There’s a reason we have a specialist field for sport nutrition in humans. When you think of the increased demands across the body, for it to function to its capacity, it needs nutrients and fuel.
This similarly applies to the canine athlete – or as we like to call them, working dogs.
Working dogs demand more from their body than the average pet dog – just like professional athletes demand more from their body than we do on our weekend walk.
So, let’s take a look at what the working dog needs in terms of nutrition.
Working dogs will have different working, training, and rest schedules; they will also perform different types of exercise.
At one end of the scale, we have the sprinters or speedy dogs like greyhounds. Here, the exercise is of high intensity but of short duration. These are the types of dogs that compete in sprint sports like agility or fly ball.
At the other end of the scale, we have endurance athletes, like sled dogs. They perform less intense exercise, but the duration is longer.
We then have the intermediate athletes – like your working gundogs; they all have different jobs to do, and so carry out different types of exercise. But in this category, we also include those search and rescue dogs, or farm dogs. These guys are bred for muscle endurance, agility, balance, and speed.
Their different jobs mean they have different energy needs.
All energy in the body is produced by the breakdown of ATP, adenosine triphosphate. ATP is found in all cells in all the body, but as it is a large molecule, not so much can be stored. To restore ATP there are three relevant energy systems.
This is where the body uses all the ATP it has stored in its cells. This is the simplest energy production process; and if we were to consider it in human terms, this is the system that your 100m sprint would utilise.
This system runs on glycogen, which is the storage form of carbohydrates in animals. In human terms, this system provides moderate power and moderate duration. Both the ATP-PC and Glycolytic system are anaerobic, meaning they don’t require oxygen to product ATP.
This system, as its name suggests does involve the use of oxygen to product ATP. This system cannot produce energy as quickly as the other two, but it can produce it continually and for a longer duration. This system can use stored carbohydrates and fats for fuel. In human terms, this would be the system that the marathon runner would access!
Endurance and intermediate athletes undergo predominantly aerobic exercise (using the system with oxygen) – simply because it can run for longer. These dogs primarily use fat oxidation to fuel this system.
This is largely because dogs are so efficient at using fat as energy. It is thought that albumin (a protein made by the liver) binds more free fatty acids in dogs than other species, so as the concentration of fatty acids in the blood is higher, the delivery of them to the muscles is more efficient.
We know that these dogs use this system largely because of their muscle composition.
Endurance dogs have more slow twitch muscle fibres, known as type I fibres. These contain more mitochondria than fast twitch muscle fibres, and fatty acids are primarily oxidised in the mitochondria. If you flash back to biology in school, you’ll remember that the mitochondria are the power plants of the cell.
On the other hand, speedy dogs, like greyhounds, like their description suggests, have more type II fibres which are fast-twitch – these give them speed! Type II fibres synthesise energy through anaerobic processes – meaning they do not require oxygen, but they utilise glucose as their primary energy supply.
Glucose is a sugar – most commonly associated with the breakdown of carbohydrate. But dogs are able to carry out a process known as gluconeogenesis which is the conversion of non-carbohydrate sources to glucose. This is why dogs do not technically have a dietary carbohydrate need – but they do have a glucose need; red blood cells and the brain have an absolute need for glucose.
That said, there potentially is an argument for carbohydrates in the speedy dog when work needs are high.
We know that speedy dogs utilise this pathway because a waste product of anaerobic metabolism is lactic acid which accumulates and must be eliminated. In endurance dogs, lactate concentrations can be five times higher than a baseline, but in greyhounds, lactate levels can be up to twenty times higher than baseline after exercise.
Intermediate dogs are thought to have a muscle fibre profile more like endurance dogs than speedy dogs.
The bottom line? The working dog needs fat to produce energy.
For energy to be produced in the mitochondria, other nutrients also play a key role. Of particular interest are the B-Vitamins. They help a variety of enzymes do their jobs, ranging from releasing energy from macronutrients, breaking down amino acids and transporting oxygen and energy-containing nutrients around the body
B Vitamins are water-soluble which means they are also depleted at a higher rate – this applies even more so to the working dog, because they have such a high turnover of nutrients.
The following vitamins are all involved in the conversion of food to energy: thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin, pyridoxine, pantothenic acid and biotin.
The following are all important for cell growth and maintenance and/or blood cell synthesis: folic acid, B12 cobalamin and choline.
Top source of B Vitamins:
- Leafy Greens
With such high demands placed on the canine athlete; they too need to recover. They need to replenish the nutrients utilised during work and prepare for next time.
For that reason, protein is a key nutrient for the working dog. Not only can it be used as a source of energy if needed, but it provides the structure for the body to carry out its function.
In addition, free radicals and reactive oxygen species also increase with exercise, and subsequently, concentrations of antioxidants in the blood decrease. An imbalance here results in oxidative stress, and oxidative stress can lead to muscle damage (not what we want in our working dog).
Therefore, the inclusion of antioxidant compounds for the working dog is of benefit.
Food sources include:
- Leafy Greens
Astaxanthin is a great antioxidant, and it can be found in seafood like salmon and krill. It is also found in algae.
For the working dog, fat is crucial to provide energy. Protein is necessary for growth, repair, and maintenance. The working dog also has a high turnover of nutrients, because of the demands placed upon the body, which means they may deplete nutrients quicker than the average pet. Opt for a fresh, whole food diet and consider adding some of the above foods to the bowl.
Written by Lisa Hannaby - Bsc. Psych. Hons, MSc Human Nutrition