Sporting dog handlers and trainers know that to perform at their best their strings require a lot of energy. Those dogs derive energy from three nutrient classes: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. A lot of attention in recent years has been devoted to protein and fat, so much so that carbohydrates have taken a backseat. Let’s take a moment and explore what makes carbohydrates so interesting.
Part of the reason that carbohydrates are neglected is because sporting dogs can function without them. But just because they can doesn’t mean that they should. Carbohydrates should be a part of every sporting dogs’ diet if we want to optimize performance.
Carbohydrates are molecules that contain hydrogen, oxygen and carbon in specific amounts. Those three elements can be used by a dog’s body with the nutrients to support all bodily functions, including energy. Grains like wheat, sorghum, rice and corn all contain carbohydrates (saccharides) in the form of starch, sugar, and fiber. When ingested, carbohydrates can be digested into glucose and used for energy. If the meal results in more glucose than the dog needs immediately, the excess glucose is converted to glycogen or fat and stored as an energy reserve. The glycogen is stored in the liver and muscles which can be rapidly mobilized to provide energy during work.
The important point for sporting dog handlers is that they should want to feed what I call the ‘whole dog.’ What that means is that it’s important to account for all bodily functions and not just the task-specific ones. Let’s take the break away as an example. When a handler releases a dog to run, the dog is utilizing carbohydrates as the main energy source. The longer the dog works, the more dependent they become on lipids for energy, but it is never a complete transition. Keep in mind that glucose is the primary fuel for the nervous system, as neurons do not use fat for energy. Thus, while muscle contraction can transition over to utilizing fat for energy, the nerves that drive the contraction and the brain still need a continuous source of energy. Remember, we are trying to feed the whole dog. While there may be many reasons why dogs lose focus, one contributing factor could be that it’s not eating enough carbohydrates or the correct blend.
Another positive reason for including carbohydrates in your dog’s diet is that they help promote a healthy digestive system. They contain not only starches and sugars that can be used for energy, but fiber as well. Just like humans, dietary fiber is important for digestive health in the dog. Fiber is not digested by the dog directly but can be used by the microbiota (bacteria) that reside in their GI tracts. These bacteria use the fiber to produce nutrients that are used by the cells that line the dog’s intestinal tract which contributes to a true symbiotic relationship.
Contrary to many advertisements, neither carbohydrates nor the grains that provide them are bad. In fact, carbohydrates are an important part of your dog’s energy platform regardless if your dog is a pointer, setter, shorthair, or Lab. There is always the temptation to classify the importance of one nutrient class over another, but in truth, for optimal performance a dog’s diet must contain optimal levels of all nutrients to support the whole body, not just a single system.