Food for thought

Dogs use food as more than just fuel

Dogs use food as more than just fuel - Credit: Nick Ridley

Food is more than just a source of fuel, explains the Sporting Shoot vet, Vicky Payne

Food as entertainment:

Dogs need to chew. They find it innately rewarding, and if not provided with things to chew, dogs will find their own chew toys! Commercial kibbles may provide everything a dog needs nutritionally, but they seldom provide any outlet for chewing or foraging behaviour and this can lead to destructive behaviour in the house or kennel. With young dogs, or those on limited exercise, it can be useful to make them work for their food by scattering it for them to forage for, by stuffing it into a Kong or by feeding raw bones. Care must be taken in kennels not to cause fights over high value foods like bones and only soft, raw bones such as chicken carcass or rib bones should be fed to avoid the risk of tooth fractures. Although gundog trainers use food as a lure and reward far less than trainers in other dog sports, don’t underestimate the training power of food, especially with young pups.


Gundogs fed a complete kibble or pre-prepared raw food mix should not need any additional vitamin and mineral supplements. Even a home-prepared raw diet will contain everything they need if it includes a variety of organ and muscle meats, raw bones, different fruits and vegetables and so on every week. Dogs on restricted diets may need supplements but it is best to discuss these with your vet to avoid over-supplementation, which can be dangerous.

Garlic is often added by owners for its anti-parasitic, anti-microbial and general health benefits. The best effects come from using fresh crushed garlic, but it should be given in moderation as it is toxic. A safe dose for a 20-30kg dog would be a single crushed clove five days out of seven. Other herbs can be used for a multitude of diseases but should only be given after discussion with your vet.

Joint supplements can be useful for working dogs that put a lot of strain on their joints and muscles through the course of their careers. Dog-specific supplements should be used as they are usually of better quality and less likely to cause upset stomachs. Look for a supplement with a range of ingredients including glucosamine and chondroitin for cartilage support, vitamin C for connective tissue and ligament health and omega 3 and 6 oils for anti-inflammatory actions. Some working dog foods do contain these supplements, so extra isn’t needed.

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Shoot day snacks:

Shooters have always liked to share their lunch with their working dogs, but recently snacks designed just for the dogs have come on the market. As a vet with an interest in nutrition, I’m not sure cereal bars are the best solution, because dogs run off fat and protein rather than carbohydrates. Pemmikan bars offer a fat and protein boost in a very concentrated form and are popular with agility competitors. The traditional Mars Bar should be avoided, as chocolate is toxic in excess and its energy is mostly carbohydrate. Other suitable mid-day snacks include a cooked sausage or boiled egg, but remember that if the dog is properly fed, conditioned and fit, you shouldn’t need to rely on feeding at lunchtime to keep it going.

Field triallers have recently started using electrolyte drinks for their dogs instead of plain water. This may not be gaining them any advantage, as research on sled dogs showed no faster recovery after electrolytes than after water, probably because dogs don’t lose salts through sweat like humans do. Of course, water is essential throughout a day of hard work for optimal performance.