Feeding Your Performance Retriever

| October 8, 2011 | 5 Comments
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Chesapeake Bay Retriever - http://retrieverlife.com

It will take more than good luck for this Chesapeake to reach the top of its game. Great nutrition and training are the keys!

The Doctor Is In!

Brian Zanghi, Ph.D. - http://retrieverlife.com

Brian Zanghi, Ph.D., and Baxter

Dr. Brian Zanghi earned a Doctor of Philosophy in Canine Nutritional Physiology from the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky, in 2004. He continued his training at the University of Kentucky, as a Postdoctoral Research Scientist working on nutrient metabolism in aging animals. Dr. Zanghi joined Purina in 2005 where he currently serves as a Senior Scientist in the Molecular Biology Group at the Nestlé Research Center which maintains a research program in molecular nutrition and cellular nutrition focused on protein metabolism, gastrointestinal and exercise physiology, and aging. He and his family live in Hillsboro, Missouri, and they have three dogs.


One of the biggest conumdrums facing every retriever owner is what food or food combination will bring out the absolute best in their dog. For me, as a breeder and a competitor, I am always in search of that nutritional nirvana that brings my dogs to the head of the pack. There are raw diets, super high protein diets, performance diets, maintenance diets, even vegetarian diets. All this can leave any retriever owner scratching their heads wondering “what do I do?”. I had the opportunity to chat with Brian Zanghi, a research scientist at the Nestlé Research Center. The great thing about Dr. Zanghi is that he is an avid hunter and hunt test competitor which brings together the perfect combination of science and “real world” knowledge to this subject. I have attempted to distill the “nuggets” from my conversation with Dr. Zanghi in this article and I have already started applying some of his insights into our program at Misty Mountain Labradors.

What Is A Performance Retriever

Defining a performance retriever can be interesting. In my opinion they should all be performance retrievers! Getting out and charging hard, day in and day out to get the fullest out of their lives. The common attribute of a performance retriever is lots of exercise either in the field, on the trail, in the lake, or any other place that pushes your retriever to be in top physical condition. A performance retriever does not have to have fancy titles attached to their names, they just need to be living large in the Retriever Life! So whether your retriever is a show champion on the campaign trail, flying high in agility, master of the obedience ring, taking a perfect line in a field trial, your best hunting buddy, or your jogging partner understanding the nutritional needs of your retriever will help him/her perform at their absolute best!

Nutritional Needs

The nutritional needs of a performance retriever are greater than the average dog and less than say an Iditarod competitor. Because of the higher activity level of a performance retriever there is

  • Increased metabolism
  • Increased caloric requirements
  • Increased demands on muscle
  • Increased protein turnover

These factors combine to require a higher dietary protein/fat combination to maintain muscle tone. Increased demands on the muscles and a greater protein turnover are supported by the higher protein in the diet. A metabolism optimized for an active dog and higher caloric requirements are supported by the higher fat in the diet. So what about carbohydrates? According to Dr. Zanghi, carbohydrates are not something that helps the performance retriever the same way that “carbo-loading” does in the human athlete. Adding too many carbs to the retriever’s diet actually slows down the cellular machinery which can affect the performance of your dog. In one study of Alaskan sled dogs and Labrador Retrievers, the proportion of mitochondria in muscle, which are the “furnaces of the muscle cell”, was measured and determined to be much lower when the Labradors were fed the high-carbohydrate diet. The Labradors were then switched to the high-fat diet. The switch to the high-fat diet increased the Labradors’ metabolic capacity to slightly greater than the metabolic capacity of the sled dogs. This data suggests that endurance is not controlled solely by genetics.

Perfect Combination

I asked Dr. Zanghi what is the best combination of protein/fat for a performance retriever and he said it is 30-32% protein and 20% fat. That led to the question of the mega-protein/fat dog foods (40% or even 50 % protein for example). Dr. Zanghi that these are very specialized diets that are generally only appropriate for dogs that run the Iditarod or do other similar types of work. He suggested that the majority of performance retrievers will thrive on the 30-32% protein and 20% fat performance formulas.


Although, for the most part, Dr. Zanghi believes that a high quality performance blend of dog food is all that your performance retriever needs, there are circumstances that call for supplementation. For example, say you are about to go on a week long hunting trip or you are headed to the AKC/Eukanuba National Championships where your dog will be exposed to new environments, the stress of travel, and hard work. These factors can combine to upset your dogs intestinal health. Dr. Zanghi recommends supplementing your dog with a probiotic, prebiotic, or even colostrum powder for several days in advance of the trip, during the trip, and for a few days after returning from the trip. While this does not guarantee that there will be no intestinal problems, it has been shown to greatly reduce the impact of any issues.

Dr. Zanghi recommends maltodextrin as a supplement immediately following exercise and prior to feeding. Maltodextrin is easily absorbed as glucose and goes directly to the muscles to repair, maintain,and grow muscles. The reason to use it before feeding your retriever is that introducing fat slows down the metabolic process and reduces the effectiveness of the maltodextrin.

The other supplement that is often forgotten until much too late is water! That’s right, good old H2O can be a real life saver for your retriever. Dr Zanghi suggests bringing a squirt bottle with you in the field (or the outside the ring) so you can give your dog a quick sip every ten to fifteen minutes. This keeps your retriever constantly hydrated rather than getting into a state of dehydration which takes a long time to be reversed. When I used to climb mountains we had a saying “hydrate or die”. This can be just as important in the field as in the show ring so keep that in mind!

When Should I Feed And How Much?

Based on Dr. Zanghi’s and other’s research, he suggests that we should feed our performance retrievers once a day and after exercise. The reason for this is that dogs digest food easier when they are fed approximately 1/2 hour post exercise. Feeding them after a long day’s hunt, for example, helps the dog rebuild and prepare for the next days activity. Finally, it has been documented that feeding a dog prior to exercise actually lowers endurance and performance because a full stomach requires energy that will compete with the energy required to exercise.

Optimum Weight

The optimal weight for your retriever varies by breed and by individual dog. Dr. Zanghi recommends following the Long Live Your Dog Rating. This rating was established by a great 14-year dog life span study conducted by the Nestlé-Purina Pet Care Center that indicated on average, the lean-fed dogs weighed less, had a lower percentage of body fat and experienced a two-year delay in the loss of lean body mass as they aged, compared to the control group. The key takeaway from the rating chart and the study is that lean-fed dogs live a longer, healthier life by nearly 2 years! Who wouldn’t want a better quality of life for our retrievers?

Feed The Dog, Not The Label

Dr. Zanghi stressed that you should not feed your dog by the label on the bag because each dog is different. The label’s suggested serving is a guideline and may or may not fit your retriever’s needs. There are times when your retriever requires more calories and times when they require less. During the height of the hunting or competition season, they will require more and, in the off season, less. You should not switch from your performance food during the off season. Simply lower the intake. Dr. Zanghi said that this will better maintain muscle tone. Also the time it takes for your retriever’s body to fully assimilate a new diet is more like months than weeks. This means that you are compromising your retriever’s endurance and performance during that period which could mean the difference between winning and losing.


Chicken By Products

Dr. Zanghi said we should not be afraid of “chicken by products” as these are made up of livers and hearts, and in some cases parts of the intestine, which contain important nutrients for our dogs that don’t come from breast meat alone. This meat is all highly digestible protein and should not be feared!


Dr. Zanghi said that the benefit of corn or wheat gluten is that the gluten protein is composed of building blocks that are beneficial to a performance metabolism. Gluten allergic reactions actually affect a very small population of dogs.

Final Thought

It was a real education speaking with Dr. Zanghi. His thoughts on performance nutrition for dogs have already impacted my approach to feeding our dogs. And while most dog foods on the market will keep your retriever at a basic level of health, the high protein/high fat performance foods are best suited for our performance retrievers. They provide the optimum combination of ingredients that bring out the best in our dogs. We have switched all of our dogs over to a performance blend over the past couple of month’s and I will keep you posted on their progress.

I want to thank Dr. Zanghi for all of his input and for taking time out of his busy schedule to speak with us here at Retriever Life. Hopefully this will help you make your retriever the best he/she an be!

Category : Feature Story, Health

About the Author ()

I am one of the founders and editor of Retriever Life. My passion is Labradors of all sizes and shapes but I am a big fan of all the retriever breeds.

Comments (5)

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  1. Tina Powe says:

    Great Article!!

  2. Scott says:

    a really interesting read Toni !!

  3. Congrats by your article! Is really great and clear! O own two hunting lodges here in Uruguay and my dogs are part of our Family. We take great care with them, feed only PropLan and some extra vitamins that I buy in US where each year I teavel a couple of times to hunt ducks and geese and enjoy your great country! Take a look at my fanpage please and my website! My kind regards and please keep writing so great articles! Alvaro

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