Feeding your performance dog

Evaluate your dog's activity

Cornell has long been the leader in canine nutrition for working dogs. 

Arleigh J. Reynolds '83, D.V.M. '86, Ph.D. '92, professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Alaska - Fairbanks, did groundbreaking work in sled-dog nutrition. Now, Joseph J. Wakshlag, D.V.M. '98, Ph.D. '05, professor of clinical nutrition and sports medicine and rehabilitation, is continuing to advance our expertise.

He says that not all performance events are equal in terms of the type of demands they put on your dog. Wakshlag uses a three-tier system for determining the nutritional needs of your sports dog:

  1. Endurance dogs. For true endurance dogs, like the racing sled dogs, a diet high in fat is important. Up to 35% of the diet (dry matter basis) should be fat, with 500-600 calories per cup of food. These dogs do not need this kind of food all year, however. During their off season, the intense diet can taper down. Then, as competition season approaches and training increases, food should be shifted to the high-fat diet. 4-6 weeks is a good timeline for acclimating your dog's body to the working diet.
  2. Medium-activity dogs. Medium-level activities include hunting dogs, working foxhounds, open field herding dogs and search-and-rescue dogs. “Post-exercise carbohydrate repletion during competition is important,” says Wakshlag. These dogs need more fat and caloric density, especially building up to competitions or events.
    • A subset of these dogs are arena hunters, arena herders and other tracking dogs. For the most part, these dogs could be fed more like sprinters since they don’t work for long periods of time, but they still need fat to build up for competition.
  3. Sprinters. Sprinters — dogs working on agility, dock diving, flyball and lure — need diets heavier on carbohydrates and lighter on fats. For them, 40-50% carbohydrates (dry matter basis) and 12-17% fat is appropriate, with 300-400 calories per cup of food. These dogs should have small meals the day before an event and receive carbohydrates post activity, especially if they do multiple short events in one day.

Canine energy use

Dogs draw on three systems for energy:

  • Immediate energy for 5-20 seconds, which comes from burning adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
  • Glycolytic energy for 20-120 seconds (this system involves the anaerobic breakdown of glucose).
  • Oxidative metabolism, which starts after about two minutes of exertion. This system is the most efficient and can use various sources of energy (fat, carbohydrates and protein).

The American College of Veterinary Medicine says that as the distance and duration of exercise increase, dogs use fat as an aerobic fuel source, and fat likely has the most profound effect on increasing stamina in dogs.

One older study published in the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association looked at Beagles and endurance. The researchers found that Beagles fed a high-fat diet were not exhausted until after 20 miles. When the dogs were fed a lower fat diet, however, they were exhausted at 15 miles.

While burning fat, an endurance dog holds off on using up muscle glycogen, and this delays the fatigue. Incidentally, using fat for energy is metabolically “cooler” than using protein. Keeping body temperatures from rising is a plus for dogs doing endurance events.

Pure, fresh, clean water

Provide your dog with frequent, small amounts of cool water. Don’t let your dog gulp large amounts of water, as this may cause bloating. Instead, offer frequent drinks during your cool down.

They don’t need electrolyte drinks, as dogs don’t sweat away electrolytes like we do. Even some canine sports drinks may cause gastrointestinal upset and lead to diarrhea.

Senior dogs

If your dog is a senior athlete, you need to be sure to provide plenty of high-quality protein. Dogs tend to lose muscle mass as they age. The exception to feeding extra protein would be for a dog who has other health problems, such as liver or kidney ailments, where extra protein would be detrimental.

Senior canines, whether performance dogs or not, also benefit from joint supplements and omega-3 fatty acid supplements.

Supplements hype

Many nutrition supplements are touted for improving canine performance, but outside experts have mixed opinions on their use.

“I am not a huge fan of global supplements other than use of post-exercise carb repletion of glycogen during eventing days to provide the fuel for the next day," Wakshlag says. "I think things like fiber and probiotics for stress diarrhea are likely the number one thing to consider.”

Maltodextrin supplements can be used for the carb replacement, but only on days of competition.

This article has been reprinted with permission from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s DogWatch newsletter, published by Belvoir Media Group. When you become a member of the Riney Canine Health Center, you will receive a free subscription to DogWatch.