Too fat, too thin? It’s normal to worry about your dog’s body condition, and here Victoria Rose seeks expert advice to identify five common feeding errors and how to avoid them.
Author Victoria Rose
It is not uncommon for an inexperienced eye to deem a lean, fit working dog as being too thin. While there are breed and genetic variations at play, the field trial dogs of yesteryear were a very different-shaped creature to the working line athletes we see today. There is also the unfortunate reality that, as a society, we are becoming increasingly used to seeing overweight dogs, even within the gundog sector.
“If the dog doesn’t clear up its food in 15 minutes, that is a clear sign you are overfeeding them,” explains Howard Kirby, Chudleys brand ambassador and owner of Hampshire’s Mullenscote Gundog Training Centre. “I meet a lot of people who say their dogs are fussy eaters, but I have never had a dog who wouldn’t eat. I rely on appetite as a way to manage health. I know that if I go into the kennel in the morning and one of my dogs doesn’t eat its food, something is seriously wrong.”
For those feeding kibble, the most important place to look for information on how much you should be feeding is, unsurprisingly, the back of the packet. While we can’t all weigh out individual meal portions gram for gram every day, it is worth double checking portion sizes and measures every now and again. It is amazing how quickly the excess can add up if you are filling a cup or scoop inconsistently.
“After that, it is a bit suck it and see,” said Howard. “We have 15 dogs, all are fed a salmon and rice blend, but each one is still treated as an individual. We have three springer spaniel bitches, all equal in size and stature, but we have to alter their feed and treat them very differently. One will put on weight, even if you only fed her fresh air, and another you simply cannot feed enough because she is so busy. We are assessing the condition of our dogs on a daily basis.”
On the subject of overfeeding, while it is common sense for many, it should be reiterated that those who are training with food-based rewards must also be mindful of what they are using for treats and how much their dog is consuming, before making sensible adjustments to daily feed amounts.
2 Not being honest about workload
It doesn’t matter if your dog has a lot of red in its pedigree; if you have ambitions of entering every working test in the country; or if you plan to work every day throughout the shooting season – if your dog is currently spending the majority of its time flat out in front of the Aga, it doesn’t need to be fed on ‘go-faster’ working dog food.
“A lot of people feed their dog based on the level of work they aspire to do,” said Mike Ede, who started his own feed brand, WorkingHPRs, nine years ago. “I was guilty of this when I first started training. My weimaraners are mainly my hobby – we are sometimes on 250-bird duck days where the dogs are required to do a lot of work in a very short space of time, but there are also times when we will be on small, 60-bird days with a handful of other people and so the dogs might only pick 10 birds each. I definitely used to feed them as if they were working intensely all the time and then wondered why they had so much energy all the time.”
For the average gundog owner – who enters the occasional test and goes beating or picking up once or twice a week during the season – it is far more realistic to opt for a ‘lighter’ workload blend. This can be fed all year round and during the season, it is then a simple case of monitoring your dog’s condition and increasing portion sizes to maintain their usual appearance, health and energy levels.
3 Focusing on the protein
On the subject of energy, Mike also says that too many of his customers fail to realise it is fat, not protein, which is fuelling their dogs. Many owners who are struggling to train or cope with high-energy levels are often incorrectly searching for “low-protein blends” in the hope this will help with behavioural issues.
“When it comes to protein, people are too quick to chuck the baby out with the bath water,” said Mike. “It is pointless looking for lower protein. I think people have really outdated information. Studies have shown that older dogs, unless their kidneys are compromised, even if they are doing less actually need a higher protein diet. When it comes to behavioural issues too, we have also found that maize is in fact the worst culprit.”
Assuming you are not making the two mistakes above, it is very debatable whether or not feed is causing your dog to be hyperactive. Howard Kirby upholds that he would much rather train with clients whose dogs are “full of beans” and raring to go.
Coming back to protein, Julie Palmer, of Seadogs Training in Suffolk, also agrees that people wrongly get caught up with the percentages on the front of dry food packages. Alongside Mike, she believes more time should be spent learning to read the labels.
“When it comes to protein, trainers should be more concerned about where the protein is coming from,” said Julie, who stocks and sells Dog & Field. “If it is coming from a good quality source, like fish or meat, then the percentage might be higher, but it is not going to have an adverse effect. Too many take the headline figure on the packet at face value and do not spend enough time reading the list of ingredients to see what they’re feeding their dogs.”
Considering ingredients, it is also interesting to note that ‘budget’ manufacturers will often change ingredients based on which commodities are cheapest on the day of production. For instance, packets which list ‘poultry’ could be produced with either chicken or turkey. While this is not a concern for most, those with sensitive dogs who are prone to intolerances, will need to bear in mind that every bag, could potentially be a different ‘recipe’.
4 Ignoring the nutritionists
With the average gundog owner having little appreciation of what ingredients are used in their dog’s feed, Julie Palmer often sees clients, who bring dogs to her for boarding, making the mistake of feeding both kibble and meat together.
“My pet hate is seeing clients mix complete diets. You have to understand that dry food blends have been carefully researched and when you add an extra bit of fish, or chicken, you will upset the nutritional balance and this can cause a range of health issues, from urine infections to gut problems,” she said.
Working dog food manufacturers have invested large sums of time and money in R&D to better understand dogs’ nutritional requirements. This is particularly important when it comes to puppies; where not following guidelines can be detrimental to your dog’s development and long-term health.
“When it comes to moving off puppy food I see a lot of tail wagging the dog going on,” said Howard Kirby. “Puppy food is more expensive, and it does require those in multi-dog households to have two different foods on the go. Sadly, convenience and cost encourage people to move away from puppy food sooner than they should.”
As novices start to get to more involved in the sport, and for those who are working their dogs hard and often, feed and nutritional requirements may need to be assessed pre-season. Howard admits that he has found tapping into the knowledge from manufacturers’ in-house nutritionists to be vital when preparing for competitions.
“When we were getting dogs ready for the world championships we used the nutritional help line from Chudleys. Having access to that provided us with a lot of information about condition feeding, and other trainers shouldn’t be shy to ask these nutritionists more questions, because that’s what they’re there to do,” he said.
5 Changing feed for the sake of it
Unless you are guilty of point number two, or think that your dog has intolerances, owners would be ill-advised to change their dog’s feed. If you think food will change your dog’s behaviour, you probably need to reassess your approach to training. If you are unable to manage your dog’s weight with food, you should consult your vet. If you have a fussy eater, consider whether you are feeding too much, or if your dog has successfully trained you into adding a few additional tasty chunks of chicken to
“If your dog is happy and keen to eat, if its stools are of a good size and consistence, if they look to be of the right size and body condition, and are overall looking and acting ‘healthy’, I am a strong advocate of not changing their feed,” said Mike Ede. “If your dog’s coat is dull and lifeless, it would be beneficial to add a fish oil to its diet. If your dog is reluctant to eat something, it might be because it doesn’t make them feel that great. Dogs are not wolves, they don’t need to be fed an ancestral diet and they can process starch, but some do have underlying health issues.”
While it will be very obvious if your dog is allergic to something, it can be slightly more tricky to identify intolerances. If you notice that your dog has itchy or unclean ears, or if they frequently nibble between their feet, this might be a sign that their diet does not quite suit them. This can usually be overcome by moving to a grain-free feed or changing to a new protein source.
There are plenty of brands, ranges and flavours to choose from and anyone who wants to explore further should check out the website www.allaboutdogfood.co.uk. This searchable, independent dog food directory has a comprehensive comparison tool for those who want to assess different feeds.