Dr Jacqueline Boyd, BSc (Hons), MSc, PhD, PGCHE, CHES, FHEA, MRSB
Nutritional Consultant, Skinner’s Pet Foods
Autumn is here, and winter is coming! Gloves are essential, log fires are lit, and the season is well underway. Whether you have been on the moors, picking partridge or are planning the next pheasant recipe, it’s a good time to review how our gundogs are looking and performing. Hopefully you will have avoided injuries, illness (or in the case of my own “girls” the perils of female hormones!) and your dogs are benefitting from the pre-season preparation that you put in. However, it’s also a good time to review and reflect, just in case there are any amendments that you can make to keep the season a successful one!
Monitoring body condition
Hopefully, your dog(s) entered the season with a good level of fitness and overall conditioning, both mental and physical. It is often too easy for a dog doing several days a week, or even a couple of back-to-back days, to start dropping condition, especially as the weather becomes colder and wetter. We often don’t notice this until a good proportion of body condition has been lost and maybe performance has dropped slightly. So, it’s a great idea to weigh your dog(s), ideally weekly, and keep track of what they weigh and how their overall physical condition both looks and feels. This means it’s much easier to make small nutritional alternations (either up or down!) to help keep your dog at an ideal weight and in prime condition. It can be good practice to weight yourself at the same time as the dog, and you might even notice some changes in yourself too!
Food and feeding
Many dogs work well on a twice a day meal strategy and this often fits with our daily lifestyles. It can also help ensure a more consistent level of nutrients in the bloodstream and help fuel your dog throughout the day. On a shoot day, try to ensure your dog’s morning meal has been fed at least an hour (ideally longer!) before they start to exercise. This helps overall digestion and absorption of nutrients. This might even mean giving a meal last thing at night or feeding as soon as you get up and before travelling to the shoot. For some, feeding the daily ration split exactly into two equal portions works well, for others, feeding a third of the daily ration pre-exercise and the remaining two-thirds at the end of the day works. Whatever you decide, just consider the actual volume being fed in each meal, especially for those deep-chested breeds that might be predisposed to bloat and gastric torsion. However, some dogs don’t “do” breakfast and sometimes, it’s easier to stick to a single meal a day – just make sure this is fed once your dog is fully settled for the night and again is not of a size that might lead to reduced digestibility (and increased faecal output!) or digestive issues.
Manage and Monitor
Remember to monitor the amount you are feeding too; this will make any amends to compensate for changes in your dog’s body weight to be made; ideally weigh every meal! Portion control means you can manage exactly what is going in and monitor the outcome accordingly. If you find that you are feeding a large volume of a particular food and your dog is perhaps losing condition or performance is dropping, consider a more energy dense food. This means you can feed either slightly less volume or the same amount but actually get more “fuel” and key nutrients into your dog. Field and Trial Superior is a nice example of an energy dense feed (at 30% protein and 20% fat) that may help maintain condition and performance for the hardest working dogs. It can also be a useful “step-up” as the season proceeds from something like Field and Trial Muesli Mix, Working 23 or Crunchy.
The provision of “snacks” for dogs has become rather commonplace. The reality is that many gundogs had and will always get snacks, courtesy of elevenses and lunchtime! However, the science of snack provision has seen specialised products appear on the market that claim to maintain performance throughout the day. I often hear people say that these aren’t needed and that if your dog is fit, conditioned and well fed, then snacks aren’t needed. Fundamentally, this might be true but, many gundogs are not working regularly at the same energetic output and a shoot day often is pushing their conditioning and fitness capabilities, especially at the start of the season. Coupled with this, is some neat science about the benefits of providing a digestible snack during an intense work session to maintain performance. This is especially pertinent if you have a breed or even a personality type of dog who can run themselves to exhaustion, suffer from “hunting dog hypoglycaemia” (essentially low blood sugar) or are unfortunate enough to carry a genetic variant meaning that they cannot easily regulate their energy output.
Fuelling the modern gundog
I really like the analogy of driving my car to fuelling the “pet/occasional/Aga” gundog who might be only doing 1 or 2 days a week. My truck from Monday to Friday does pretty much the same mileage from week to week. I know what amount of fuel to pop in. If at the weekend I decide to go further afield (a nice daytrip for example), I need to add more fuel, otherwise my truck will run out of fuel and I either won’t get to where I intend to go OR come Monday, there will be no fuel left. I think of my dogs in the same way. Weeks where we are out several days, I’m fuelling them as standard for that level of activity. The weeks where it might be a solitary Saturday, I must amend their diet accordingly during the week when their activity level aren’t as high, and I don’t want them starting to pop on any extra weight.
The “pit-stop” refuel
This is where snacks can be useful as a way of “refueling” and supporting your dog – providing a small meal at lunchtime can help fuel your dog for the afternoon, support their recovery after the day, help maintain blood glucose levels and aid replenishment of muscle glycogen stores at the end of the day too! A handful of their normal food is ideal or even consider using a more energy dense kibble (such as Superior) for this purpose. Field and Trial Muesli mix is also a great choice here – soak a handful in some water (warm if you like!), allow to soak for a couple of minutes and give to your dog. Muesli Mix is coated in wheat glucose syrup so is an accessible source of almost instant glucose energy, is typically very palatable and by mixing with water, you will be aiding the hydration status of your dog too. Avoid giving a large meal in the middle of the day, but small “snacks” like this can be invaluable.
In the third part of this series of the Good Gundog Feeding Guide, we will explore the changes in our dogs toward the end of the season, how to manage their nutrition as the weather changes and perhaps start thinking about the choices to be made as the season draws to a close.