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The Key to Success in Dog Sports: Expert Nutritional Advice for Sporting and Working Breeds

Alison Frost, ProDog’s Canine Nutritionist, is an expert on improving health and wellness in dogs of all kinds. In this article, she shares her valuable knowledge on what active dogs need to thrive in the exciting world of canine work and dog sports.

Alison Frost

Author: Alison Frost

Edited By: Anna Bain

The Key to Success in Dog Sports: Expert Nutritional Advice for Sporting and Working Breeds

Though dog sports and working dog activities demand a lot from their participants, these demands are usually met happily. However, dogs require adequate nutrition to function, which is especially true of working and sporting dogs’ highly active lifestyles. 

In this article, I’ll discuss the potential health impacts of dog sports and working activities, some common types of events active dogs enjoy, and how you can support them to feel and perform at their best through natural, species-appropriate nutrition.

Health impacts of high level activity

Potential impact on various systems and overall health

Sporting and working dogs’ bodies, while well-suited for their various activities, can be vulnerable to various health issues if the correct support is not provided. Similar to how cars run more smoothly when the correct fuel and maintenance is applied, these dogs require specialised conditions for their active bodies to function optimally. 

The working and sporting dog’s life demands much from the body’s muscles, bones, joints and circulatory system in order for them to manage their various activities. Without the appropriate nutritional support, these demands cannot be met successfully.

For example, the excessive stressors on the use of muscles, bones and joints can result in degeneration and injury, over time or acutely, if the health of these systems is not supported. Circulatory system health is also crucial, as the heart, lungs, and blood flow all contribute towards overall health, along with supporting active canines when competing in dog sports. Dysfunction in any one of these areas can lead to serious health complications, especially for working and sporting dogs whose lives are so physically demanding. 

Simply put, without the correct fuel, working and sporting dogs cannot be expected to withstand this active lifestyle for any length of time.

Importance of proactive health management

Proactive management is key in keeping working/sporting dogs healthy. As their bodies are under physical stress so much of the time, this approach is essential to avoiding excessive injuries and keeping their muscles, joints, and bones functioning optimally. A well-designed nutritional plan can support resilience, helping active dogs to avoid negative consequences and minimising the impact high intensity activity can have.

By keeping their bodies fueled with the nutrients they need they can achieve much more, whilst also maintaining their overall health.

This is why I recommend a natural, species-appropriate diet for working and sporting dogs. It provides all the essential nutrients canines require for general health, and supports the energy levels active dogs need to achieve and maintain optimal performance. 

I also recommend incorporating nutritional supplements into a raw, whole-food diet. These offer targeted support through nutrient-dense, science-backed blends of ingredients designed to pack a powerful punch where active dogs need the most help, such as maintaining healthy muscles, bones, and joints. I’ll discuss these in more detail later in the article.

Types of work and sports for dogs

Dog sports and working activities

There are a number of activities that working and sporting dogs can participate in to burn off their endless energy and satisfy their innate need for carrying out a certain purpose. Here are a few of the most popular dog sports and jobs:

Agility

Agility is a sport in which dogs traverse various obstacles within a closed course, called an agility course. These obstacles include tunnels, jumps, weave poles, teeter totters, a-frames, and others.

Flyball

Flyball is a popular dog sport that involves a race between two teams of dogs, in which the first tag team to reach the ball at the end of the track and bring it back to their handler wins.

Scentwork/nosework

Scentwork utilises dogs’ ultimate super power, their sense of smell, in order to track or find certain objects, whether within a closed course or in a natural environment. Scentwork is also used in search and rescue, which involves trained dogs helping search teams to find missing children, lost hikers, or injured people that are unable to find help on their own.

Herding

Herding is a classic job for working dog breeds, and involves corralling herds of livestock. Farms often employ the talents of herding dogs, but herding is also an organised dog sport

Gun dogs 

Gun Dogs assist their humans when searching for wild fowl, such as pheasants and grouse. The dog’s job is primarily to locate and/or retrieve the birds.

Dryland mushing

Dryland mushing involves a team of dogs pulling their handler on a sled, over a surface that’s not snowy or icy. Once a means of training sled dogs during summer, it’s now a popular sport year-round.

Skijoring 

Similar to mushing, skijoring is a winter sport that involves a dog or group of dogs pulling their handler across snowy terrain, though the handler wears skis instead of riding a sled. 

Diverse activity options for highly active dogs

Aside from the more common dog sports, there are quite a few other options for keeping sporting dog breeds’ energy levels balanced. Some of these include:

Heelwork to music

This dog sport involves practising a choreographed obedience routine with your dog, whilst music plays in the background. Heelwork to music is increasing in popularity and can be performed by dogs and handlers of any experience level.

Canine parkour

Canine parkour is perfect for the active dog who always needs to be busy. It involves no equipment and can be done anywhere with enough open space. It’s also low-impact, which helps avoid stressing the joints of sporting dogs too much.

Canicross 

Canicross is a dog sport that involves a dog and handler running a race as a team, typically in fields or along trails in natural settings. The dog is harnessed and attached to the handler by a bungee lead, which is secured around the handler’s waist to free their hands and allow for a smoother pace. The dog generally runs in front, while the handler issues voice commands to direct them.

Natural nutrition and raw food support

Benefits of natural nutrition for sports/working dogs

As more is demanded of working and sporting dogs’ bodies, their nutritional profile must be adjusted accordingly. Energy must be available for them to expend, as well as replenished once their work is completed for the day. For this reason, highly active canines often require more calories than the average dog with a moderately active lifestyle.

However, the calories contributing towards sporting dogs’ energy and recovery must be highly digestible. This allows them to assimilate the nutrients within their diet, which then contribute to appropriate energy levels, aid in muscle/bone/joint recovery, and maintain their overall health [1]. 

For all dogs, a natural diet is the most nutrient dense and bioavailable form of nutrition. Incorporating raw, high-quality meat protein, quality raw fats, bone, and organ meats has countless health benefits. Healthy plant fibre also plays a role in the canine diet, though to a lesser degree than the meat components. 

Feeding sporting and working dogs their instinctual diet allows them to maintain the energy levels required of them when participating in their work or dog sports, as well as contributing towards the upkeep of their health. This is even more essential when expecting so much physically from a dog: they simply can’t keep up with the additional energy demands without the fuel their bodies need.

To discover more about feeding a raw dog food diet check out our guides Benefits of Raw Dog Food and How to Switch to Raw dog Food.

The contribution of unprocessed, fresh ingredients

Processed food, in a nutshell, is much less superior nutrient wise, than a natural high quality diet. The high heat cooking and processing of any food diminishes its nutrient content, especially when unnecessary additions such as grains, fillers , preservatives, sugars, are involved. Whilst these ingredients may have started out as nutritious, any benefit they may have offered is made redundant when they are processed beyond recognition.

Calories are essential, this is true. However, the quality and nutrient density of the ingredients providing the calories is equally important.

On the other hand, unprocessed, fresh ingredients are packed with nutritional value, especially when considering the dog’s natural diet  is void of cooking or processing. Dogs’ digestive systems are naturally designed to process, absorb, and benefit from raw ingredients, especially of the meat variety. 

Providing this type of diet to sporting and working dogs allows their bodies to assimilate the essential nutrients contained within these foods, contributing towards the optimal health they require to perform appropriately. ProDog’s raw meals contain a balanced blend of essential nutrients, and are a great choice for sporting dogs.

Supplements and natural ingredients

Beneficial supplements and ingredients for highly active dogs

Though I recommend a fresh, whole food diet for ALL dogs, this advice is especially pertinent when I advise owners of working and sporting dog breeds. These dogs rely on the nutrients provided through this diet in order to maintain their active lifestyles and recovery, as well as their overall health.

I also recommend several dietary additions beyond their regular raw meals, such as rehydration, additional quality raw fats, and targeted nutritional supplements. Here are the supplements I recommend for highly active dogs: 

Colostrum

Bovine colostrum contains a plethora of nutrients in high concentration, including immunoglobulins, growth factors, protein-rich peptides, and more. It’s fantastic for gut health, immune health, tissue formation and recovery, and offers multiple other health benefits. ProDog’s Colostrum is ethically sourced from cows at UK Red Tractor accredited farms, which always ensure calves are the priority.

Perform

ProDog’s Perform is a unique blend of human-quality proteins, including colostrum and nutrient packed superfoods. It’s designed to boost performance, condition, muscle health, strength, focus and stamina, all whilst contributing to optimal gut, immune, and overall health.

Revive

ProDog’s Revive supplement is another excellent choice for working and sporting dog breeds. Its blend of amino acids, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants contributes towards maintaining balanced energy levels, aids in quicker muscle recovery, and supports detoxification, gut health and immune health.

Flexx 

Flexx is ProDog’s joint and mobility health supplement, and is an excellent addition to the sporting dog’s diet. Its ingredients include glucosamine and chondroitin, MSM, fish collagen and oil, and hemp protein. This combination helps maintain a healthy inflammatory response, as well as providing support for cartilage, joints, and improved mobility.

The importance of gut health

The above mentioned ingredients and supplements play various roles in the health of sporting and working dogs. You may have noticed this by now, but gut health is the common denominator amongst them all. This is because a healthy gut is the foundation of all health in every dog, and is an especially vital component of those who perform jobs and participate in dog sports. As the gut communicates with the rest of the body and essentially dictates the behaviour of other systems and functions, it only makes sense that ingredients and supplements that support it would support the rest of the body as a result.

In addition to gut health support, these various dietary additions aid in muscle recovery, stamina, healthy joints and bones, circulatory system health, energy maintenance, and mental focus [2]. Additionally, as a result of the targeted nutritional boosts provided by supplements immunity and digestion is supported, mood is boosted, skin is healthier, and dog sports become more enjoyable due to improved overall health. 

This case study on the F.O.C.U.S flyball team provides a perfect example of how useful supplements can be in dog sports.

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Nutrition’s role in efficient energy systems

How nutrition contributes to the energy systems and physical demands of active dogs

As I’ve mentioned, sporting dogs’ muscle, bone, joint, and circulatory system health is essential for them to be able to perform adequately, as well as for maintaining their overall health. In order for these vital processes to happen unimpeded, the right nutrients must be included in active dogs’ diets. Without the appropriate nutrition, the body’s various organs, systems, and functions cannot behave in their natural manner. 

When all the correct nutrients are applied to their diets, muscles, organs, bones, joints and other essential systems operate in cohesion with one another, allowing working and sporting dogs to carry out their tasks with more stamina, strength, and speed. 

They’re also better able to recover from their activities, which reduces the risks of injury, strain, and undue stress on their bodies that might occur if they weren’t receiving the proper nutrition. Essentially, the healthier sporting dogs eat, the more nutritional benefits they receive, and the better they can maintain their health and performance.

Cognitive focus and mental clarity

Nutrition’s impact on cognitive focus and mental clarity

Mental clarity and cognitive focus are also affected by providing sporting dogs with the correct nutrition. There’s a direct link between nutrition and brain function, which is due to something called the gut/brain axis. The gut and the brain are directly connected through a complex network of pathways that involve metabolic, endocrine, immune, and neural cells [3]. These cells send messages between the gut and the brain, essentially telling each other when something’s not quite right or that everything is functioning as normal.

Imbalance in the gut can lead to fatigue, anxiety, destructive behaviours, and various other issues that directly affect mental acuity and cognitive function, which can negatively affect dogs’ ability to successfully complete their tasks or compete in dog sports. Conversely, a balanced, healthy gut contributes to a healthy brain, allowing active dogs to remain focused and perform at their best.

Importance of mental wellbeing for performance

Though physical health and condition is of course important for performance, the same is true of mental wellbeing. It might be possible for a sporting dog to compete whilst feeling off-balance mentally, but their performance and emotional state will likely suffer. This is because mental health issues such as anxiety, nervousness, and others impede the brain’s problem-solving mechanisms, as well as attention span, energy levels, desire to participate, and ability to follow instructions. 

Mental fog and a lack of cognitive functioning abilities directly impact all the necessary traits a working or sporting dog must possess in order to perform desirably. Not only that, but feeling foggy, anxious and disoriented also affects dogs’ quality of life negatively. Thankfully, providing the correct nutrition, exercise, and mental stimulation highly active dogs need can minimise the risks of these issues, due to the above mentioned connection between the gut and the brain. 

Importance of quality fats and protein

The role of quality fats in muscle development and performance

Whilst not all fats are created equally, quality fats are essential for all dogs. This is even more true when participating in dog sports or working activities, as healthy fat provides a host of benefits that active dogs need to maintain their energy and stamina. Essential fatty acids such as Omega 3s and Omega 6s (among others) contribute towards energy requirements due to their high concentration and lasting nature. This allows active dogs to maintain their drive , maintain weight and remain focused. 

Discover more about healthy fats for dogs in our all you need to know guide, The Truth About Fats for Dogs.

Protein is the building block of muscles and cells, and dogs require it in their diets whether they participate in dog sports or not. However, this essential ingredient is especially important for working and sporting dog breeds, as their bodies require the amino acids and other nutrients contained within protein to sustain their active lifestyles. 

The constant, intense demands on their muscles, bones and joints rely on protein to develop, strengthen, and recover once their tasks are completed for the day, which is why a raw, meat-based diet is so helpful: the protein content not only provides dogs the strength they need to perform, but also helps to maintain their health.

We share more about the fundamentals of dog nutrition in our guide, Raw Dog Food For Beginners.  

The nutritional influence on dog sports: optimising your canine athlete’s performance

Though it’s important for all dogs to receive the appropriate nutrition, the demands of dog sports and working activities make it even more crucial. Expecting a sporting dog to perform at their best on a sub-par diet is like expecting a car to run without enough petrol: it’s only a matter of time before a breakdown happens.

Thankfully, you can contribute to your sporting dog’s performance, health, and overall wellbeing by providing the appropriate nutrition. The tips in this article will help you along the way, and ProDog’s nutritionist team are available if you need additional support.

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Sporting dog nutrition FAQs

What type of diet is best for sporting dogs?

Sporting dogs require a diet that maintains weight and energy, supports recovery, and contributes towards the health of their muscles, bones, joints, and various other systems. I recommend a natural, meat-based diet for all dogs, and especially for working and sporting dog breeds.

How can I ensure my sporting dog maintains optimal energy levels during training and competitions?

Energy levels start with nutrition, including a species-appropriate, whole food diet , proper hydration and targeted nutritional supplements. However, adequate rest, mental enrichment, and regular exercise outside of performance events are also crucial.

Are there specific nutritional requirements for different types of dog sports?

The nutritional goal for any effective sporting or working dog training program is to provide enough calories and an optimal nutrient profile to support overall health as well as performance, and ensuring adequate and appropriate hydration. Joint supportive supplements also help minimise injuries from high impact exercise.

What are the best sources of protein for sporting dogs?

High quality, natural raw animal protein is always the best option for sporting dogs (and all dogs, for that matter). This ensures their nutrient requirements are met and promotes optimal health and performance. Consult the “Importance of quality fats and proteins” section above for more details.

Should I consider supplements for my sporting dog’s diet?

Absolutely. Whole food based, targeted nutritional supplements can provide a tremendous amount of support for sporting dogs through promoting muscle building, recovery, mental focus, and more. See the “Supplements and natural ingredients” section above for my recommendations.

How can I prevent dehydration and maintain hydration during sporting events?

Ensuring active dogs have access to fresh water is a good place to start, but adding bone broth as a source of natural electrolytes, to their water and/or food also helps maintain hydration whilst keeping electrolyte levels balanced. A natural, meat diet, is also higher in moisture than processed dog foods, which helps minimise dehydration risks as well.

Are there dietary considerations for preventing injuries and promoting recovery in sporting dogs?

Feeding a raw, meat-based diet that contains high quality fats and proteins is a great place to start. Supplements can also help joint and muscle support, recovery and stamina, as well as injury prevention. Read the “Supplements and natural ingredients” section above for a description of the ones I recommend.

What foods should I avoid feeding my sporting dog?

Anything highly processed is not advised for peak performance, as well as starches and sugars. These only provide empty calories and don’t contribute towards the health or performance of sporting dogs. They can also create health issues due to being harder to digest and unnatural for dogs in general.

References

  1. Kazimierska, K., Biel, W. Aug 2020. Feeding of Sporting Dogs Part 1. Energy, Protein, Fat and Carbohydrate Requirements. West Pomeranian University of Technology, Division of Animal Nutrition and Food;, 355(54):5-14. Doi: 10.21005/AAPZ2020.54.2.01
  2. Kazimierska, K., Biel, W. Dec 2020.  Feeding of Sporting Dogs Part 2. Minerals, Vitamins, and Functional Additives Requirements. West Pomeranian University of Technology, Division of Animal Nutrition and Food;, 357(56):19-30. Doi: 10.21005/AAPZ2020.56.4.02
  3. Sacoor, C., Marugg, J., Lima, N., Empadinhas, N., Montezinho, L. Jan 2024. Gut-Brain Axis Impact on Canine Anxiety Disorders: New CHallenges for Behavioral Veterinary Medicine. Veterinary Medicine International;, 2856759. Doi: 10.1155/2024/2856759

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