The waders are hanging upside down in a dark, dry place. The dekes are free of pond gunk and stashed safely in the shed. The shotgun is cleaned, oiled and locked away. Even in the off-season, you take care of your hunting equipment.
It should be no different for your hunting partner.
Chances are, you feed your hunting dog a special performance diet designed to keep up with the rugged pace that comes with long days, weekends or even weeks (we should all be so lucky) in the field. During peak season, your typical bird dog needs a high-fat/low-carb diet that allows it to maintain a higher pace for a longer time.
But in the off-season, even with a regular activity regimen, your dog likely won’t be going as long or as hard as it does when it’s tracking, running or swimming for hours on end. On the surface, it stands to reason that a waterfowling dog’s nutrition requirements become different as the temperature rises and the activity level sinks, which is why the switch to a low-fat or weight-management diet seems like the obvious way to go — especially when dealing with breeds prone to gaining weight when less active.
But how different should a bird dog’s diet really be in the long, boring months between seasons?
The reality is that you should consider feeding a performance diet to your hunting partner all year. A hunting dog is an athlete, and athletes carefully select their diets every day so they don’t lose the edge that separates them from the pack. After all, Drew Brees doesn’t start eating donuts immediately after football season ends. If you switch to a typical, higher-carb, maintenance-diet dog food in the off-season, your dog’s performance may suffer when peak season comes roaring back.
You might say your dog’s metabolism needs to stay in shape as much as his or her muscles. That high-fat diet you feed during the season requires a metabolism that efficiently uses higher concentrations of fat for higher performance. If that metabolism gets “out of practice” it will be harder for your dog to turn those fats into energy when the hunt resumes.
Off-season is training season
But perhaps the best reason for continuing to feed your dog a performance food in the off-season is that there truly is no such thing as the off-season. Any working dog, from police K9 units to conservation dogs to, yes, your field partner, needs regular training and practice to stay sharp both mentally and physically.
While much of a hunting dog’s off-season training isn’t physically demanding — command training, for instance, is about patience and focus instead of speed and endurance — regular, rigorous physical activity is the best way to make sure your dog doesn’t miss a beat come autumn. You might not be able to replicate the exact environment you’ll traverse November through January, but daily runs through wooded, uneven and obstacle-ridden trails, regular swimming sessions and even short-burst retrieving practice will keep your dog’s body and mind as sharp as possible.
For a hunting dog, “low activity” is still a pretty high level of activity compared to your typical family pet. Your daily or twice-daily runs and training sessions don’t require the endurance that long days at the water’s edge call for, but they still require nutrition that powers performance.
Don’t change the food, change the portions
While your hunting dog is far from a couch potato in the spring and summer months, it likely won’t need the same energy as it would when spending long days running and retrieving in the field. But the outdoor temperatures also play a factor. In the winter, dogs that are outdoors a lot need around 7.5% more calories for every 10-degree drop in the temperature to help them generate heat. But the opposite is also true: in warmer climates, a dog needs 7.5% fewer calories for every 10-degree increase in temperature. The math tells us that less strenuous activity plus warmer outdoor temps equal fewer overall calories needed.
But since it’s recommended that you stick to your dog’s in-season performance food, and those foods tend to run high in fat and protein, you will have to reduce the amount of food you offer. How much should you reduce that amount? That depends on your dog. The breed, size, age, and the type and duration of activity he or she participates in during the off-season dictate how much food the dog needs to maintain optimal physical condition in the summer. You know your dog best, so if you notice weight gain or loss, adjust portions accordingly and talk to your vet before making any drastic changes.
Even in the off-season, nutrition plays a vital role in your hunting partner’s ability to perform. Athletes are athletes no matter how many legs they have, and your four-legged companion needs a food that provides appropriate amounts of protein, fat and carbohydrates in an easily digestible formula, all year long.