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Two Alaskan Malamute puppies eating

If you are serious about success at high-energy performance sports, your dog must be lean. Yet the lean body condition required for speed leaves little room for feeding error. Veterinarians like to see a fat cover of about an eighth to a quarter inch over the ribs and spine (a bit more for middle-aged and senior dogs). It serves as a lifesaving energy stockpile if the dog becomes inappetent from disease or injury. So your choice to keep your performance dogs lean to maximize their speed requires extra diligence from you. It will be your responsibility to provide extra nutritional support should your dog become inappetent for any reason.

Have you ever had a breed judge say your dog was fat? Before changing to a lower-calorie diet, consider calories taken in and those burned. Conditioning might be better improved by moderate adjustments and daily jogs on a treadmill instead of switching to a low-calorie, high-carbohydrate diet.

Calorie source matters. Dogs receive calories from carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, and the proportion of each affects performance. Foods with higher levels of carbohydrate have been known to produce skin without suppleness and coat without shine, bulky lower-bowel contents, trace mineral deficiencies, and smelly gas. They rarely succeed as a diet for performance dogs.

On the bright side, carbohydrates are relatively cheap and plentiful. They play a key role in making pet ownership affordable to folks at all economic levels. Moreover, low-calorie, high-carbohydrate foods help keep sedentary dogs from becoming overweight. Most pet dogs adjust reasonably well to higher carbohydrates, but performance dogs usually require a higher-octane fuel—diets with higher levels of protein and fat.

Develop a healthy appetite for learning. Stepping away from mainstream pet-dog nutrition requires knowledge, attentiveness, persistence, consistency, and dog savvy. You must know your dogs, and you also must know good science. Here are two books to get you started:

Practical Guide for Sporting & Working Dogs, by Dominique Grandjean et al. (2000, Royal Canin). This book contains more science, in-depth information, and firsthand knowledge than any other, and is easy to read and loaded with visuals. It is out of print, but used copies can be located online.

Performance Dog Nutrition, by Jocelynn Jacobs (2005, Sno Shire Publications). This book is readily available and is a good starting point for learning about nutrition and feeding management. —S.D.