The right fuel
Gundog expert Ben Randall explains the importance of getting your working dog's diet just right.
Dog nutrition is very much at the forefront of my business. To maintain the condition of my working dogs for field trialling, it is essential to provide them with the best quality food I can get. Similarly, clients' dogs that board at our kennels also require sound nutritional support, without making them too energetic and over the top for their owners.
At times during the year, we can feed between 30 and 40 different brands and types of food a day. There won't be many people in my position who have the opportunity to witness, first hand, the pros and cons of such a wide range of dog foods. Spending so much of our time with the dogs, we are able to continuously monitor the various factors that their diet affects, including general welfare, stool composition, coat condition and overall dog behaviour.
The BARF diet
I have fed many of my clients' dogs on the BARF (Biologically Appropriate Raw Food) diet – all of them seeming to do well on it. Despite this, I have noticed inconsistency in the volumes of the different ingredients, forcing me to question whether the dogs are being provided with consistent amounts and the right balance of protein, fat and carbohydrate. Without thorough analysis of the macronutrient breakdown, it is difficult to judge.
From personal experience, whilst feeding my own dogs this diet, I have found that on some days they will perform very well, but occasionally, after approximately a month or so, their performance will drop noticeably. This has made me sceptical of the BARF diet.
Dogs fed with cheap bulk foods from the lower price ranges are typically in poorer condition, having very large and frequent stools, whilst also lacking in fitness and stamina because of the poor ingredient make-up of their diet. There seems to be a lot of artificial colourings and additives in these foods – an effort to make it more pleasing to the human eye and similar to what we see in some fizzy drinks and sweets for humans. I have found these types of food can make a dog hyperactive, providing only a short burst of quick release energy, which is particularly unfavourable for working dogs.
You only get what you pay for – or do you?
Foods that fall within the mid to high price range are generally supported by large amounts of very good marketing and advertising, but I'm not always sure how much thought goes into the ingredients. In some instances, I actually see little difference – in terms of quality – between cheaper foods and those that are more expensive. Of course, some foods are better than others, but I would suggest that you do not judge a particular food on price alone.
Monitoring the stools of a dog is always useful when establishing the suitability and quality of a food type. If stools are very frequent and always soft, this tells me that the food is of a lesser nutritional value, as the dog is actually retaining very little from the food. On the other hand, stools that are darker in colour, firmer and much less frequent, indicate that a greater percentage of the food is being absorbed and utilised by the body.
From personal experience
Up until a few years ago, having used most of the dog food brands on the market with mixed success, I still hadn't found a complete food that was able to maintain my dogs at their peak physical condition.
It was around this time that I was competing in my second year, defending my 2011 Cocker Spaniel Championship title, so I really needed something to help the dogs perform at a new level. Their food had to be the best.
For years I had watched documentaries about brown bears relying on the sockeye salmon run. A bear needs approximately 90lb or 25 salmon a day to store enough fat to survive its winter hibernation. I had always admired their power and pace, incredible coat condition and ability to survive extreme weather conditions. It was this that, in part, inspired me to develop my own wild salmon-based dog food.
I began my own research, and after speaking to many of my clients and friends in the USA and Europe about their experiences, I was still unable to get the answers I needed. Two years ago, however, I came across a chap called Graham Tweed, from Kronch – a working dog food company based in Denmark. Graham has developed a food that uses high quality sources of protein and ingredients, derived directly from wild salmon, which combine to provide a much better conversion rate of food to usable energy. My understanding is that this is because the protein is natural, pure and unprocessed.
It goes without saying that a dog's diet must be regulated according to its workload. If I provided a sedentary house dog with the amount of calories required to keep a highly-strung working springer going through the shooting season, it would soon look like it swallowed a beach ball. The size of the dog, its workload and individual activity rates are crucial. But as a rule of thumb it is best to feed by eye and to adjust an individual dog's nutrition according to weight, coat condition and stool consistency (firmness).
I am of the opinion that a working dog should be treated like you would an athlete. You wouldn't expect Usain Bolt to perform well on a diet of pies and beer.
Fat is a dog's most important source of energy, supplying the essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids that are necessary for maintaining healthy bodily functions.
Salmon has a very high content of omega-3 fatty acids. The enhancing effects of omega-3 are largely due to the fatty acids known as EPA (Eicosapentaenoic Acid) and DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid). These two fatty acids are found only in fish and nowhere else in nature.
Omega-6 fatty acids benefit the coat and skin, helping to counteract problems such as allergies, dry skin shedding, itching, dandruff and dull coat. The omega-3 fatty acids help to strengthen the immune system, increasing fertility and reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Many times last season, fellow Guns, beaters and pickers-up would ask why most of the other dogs in the shoot trucks were shivering and shaking and mine were not? Why did mine seem so much drier? Simple answer – their food. The higher oil content of their food helps to keep their coats more waterproof.
Proteins and amino acids
The biological value (BV) of proteins in a dog's diet is another important point to consider. This is the measure of how well the body can absorb and utilise a protein. Salmon proteins have a BV of 94 per cent, which is very high when compared with other animal protein sources. Results? Easily digestible food with a very high utilisation rate, lower food consumption and reduced amounts of stools. The amino acid profile of these proteins also plays a key role in your dog's health and condition. Dogs are able to create most of the amino acids they need naturally. However, there are 10 essential amino acids that the dog is unable to create and so must be provided via its diet. If just one of these is missing, the remaining nine will be burned as energy and will not be used for building, maintaining or repairing the dog's muscles.
My dogs continue to perform at the highest level, something I can partially attribute to the diet that they are now on. I'm always looking at how I can improve their condition and levels of performance. Apart from training, the fuel that we provide them with plays a crucial role in this – you will only get out of a dog what you put into it.
For further advice, and an opinion other than my own, I would recommend consulting someone who has the feeding experience of a trainer or kennel owner. They will likely have had the exposure to a wide range of foods that are on the market, witnessing first-hand the advantages and disadvantages of each.
To learn more about different food types, don't be afraid to contact the manufacturers and ask to visit their factories, to see how the food is made. If manufacturers have nothing to hide, they should embrace such interest from potential customers.
Have you seen our new bookazine – The Fieldsports Guide to Gundogs?