-carnitine is not needed to transport them into the mitochondria, the cells’ power plants.

Effort puts extra stress on the body, which thus has the following specific nutritional requirements:

- Increased protein, which should make up between 32% and 40% of dry weight of the food, depending on the intensity of the effort.

- Increased B-vitamins (especially B1, B6 and B12), antioxidants (vitamin E, selenium, polyphenols, flavonoids) and omega 3 fatty acids (from fish, to improve the flow of red blood cells, oxygen exchanges and a reduction in exercise-related inflammation).

- Additional supplements to compensate for nutrients not found in the selected complete food, including l-carnitine (essential for the use of fatty acids by the cells and for recovery), ascorbic acid (vitamin C, which is not usually an essential nutrient for dogs), probiotics (lactic acid bacteria, which improve digestion of food) and glycosaminoglycans (green-lipped mussel extract, for example, which helps prevent joint problems).

© Diffomédia/Royal Canin

Practical feeding


Food given to sporting dogs and working dogs must be:

- Nutritionally balanced.

- Concentrated and highly digestible.

- Appropriately served and consumed.

Owners should always assess their dog’s diet based on the following demands:

- Meeting the maintenance requirement.

- Increasing the concentration of energy and essential nutrients, coupled with reduction in the quantity of faeces.

- Enriching the food to meet the increased energy requirements due to increased physical effort (fat) and stress (protein, vitamins).

With this in mind, only complete dry prepared foods meet these demands (home preparation is becoming increasingly rare and wet canned food is unsuitable), together with supplements adapted to the breed in question.

Once the right food has been chosen, an annual feeding plan can be drawn up, adapted to the training schedule.

- Annual rest period: very high-quality maintenance food.

- Training period: gradual (over the course of one week) transition to a working diet or gradual addition of a dietary supplement for working dogs to a maintenance food.

- Competition period: added stress may necessitate additional dietary changes. The volume of daily intake should be adapted to the dog’s body weight.

- Break in training: gradual return to maintenance food.


The volume of daily intake should be adapted to the dog’s body weight


Dogs should never work on an empty stomach. Contrary to the misguided and indeed damaging idea held by some, this will simply lower performance and compromise well-being. The dog should be given one quarter of its daily feeding amount with a lot of water in the morning, at least two hours before it goes into competition or starts work, and the rest at a regular time in the evening.

Sporting dogs need constant access to fresh water, especially immediately after performance, to ensure they do not become dehydrated.

Giving the dog a snack at key times is also beneficial. This can be presented as a reward. One such time is around 30 minutes after intense effort to effectively replenish the muscle glycogen reserves with an appropriate energy complement, provided it is properly formulated for the dog. These are available commercially or can be prepared at home with cooked rice, copra oil, a little honey and an l-carnitine supplement.

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