Coaching the Canine Athlete
Chris Zink, DVM, PhD
Our dogs depend on us to put food in their bowls. And, more often than not, we are putting in too much! I have assessed the weight on hundreds of dogs of a variety of breeds over the past year at seminars all over the country and a conservative estimate is that about 50% of the dogs that I see are overweight; approximately 25% are actually obese. These are not couch potato dogs. These are dogs whose owners expect them to jump in obedience, to run over rough ground in retrieving tests, and to perform in agility. And we are seeing the sad results: ruptured anterior cruciate ligaments (often both legs), severe degenerative arthritis in dogs in their prime, degenerative disk disease, and many more conditions that are caused by, or exacerbated by, excess weight.
Why are so many working dogs overweight? The following are some possible answers to this difficult question:
The following is a 'real life' example. Julie Daniels, a well-known agility competitor, was showing her female Rottweiler, Jessy, in conformation. After she got her first major (5 points), Julie decided that she would rather compete with Jessy in agility. Now Rottweilers are not ideally structured for agility. So she took 21 lb (yes 21 lb.—this is not a typo) off the dog. The dog looked lovely, and in the process lost 1 1/2" in height at the withers. (For many medium-sized dogs this could mean the difference between having to jump 26" and 22" in agility.) Jessy is the all-time top winning Rottweiler in agility (USDAA National Finalist 5 years in a row) and is healthy and injury-free at the age of 10 (and still competing in Veterans).
- Keeping a dog at working weight is incompatible with showing in conformation. I have never understood why dogs whose breed standard states that they should be shown in "hard working condition" don't win in the conformation ring unless they are FAT. The only thing that I can think of is that we are mistaking fat for muscle. For breeds such as Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers, assume that if your dog is winning in the conformation ring, it is probably about 8 to 15 lb. overweight. When you are finished showing your dog in conformation, take the weight off, for his own good.
- People are feeding their dogs the same amount of food they were fed as adolescents. This is a common mistake. But just as most of us eat less now than we did as teenagers, your dog needs less too. A dog's metabolism slows down with age and adult dogs need less food to maintain their weight.
- People believe the suggested feeding regimens that are printed on dog food bags. Even the most active dog doesn't need as much food as most dog food companies recommend. The best way to determine how much food a dog needs is to feed it the amount that maintains its weight. This is a matter of trial and error.
- The dog has been less active, but he is being fed the same amount of food. Adjust your dog's intake to his activity level. Remember that in the winter your dog may not get as much exercise and decrease his intake accordingly.
- People don't know how to determine the correct weight for their dogs. Dogs vary in height, bone structure, and muscularity, so there is no one correct weight for a dog of any given breed. The best way to determine whether a dog is overweight is to test 3 different parts of the body: the neck, the ribs, and the hips.
- To check the neck, press your thumb and index finger deep into the side of the neck just ahead of the shoulder, and pinch them together. If your fingers are more than 1/2" apart, the dog is overweight. (Note: this is where old dogs tend to carry most of their excess fat, and they may actually be thin in other locations.)
- To check the ribs, stand with your dog beside you, facing his butt. Place your thumb on the middle of his spine half way down the back and spread your fingers out over his last few ribs. Then run your fingers up and down along his skin. You should be able to feel the bumps of his ribs without pressing in.
- To check the hips, run your hand over your dog's croup. You should be able to feel the bumps of his two pelvic bones without pressing down.
- Some of you may be reading this and thinking, "I would never want my dog to be that skinny!" Think about the Olympic athletes. If you want your dog to be an athlete then it is only fair that you do what you can to help him achieve the body that he will need to perform and stay healthy and injury free for many years.
- People worry that their dogs will not get enough nutrition if they feed them less. Premium dog foods are packed with nutrients. If your dog is overweight, unless he has a hormonal problem (e.g. hypothyroidism), he is getting too much nutrition, and cutting back will not put him in jeopardy. Remember: just like humans, individual dogs vary in their metabolic rate and some dogs just need less food.
- People don't know how to get their dogs to lose weight without all the side effects —begging, that sad-eyed look that says "I'm hungry", etc. Try the pumpkin diet. Reduce your dog's regular food by 33% and replace it with a 67% volume of canned pumpkin (not the kind with sugar and spices, ready-made for pies). For example, if you are currently feeding your dog 3 cups of food, you would instead feed him 2 cups of food and a whole cup of canned pumpkin. Dogs love the pumpkin—it has the texture of canned dog food, it provides vitamins and roughage, it makes them feel full (so they don't forage in the yard for leftovers), and they lose weight!
- The vet said that the dog was a good weight (or even underweight). I have asked many vets why they don't tell their clients that their dogs are overweight, and I always get the same answer: "I have lost so many clients because they were offended when I told them their dogs were overweight that I just don't tell them anymore". So please, don't be offended—it doesn't reflect on you personally.
So why not do this for your best friend?