Feeding your dog can be a minefield. There are so many options available and advertised it can be overwhelming to know what is best for your dog. I think the main point to start with is that every dog is an individual, and no one ‘brand’ is going to suit every dog. In the dog nutrition world, there can be a lot of misinformation. Therefore it is important to be guided by robust evidence on what is most appropriate for your dog.
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What should a working dog ‘look’ like?
Generally, dogs should be fed to maintain a body condition score (BCS) between 4 and 5 on a 9-point BCS for optimal health and longevity; those who are working often have additional needs to maintain this alongside good musculature.
It has been suggested that dogs that perform low- or moderate-intensity exercise should be kept at a BCS of 4 or 5, whereas dogs performing high-intensity exercise are usually kept at a BCS 3 or 4.
What is a working dog?
A working dog is a dog used to perform practical tasks, as opposed to pet or companion dogs.
The term can be a little confusing when in discussion; they can be dogs that are trained for and employed in meaningful work; other times as any dog whose breed heritage or physical characteristics lend itself to working irrespective of an individual animal’s training or employment; and other times again it is used as a synonym for herding dog.
It is important to note this because if you own a working dog breed, but do not work or heavily exercise them, then they don’t necessarily need a ‘working dog’ specific food! If you fed a sedentary husky or collie the same amount as a dog that was working as a sled dog or herding daily, then what you will end up with is a very obese dog!
Given that about one third of dogs over one year of age presented to veterinary practices in the USA are either overweight or obese, and the prevalence in Europe being very similar, it is especially important we do not allow our dogs to get overweight. This may mean that you have to consider how much ‘work’ your working dog breed is actually doing!
Does their activity impact this?
It is clear that spontaneous activity significantly influences a dog’s maintenance energy requirements; for example, standing up requires 40% more energy than lying down, so imagine what working does!
Most studies on exercising dogs have utilised either greyhounds or sled dogs to base their study on. However, the majority of working dogs in the world are neither of these breeds, nor do they engage in similar athletic demands. The energy requirements of dogs in conditions such as police, military, farm, and detection work may not have been carefully studied.
When we are faced with a ‘working dog’ it is therefore important to first categorise them:
- Low-intensity, high-duration exercise (e.g., endurance dogs)
- Moderate-intensity, moderate to high-duration exercise (e.g., police dogs, hunting, search and rescue, service dogs)
- High-intensity, short-duration exercise (e.g., sprinting, agility and weight pulling)
According to the FEDIAF guidelines, the daily energy requirement for low activity (< 1 hour/day, e.g. walking on the lead) dogs in comparison to working dogs doing high activity (3 – 6 hours/day, working dogs, e.g. sheep dogs), or high activity under extreme conditions (racing sled dogs 168 km/d in extreme cold), can differ by a HUGE amount (1145 kcal of energy/kg^0.75 – roughly 196 kcal per kg body weight!)
What do they need in the food?
Dogs in the high and moderate activity classes require energy from both digestible carbohydrates and fats; whereas dogs that undertake low-intensity activities will require mainly fat as an energy source.
There are four important energy-generating pathways in dogs, two of which can generate ATP (muscles require ATP/adenosine triphosphate as fuel) using either creatine phosphate or glycogen stored in the muscle during the first seconds or minutes of activity.
In human and horse athletes, the rapid reloading and replenishing of glycogen stores following a workout is proven; however studies in dogs have resulted in conflicting results. But, from knowledge of muscle physiology, it can be assumed that dogs in the high- and moderate-intensity categories will use some of their glycogen stores during exercise that (ideally) will be replenished as efficiently as possible.
The macronutrient proportion that is most suitable to working dogs, once individually assessed, is probably still high fat, high protein, low carbohydrate, and high moisture. Requirements for several B vitamins and dietary antioxidants are known to be increased during heavy exercise; although there is no evidence that they need to be increased beyond that point or in excess.
Overall, it’s important to ensure that a food is complete and formulated by a trusted brand/company; e.g., they used appropriate feeding trials such as AAFCO, follow FEDIAF guidelines, and are guided by a veterinary surgeon with a PhD in animal nutrition or a Board-Certified Veterinary Nutritionist (or equivalent qualification). Thus, high-fat, high-protein commercial diets that have passed approved feeding trials are sufficient, and no further need for supplementation is currently needed, unless specific for an animal’s needs.