Feeding for Hunting Success

sporting dogs
If you combine year-round conditioning with good feeding habits, your dog should head into the hunting season healthy and ready for success. Photograph by Jim Schlender

By Jessie Richards

Keeping your dog in shape year-round is important, but proper conditioning is only half the equation. Tying in exercise with the right feeding regimen is what keeps your dog performing its best.

My go-to pro for hunting-dog health is Dr. Jennell Appel, DVM, CCRT, who I introduced in my article “Canine Conditioning” (May/June). Ask Dr. Appel about sporting-dog nutrition, and she’ll quickly convince you that it is not a complicated topic if you pay attention to facts instead of marketing messages.

“It’s all about protein and fat,” she told me. “If you key on those two energy sources, understanding proper feeding gets pretty simple. Unlike humans, who burn carbs initially when exercising, dogs metabolize fat first when they’re working. Therefore, I recommend keeping a dog on a high-performance, 30-percent-protein and 20-percent-fat food year-round.

“Don’t get caught up in thinking you need to change foods during the off-season or that your dog needs some level of vegetable matter in its food. Instead increase or decrease the amount you feed to match your dog’s activity level.”

Experience at my kennel bears out Dr. Appel’s advice. I’ve been feeding Purina Pro Plan Sport, a 30/20 formula, for years. It’s what I call a very efficient food, as a relatively small amount is needed to keep my dogs at a healthy weight, and it results in smaller, harder stools than less-expensive foods.
Speaking of a healthy weight, what does that mean? “Do a Google search for the Purina Dog Condition Chart [available from several sources],” Appel said. “Take a look at it, and then strive to keep your dog in the chart’s 4 to 5 category. When you see your dog every day, it’s easy to miss subtle weight changes. This is especially important for older dogs that don’t have the high metabolism they did when they were younger.”

Last, Dr. Appel says she reminds all of her clients that the feeding guidelines on the back of the dog-food package are just that: guidelines. Four cups of food per day might keep one 75-pound dog lean but cause another to gain weight. Dogs’ metabolisms vary, so it’s up to you to monitor your dog.

In addition to paying attention to the amounts you’re feeding, hunters need to be aware that the timing of feeding is just as important. During the off-season, I feed once a day in the evening. Any dogs that have trouble keeping on enough weight also get a cup or so in the morning. However—and this is extremely important—if I’m going to give a dog a morning feeding, I always feed at least two hours before strenuous activity. Exercising immediately after eating can lead to a dog developing a twisted stomach followed by bloating and possibly death. Conversely, I always wait at least an hour after exercise, training or hunting is finished before feeding in the evening.

During the season, when I know a strenuous day of upland hunting or waterfowl retrieving lies ahead, I typically feed approximately 25 percent of my dogs’ daily total in the morning (always at least a couple of hours before we hit the field), and then the remainder in the evening.

Naturally, dogs need more calories during multiple days of strenuous hunting, so you may need to pile on extra food during those evening feedings. Kicking off the day with the smaller feeding gives a dog some fuel to get through the day without forcing it to burn the valuable energy it takes to digest a big breakfast.

There’s one final but very important recommendation I’ll leave you with: Regardless of how much or how often you feed, mix some water with your dog’s dry food. Doing so provides a couple of benefits. First, it forces the dog to slow down. Dogs that eat fast inhale a lot of air, and that can increase the danger of bloating.

Second, adding water to dry food gives your dog another shot of hydration. Dogs that are keyed up from an exciting hunt sometimes don’t take in as much water as they should during the day, even when you offer it. Then at day’s end when they’re tired, they simply don’t drink enough. Mixing food with water in the morning and evening can help offset that.

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