Feeding for Performance

The early summer morning glistens from sunlight peeking through hickory and oak trees, dancing on fresh dew. Professional trainer John Stolgitis takes advantage of the coolness of the Rhode Island morning to condition and train his string of Pointers and English Setters. Though it is early, undoubtedly the coolest time of the day, the dogs' body heat rises as they sweep the countryside in search of quail.

Stolgitis, a staunch competitor in walking and horseback quail field trials since 1998, honed CH Beaver Meadow Benjamin, the sire of 50-plus champion progeny, and 13XCH/9XRUCH Chasehill Little Bud, whose wins included three National titles. This year, Stolgitis owned and handled Chasehill Molly, the Grand National Grouse Champion. In trials, his upland bird dogs may range for one hour, sometimes longer, in some of the toughest bird cover in the U.S.

More than halfway across the country in Ronan, Mont., professional retriever trainer Karl Gunzer and his wife, Cyndi, are working Labrador Retrievers, casting them on water and land retrieves. The 600-acre prairie, dotted with lakes and wetlands, is a natural waterfowl habitat, making it the ideal summer training location for Gunzer and his truck of 20 Labradors. A professional trainer since 1994, Gunzer has titled multiple field champions, competing in the last six National Championships with 12 different dogs.

"Retriever field trials consist of land and water tests," Gunzer explains. "In the land tests, dogs exude relatively short bursts of energy, usually in 10 minutes or less. The water series can be 20 minutes or more. Retrievers generally perform at full speed and make no effort to conserve energy or pace themselves. Dogs in better condition have a greater ability to run straight to their birds and fight environmental factors, such as wind, water and hillsides."

Though their sports are different, the Labrador Retrievers in Gunzer's camp and the Pointers and English Setters training with Stolgitis are all hardworking athletes that require optimal nutrition to perform at their best. Both trainers feed Purina Pro Plan Performance Formula, a performance dog food containing 30 percent protein and 20 percent fat.

Whereas maintenance dog foods may have from 24 to 26 percent protein and 12 to 16 percent fat, Pro Plan Performance has high levels of fat and protein nutrients that help to increase dogs' capacity to metabolize fat and give them a higher oxygen capacity. Increased fat metabolism and higher oxygen capacity help to increase metabolic capacity and generate energy.

"Dogs need a nutrient-dense food so you don't have to feed an excessive amount to keep weight on them," Gunzer says. "Dogs need to be in good physical condition and have a good coat to keep them warm in cold weather and water. I prefer to feed Pro Plan Performance because the dogs eat less. With less volume in the stomach, I feel they are more comfortable in the kennel and on the truck."

"The ultimate goal is to optimize performance," says Purina Research Scientist Brian Zanghi, Ph.D. "This means feeding a food containing key nutrients in an optimal balance to provide optimal benefits. This enables dogs to hunt longer and find more game. Food can metabolically prime our dogs to promote optimal endurance."

Canine athletes have increased metabolism due to their physical activity, which, in turn, increases their need for energy. Based on environmental conditions plus exercise intensity and duration, these dogs' energy requirements are best fulfilled by a high-energy nutrient-dense food. Fat, the most dense energy nutrient, has 2 1/4 times more energy per gram than either protein or carbohydrate. Luckily, dogs are more efficient at fat metabolism than most species.

"Exercise metabolism for a hardworking dog is best when fat is used for producing energy for muscles," Zanghi says. "Fat promotes and supports endurance exercise, which is what most hardworking dogs require for optimal performance."

Nutrition studies have shown that feeding dogs a food with higher levels of fat will result in more fatty acids in the blood before exercise. These fatty acids, important for hardworking dogs that perform endurance-based exercise, can contribute 60 percent or more energy during the first two hours of exercise. The increased fatty acids continue even after exercise compared to foods with lower fat and high carbohydrates. More fatty acids in the blood mean more nutrients to promote endurance metabolism.

"Fatty acids are used by the muscles to make energy for movement," explains Zanghi. "Dogs fed a high-fat food have more capacity to use or burn fatty acids and have a greater capacity to metabolize oxygen. Elevated dietary protein complements the benefits of fat metabolism in the sense that amino acids, the building blocks of protein, promote muscle growth."

Exercise Nutrition Do's & Don'ts

Helping dogs achieve an optimal performance involves more than feeding a quality performance dog food. Nutritional do's and don'ts come from experience and learning from experts. Here are some considerations when feeding a hardworking dog.

• Do not feed a hardworking dog before exercise. Complete digestion takes from 20 to 24 hours. Dogs fed less than 23 hours before exercise could have fecal matter in the colon that could compromise their performance by adding extra weight. Additionally, exercise alters the gastrointestinal transit time and can change nutrient digestion and absorption, resulting in a decrease of oxygen in the gut.

"Generally, performance dogs should be fed a minimum of 10 to 12 hours before exercise," Zanghi says. "It is best to feed the night before a trial that is scheduled the next morning. When dogs are fed six hours or sooner before exercise, the body's fat burning enzymes are not optimized, which contributes to reduced endurance and energy generation. Studies have shown that endurance performance can be as much as doubled when dogs run on an empty stomach compared to having eaten four or less hours before exercise."

"I never feed dogs the morning of a field trial," says Stolgitis. "I try to feed 24 hours before they are scheduled to compete. This allows time for them to digest the food and for the nutrients to be available to their bodies for work."

If a trial is a multiple-day event, dogs should be fed as soon as possible after exercise, allowing adequate time for cooling down, so they have the maximum time to digest the meal before the next competition.

"At a trial I try to keep the same feeding schedule, but it is often not possible during summer trials that run until 7 or 8 at night," Gunzer says. "On those occasions, I try and feed at least half an hour after the last dog has run unless it is unusually hot."

• Generally, it is best to feed performance dogs one time a day. As with not feeding dogs before exercise, it is optimal to feed hardworking dogs one time a day so they can completely digest the food.

"I feed once a day unless I have a young dog or an unusually high-maintenance dog that requires a larger portion of food, in which case I feed twice a day with a slightly smaller portion in the morning," Gunzer says.

"I always try to feed once a day around 4 p.m.," says Stolgitis.

• Dogs should be fed for ideal body condition. The best way to determine how well a dog's diet meets his activity level is to examine his physique by putting your hands on the dog and feeling his ribs. Place both thumbs on the dog's backbone and spread your hands across the rib cage. You should be able to easily feel the ribs. You also should be able to view the dog's waist behind the ribs, and an abdominal tuck should be apparent from the side.

The amount of food fed should be adjusted to maintain ideal body condition. During the first four to six weeks of conditioning, food quantity should increase but then level off and decline slightly.

Gunzer feeds most retrievers from 4 to 5 cups of food a day. The adult females weigh around 55 pounds, and the males could weigh up to 90 pounds. "I always measure each dog's food," he says. "The proportion fed is changed in half-cup increments to keep an ideal weight. Every dog is an individual. Larger males and young males may require twice as much food as a smaller female. Usually more energetic, highly active dogs require substantially more food than a calm, quiet dog."

• Working dogs should be well-hydrated with plenty of water. Maintaining hydration in working dogs is critical to prolonged endurance and thermoregulation.

"Hydration is important for two reasons," Zanghi explains. "Exercise is a heat-producing activity, and water is required to help dissipate heat. About 60 percent of heat dissipated by dogs during exercise is through water evaporation in the respiratory tract.

"Water also is needed to remove the byproducts of energy metabolism. This may be the most important determinant of endurance and performance. Though dogs may be distracted by the environment or their work, they should be encouraged to drink water during extended periods of exercise."

"Trial dogs need to drink lots of water to replace water lost during exercise," says Gunzer. "Though retrievers do not have the opportunity to drink while they are working, they are given access to water immediately after they run. Dogs also have free access to fresh water in their kennel at all times."

"Hydration is very important," agrees Stolgitis. "First, it helps keep dogs cool so they can continue to perform, and it helps keep them from breathing so hard so they can work effectively. I hydrate my dogs during workouts. I give them cool water to drink before the 10-minute mark, and then I try again usually 10 minutes later. I give them water at 30 minutes, and then they can usually go an hour if not in extreme conditions."

• It is best to feed hardworking dogs a performance food year-round. A performance food — such as Pro Plan Performance — fed throughout the year helps to maximize training and conditioning.

"In order to keep weight on dogs and get a strong performance, you need to feed a quality product," says Stolgitis. "Whether you are a serious field trial competitor or a hunter, nutrition is a key part. Pro Plan Performance is good because it is a high-quality food that allows dogs to perform at the highest levels."

"I feed Pro Plan Performance year-round," Gunzer says. "Any time I have a dog in training, they are working and need the nutrition provided in Performance. Besides the high-quality nutrition and digestibility, nothing compares with Pro Plan's palatability. It is a great food for my dogs to compete at the highest levels."

Only weeks remain before the start of the fall field trial season. Gunzer and his retrievers and Stolgitis and his upland bird dogs will soon be traveling across the country to competitions. Though there are many uncertainties — factors like weather conditions and injuries — one thing is certain: Their hardworking athletes will benefit from being fed a high-quality performance food that offers optimal nutrition to support an optimal performance.

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