by Dondi Hydrick
This is probably the least talked about subject when and wherever dogs are being discussed. But the food you feed your dog is paramount to your dog's performance, overall health, and well being. Your dog's nutritional needs will vary from one day to the next, because of the lifestyle you subject them to. Hunting dogs are continually subjected to changes in the weather (sometimes drastically), different activities, and stress levels. Each and every one of these variables has a distinct and profound effect on your dog's performance, which is directly linked to their nutritional needs. The major factors that determine a dog's nutritional needs, other than individual metabolic rate and size, are amount of exercise, temperature of the work environment, and stress. So when you are considering what food to feed take these things into consideration.
All brands of dog food will have a chart on the back with the recommended feeding amounts for the size of dog you have. At first glance, this general information should get you close to how much of that particular food you should feed your dog. However, dog food is to a dog like training is to a dog. In that I mean that dogs are individuals and should be fed according to their individual needs. One food that will work for one dog will not maintain a good performance level and health condition on another.
It's a good idea and practice to keep your dog trim and fit, slightly on the lean side, during the hot summer months. Remember that what we ask our dogs to do requires them to be athletic in build, endurance, and ability. You have never seen a fat track runner, nor can you imagine trying to pole vault with a ten-pound weight tied to your waist, the same is true for your dog. I am not saying that working dogs must be thin, skinny, and sickly looking but they do need to have the appearance of being athletically fit, as well as have the ability to perform. In fact, if you are able to feel just the last three to four ribs on your dog then that is a good general indicator that he is at his ideal weight.
The following procedure can be followed to perform a quick "rib check": stand over your dog, place both of your thumbs (with the ends touching) in the middle of your dog's back and extend your fingers down and along his side. You should be able to feel his spine and his ribs without too much difficulty. If you don't or can't feel a dip between his ribs or you don't feel his spinal column your dog needs to lose weight. If your local vet understands and knows about working dogs he/she will be able to help you determine what your dog's ideal weight is. However, keep in mind most vets don't understand what real working dogs undergo, since they are only accustom to dealing with "Fufu" and "Sammy" who just lie around the house and bark at the mailman.
During the winter or colder months your dog should be allowed to add a little meat, but not fat. During either time of the year, a properly fed and conditioned police dog (this includes drug dogs too) should exhibit a little "tuck up" in the flank area when you look at him from the side. When you stand over your dog he should have that hourglass figure that most men find appealing in women. Along with this body form, a shiny coat, clear eyes, and an overall general healthy appearance is the best indicator of a properly fed and conditioned working dog.
The digestible calories supplied to dogs through the food they are fed can be thought of as fuel. The source of energy that supports exercise, rebuilds muscle, and supports life. As the dog's activity increases or decreases, the dog's food and caloric intake should also be changed accordingly. If you falter in this area your dog will be the one to suffer, in that he may gain an excessive amount of weight or the dog's body will be unable, or slower, to rebuild any damaged muscles.
Ralston Purina conducted a study, at their Pet Care Center, that clearly shows a typical, resting, 50 lb. dog requires approximately 1,450 digestible calories to sustain him. During a moderate workload or training level that same dog requires about 1,800 digestible calories. During a more strenuous workload, such as conducting a building search, the same dog requires approximately 2,160 digestible calories per day. So it is clear to see that as the dog's work load or stress level increases so does his need for additional digestible calories; by as much as 50 %. In plain English, if you have a 50 lb. dog, and feed him a run of the mill dog food that delivers an honest 473 calories per cup (1,800 digestible calories per pound) based on an average of 3 cups per day, when the dog's work/training level increases so does his need for digestible calories; in other words, the amount of food would need to be increased to 4.5 cups per day.
In addition, you need to consider the amount of stress that you place on the dog, either directly or indirectly, by placing him in a particular situation or environment. As police dogs there are more stress factors involved than with other dogs. In a police dog's life things are constantly being changed, if you are not assigned to a permanent shift then your dog is undergoing the same physical and mental stresses that you are just by the constantly changing work hours. In this situation your dog, as with you, often is not getting enough rest to properly and adequately function on the street. And then if you are like some young male cops, you and your dog spend the night away from your normal home quite regularly.
Effects of Temperature on Caloric Requirements
Additional studies, conducted by Ralston Purina, demonstrate that the average 50-lb. dog will require approximately 7.5 % of additional calories for every 10-degree drop in temperature. How much time does your dog spend outside, living and or working? The average additional digestible caloric intake required by a dog in most southern states increases 45 to 55 percent in the winter, depending upon exact weather conditions. An example of this would be if your region's average summer temperature is 85 degrees with a winter average temperature in the 20's, this would give you about a 60 degree drop in the overall temperature and an additional caloric increase of approximately 45-50 percent.
Watch what happens when we add this increase to the amount of food you would have to feed your dog each day. Remember, if a 50-lb. dog is being worked or is in training his normal daily ration would be 4.5 cups (based on 473 calories per cup). Now it must be taken into consideration that, since the dog now needs 45 to 50 percent more food, then that 4 1/2 cups a day now increases to 9 cups of food a day. Even if your dog were just laying around in his kennel and not being worked at all, the amount of food that he would now require would be a whopping 6 cups, per day. Your dog better be one heck of a chow hound to eat 6 cups of food in one day, oh but wait your dogs are being worked and trained on a regular basis. That means you have to get them to eat 9 cups of food each day. According to the "experts" normal adult dogs, usually eat all their food within fifteen minutes of being fed. Personally, I think eating that much food in such a short period of time would be like me trying to chase and catch a fat rabbit right after eating Thanksgiving dinner!
These are only a few of the reasons that you need to feed your hunting partner a higher quality dog food, specially engineered dog foods that have been designed for hard working dogs and provides approximately 2,000 plus digestible calories per pound. These types of dog foods require that you feed less to your dog, yet still meet their caloric and nutritional needs. Altogether, your dog's daily caloric needs can vary as much as 80 to 90 percent as the seasons and working/training conditions change.
When selecting a good well balanced diet with sufficient digestible calories begin by checking the back of the bag. Examine the ingredients, this list will tell you several things, 1) the ingredients will be listed according to their percentage of the total product. If beet pulp (commonly used for fiber content) is listed first then you know that there is more beet pulp than any other ingredient 2) the position of each ingredient will also tell you from what source the protein is coming from in the food.
On the list of ingredients you will normally find one of three types of "Meal"; this is either poultry, lamb, or beef. If you don't see one or the other types of "Meal" listed you should see some type of "By Product Meal". Straight "meal" is actually meat or meat parts ("parts is parts"), "meal by products" are portions of actual meat as well as some intestinal type material. Each of these, meal or meal by product, are classified into four grades, with #1 grade being the highest or best quality. Some experts that I have talked with say that a good solid 26% to 29% protein is a good percentage for highly active dogs such as police dogs.
The next ingredient you will typically find is either ground corn or rice. These ingredients are also classified into four grades, with #1 again being the highest. Although rice is more digestible, ground corn is more common and cheaper. It should be noted that the higher grades of corn are grown in the mid-west and not here in the south, as reported to me by several farmers and dog food manufactures. This is important to know since you want the highest grade of corn possible in your dog's food (for digestibility).
According to some of the expert dog food manufactures a good sound dog food that is being fed to hard working dogs such as hunting dogs should have a guaranteed analysis of a minimum of the following: 26% protein, 18% crude fat, 1.9% fiber, and no more than a 10% moisture content. They also suggest using a food that uses vitamin E as a preservative, you may see it listed as "Preserved with Natural Mixed Tocpherols". According to these same experts the best method for increasing the digestibility of a dog's food is by having ingredients that his body can readily absorb. Another way manufacturers accomplish this is by slow cooking the food and/or its ingredients at a low temperature; they call this the "cook rate".
Following is a list of items that are not desirable in your dog's food: soy products, chicken feathers, hair, artificial coloring, flavors or fillers. Dog food manufacturers also highly suggest using a dog food where the ingredient levels (protein, fat, etc) have undergone a live study. They say that this is the only real way to determine what is digested by the dog and what is left as waste product. They do offer these additional tips:
1) if your dog is leaving behind as much or almost as much (half or more) as he ate then the dog food you are feeding is not a highly digestible food and you need to change.
2) Feed a dog food that produces a digestible caloric rate in the range of 1,800 to 2,200 per pound. You will not find this information listed on any bag of dog food due to governmental regulations however, you can call or write the manufacture for this information; their addresses and phone numbers are listed on each bag. When you consider all of this information it puts a completely different light on the amount of food that you need to feed your working dog.
I have intentionally omitted the names of some of the "experts" and the dog food companies that they work for, to keep it from looking like I'm endorsing their brand of dog food. I have included only one manufacturer name and that was to ensure proper credit was given to the company for their research and because I didn't want you to get the idea I'm any smarter that I actually am.