By Tom Davis
A retriever's performance in the field is built primarily on three things—training, conditioning, and diet. With respect to the first two, there's almost always room for improvement, and most of us would admit that we could do better. When it comes to diet, though, there's really no excuse for not giving our dogs exactly what they need, every day of every year, to perform to the best of their abilities.
The thing is, proper nutrition isn't complicated. According to Purina Research Nutrionist Dr. Brian Zanghi, hunting retrievers should be fed a high-protein, high-fat performance diet—often called a 30/20 diet in reference to the percentages of protein and fat, respectively—from the time they emerge from puppyhood to the end of their working careers. And they should be fed this diet year-round, not just during the hunting season or when they're competing in field trials or hunt tests.
"Feeding a performance diet year-round keeps your dog's metabolic engine primed to operate at peak efficiency," Zanghi notes. "If you switch to a maintenance diet lower in fat and protein during the off-season, you effectively 'de-prime' that engine and put your dog at a conditioning disadvantage."
The way Zanghi sees it, the only variable should be the amount of food your dog is allowed to eat. "You want to keep your dog in ideal body condition at all times," he says, "and to do that you have to adjust the amount you feed to reflect his activity level. That's what I do with my own Lab, Aspen [three-year-old son of Deke, the official DU retriever]. When we're not hunting or training seriously, he gets two cups of food a day."
While it's okay to feed an adult dog twice a day if he's not being heavily exercised, a retriever that's hunting or training on a regular basis will do better if he's fed just once a day. "For a dog that's exercising hard more than twice a week, feeding once a day in the late afternoon or early evening is definitely beneficial," Zanghi says.
What you don't want to do is feed your dog heavily in the morning before a hunt or strenuous exercise of any kind. "When you feed your dog in the morning, you trigger digestion signals that run counter to the metabolic signals you want to promote," Zanghi explains. "You're putting your dog in a rebuilding and nutrient storage mode when he should be in a nutrient breakdown mode. Your dog's biology is telling him it's time to take a nap, basically."
The process of digestion also increases your dog's need for water. This may be less of an issue for retrievers than for upland dogs, but it's an issue nevertheless. If you must give your dog a snack during the hunt, be sure to maintain strict portion control so his system isn't overtaxed.
"You should keep it small," says Zanghi. "For a Lab-sized dog, no more than an eighth to a quarter cup, whether it's his regular kibble, a preformed 'dog burger,' or even part of your sandwich. The goal is to put some nutrients into his system—not trigger that digestion effect."
One question that Zanghi hears a lot is when you should switch an older hunting dog from a performance diet to a senior formula. "As long as your dog is actively hunting, he'll continue to benefit from a performance diet," Zanghi says. "When you cut back to the point that he's only hunting a few times a season, that's the time to transition to a senior diet."
The Hydration Factor
Keeping your dog hydrated is an important part of the performance equation. There are several products on the market that claim to be the equivalent of Gatorade for dogs, but do they really help? According to Purina's Dr. Brian Zanghi, the answer is no. "A colleague of mine published a study comparing the hydration benefits of an electrolyte replacement product versus those of tap water," Zanghi reports. "What he found was that there's no additional benefit whatsoever." To help motivate dogs that are reluctant drinkers to get enough fluid into their systems, Zanghi suggests adding low-sodium chicken stock to their water.