There has been a collective shift among sporting dog owners as far as canine nutrition is concerned. Pursuit-, condition-, and breed-specific diets are commonplace for adult birders, and while that is very important, overlooking a pup’s dietary needs is a mistake.
If you take a look at the life of a puppy, it breaks down to two speeds—sleeping and all-out. Their lives are punctuated with periods of extreme activity followed by the need to rest. Adult dogs may come close to such behavior, but pups own the extreme peaks and valleys of activity and inactivity. Combine those bursts of rambunctious behavior and sedentary moments with the rapid growth of their bodies, and a formula for performance promotion becomes more important than ever.
Addressing nutritional needs in the first year of life is essential, but it boils down to more than picking up a bag of dog food marketed towards puppies. Truly offering your new four-legged cohort the upper edge in health and development requires an understanding of exactly what they need to ingest and what you need to do to monitor them throughout their growth.
This is not the time to scoop a cup or two of dog food into a dish and let the chips fall where they may, but is instead an opportunity to do right by your pup and reap the benefits of proper growth rates, brain and body development, and ultimately a better dog overall, whether that means family pet, outstanding hunter or—best case scenario—both.
Just like human infants, puppies have very specific nutritional needs. Brian Zanghi, research nutritionist for Purina, explains exactly what puppies need in order to optimize development and promote overall health.
“Puppies have several distinct nutritional needs that require a specific formula,” Zanghi says. “Primarily, puppies have a higher calorie and protein requirement to support their highly active growth rates. Nutrients like calcium and phosphorus need to be balanced to accommodate skeletal growth, and although not an essential requirement, puppies also benefit from healthy fats like omega-3s.
“Puppy-specific foods need to address all of the critical needs and need to be formulated with highly-digestible ingredients to ensure optimal digestion and absorption of nutrients.” Zanghi’s last comment should ring home with all dog owners. If you’re feeding low quality food, then it’s very likely that your dog is simply not gleaning the most nutrients it can, and performance and health will suffer.
This can be exaggerated in dogs under a year of age simply because of how important proper nutrition is to their development, but it should be taken into consideration no matter what the dog’s age or activity level.
When developing puppy-specific food, Zanghi also pays special attention to calories for a few very good reasons. “Our formulas are prepared with a slightly higher calorie count to make a more calorie-dense food that ends up containing 16 to 20 percent fat for calories. This is important because it meets a pup’s needs without the extra food volume found in lower-calorie adult formulas. The goal is to provide calories that promote steady growth, not maximum growth rates, which could be detrimental to skeletal development.”
A base understanding of just what a pup needs to ingest in the first year of their life will go a long way toward proper development and health promotion. Emily Lamprecht from Cargill Animal Nutrition (Loyall) had this to say about what puppies require in their first year of life: “Growth has the highest energy requirement compared to all other stages of life with the exception of lactation. At weaning, puppies require twice the amount of energy intake as their adult maintenance counterparts within the breed.
“Puppies also have increased protein requirements in order to build new tissues. Although protein is not the main source of energy in the diet, providing a high quality, highly digestible protein source, as well as providing food that has a properly balanced energy level to protein ratio, is essential for proper growth and development.”
Lamprecht broke it down even further by explaining how important certain vitamins and minerals are to a puppy’s health. “Vitamins and minerals are an important part of a puppy’s diet and should contain optimal levels while avoiding deficiencies and excesses. Vitamin E is extremely important.
“Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin that serves as an antioxidant, which helps to protect the body against damaging free radicals and supports the immune system. Special attention should also be paid to calcium and phosphorous levels in the food because these minerals are integral in skeletal development.”
Essentially, a lot of thought goes into quality puppy foods in order to meet precise requirements throughout each stage of growth. This makes our job as dog owners much easier, but doesn’t let us completely off of the hook.
As Zanghi pointed out, there are blanket needs that all pups possess. Those will not appreciably change with different breeds or activity levels. However, something he touched on that deserves further attention is growth rate, which dominates much of the puppy nutrition available.
It’s a common thought amongst dog owners that free-feeding puppies and allowing them to chow down whenever the mood strikes is a good thing. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and in fact, the opposite method of closely monitoring intake of quality food is much, much better for your dog.
According to Iams/Eukanuba Dr. Eric Altom: “If puppies are allowed to over-eat, they may consume too many calories, too much calcium, grow too rapidly, and even develop bone growth problems. In certain breeds, especially larger breeds, overfeeding can lead to an increased frequency of hypertrophic osteodystrophy (HOD), osteochondrosis (OCD) and hip dysplasia.”
In laymen’s terms, feeding your pup too much can lead to a disruption in bone growth that can result in malformation, lameness, pain and in some cases, serious clinical disease.
Altom further elaborated, “With large and giant breed puppies, it is important to aim for a slower rate of growth. Do not overfeed or try to push the growth rate too fast. Controlled feeding of a balanced diet designed specifically for a certain size of dog will facilitate skeletal development.”
It’s important to note that the overall size a dog ends up at is determined solely by genetics, not how fast it grows. Your pup will turn into whatever size of mature dog it is genetically predetermined to be. Your job throughout the growth process is to monitor growth rate and prevent health concerns associated with over-feeding or poor nutrition options.
It’s also important to understand that there is something of a growth curve concerning the first year of life.
“The most rapid growth for puppies occurs between three and six months,” Lamprecht said. “Around six months, growth rates gradually slow as pups get closer to their mature body weight.
“When this happens, their energy requirements slowly get closer to those of mature dogs. Depending on breed, they’ll reach maturity somewhere between nine months for smaller dogs and up to 15 months for large breeds. Once they reach maturity, they should slowly be transitioned to adult formula food that is appropriate for their body condition and activity level.”
Both Zanghi and Altom stressed the importance of paying attention to a pup’s body to visually monitor growth. When I sat down with trainer-extraordinaire Tom Dokken, this was nearly all he could talk about. When someone who has trained countless dogs to near-perfection stresses a point, it’s best to listen.
“From a feeding standpoint, our baby puppies are fed three times a day. When they reach 16 weeks, we go to twice a day. At about the six-month age, we switch to a single feeding,” Dokken said. “Although the recommendations on a bag of dog food might provide a decent starting point, I’m a big believer in paying attention to what the pup looks like.
“Metabolism is everything and you have to watch to make sure you’re not overfeeding, but also underfeeding. I’ve seen pups that were starving because their owners were following the bag recommendations, just as I’ve seen pups that were extremely overweight. Both conditions are abnormal and detrimental to a dog’s health.”
An extra couple of pounds one way or the other can be a big deal, even though it might not seem like much. Even with giant breeds, five or 10 pounds can be disastrous to the health of a dog.
A simple rule Dokken follows is to look for a slight “tuck” in front of the back legs—the pup’s waistline, so to speak. No matter whether your pup is largely sedentary or is constantly on the move, that simple check will allow you to monitor the progress of your pup’s growth. This allows you to tweak feeding to ensure your dog stays in that sweet spot no matter the breed or activity level.
If you’re in the market for a new hunting companion and will be in charge of his nutrition in the first year of life, it’s best to pay attention to what the experts say. Paying top dollar for a purebred pup and then investing time and money to turn him into a bird hunting machine is commonplace amongst hardcore upland bird hunters, but specifically addressing an individual puppy’s nutritional needs is not so common.
Providing proper nutrition throughout a dog’s life is something we owe to our pets, but it is absolutely crucial in the stage between weaning and full-body maturity. More changes occur during that time than any other, and it’s a period that allows you the chance to do right by the pup or potentially do irreversible damage.
Choose food designed to meet the needs of growing pups and carefully monitor your pup’s activity and body shape. This is the best way to foster a dog that exceeds your expectations. Plus, it’s the right thing to do.
My wife’s uncle is a devout golden retriever owner, and he loves his dogs dearly. He’s also fond of saying that you can look right into a puppy’s eyes and see clear through to its rear end. He’s implying that there isn’t anything between a pup’s ears, which they often seem determined to prove during their first year of life.
In truth, pups learn a lot in their first year. Training and introduction to actual hunting situations during their formative months are extremely important. In other words, brain development is crucial and is another area where you can favorably tip the scales with your feeding choices.
“A puppy’s ability to learn depends on proper brain development, proper training early, and lots of loving care,” said Dr. Eric Altom. “Docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, is an omega-3 fatty acid that plays a vital role in central nervous system development for puppies.
“Healthy brains are about 30 percent DHA. To put it into perspective, 6-week-old puppies have acquired only 70 percent of their adult brain mass, while they’ve achieved 90 percent by 12 weeks of age.
“Our research showed that puppies nourished with high levels of DHA were found to have greater trainability than puppies with low levels of DHA. Other potential benefits we found from pups with high levels of DHA were better socialization, quicker grasping of training and obedience challenges, and reduced destructive behavior.”
Risking a cheap pun here, opting for high-quality food that is loaded with the correct amount of DHA is a no-brainer. Addressing such an important need sets up the foundation for a better companion and a better hunter, which is a win-win for all involved.
"Puppies also have increased protein requirements in order to build new tissues. Although protein is not the main source of energy in the diet, providing a high quality, highly digestible protein source, as well as providing food that has a properly balanced energy level to protein ratio, is essential for proper growth and development.”