Picture This. It’s the middle of hunting season. You and your dog have been hard at work chasing upland birds, small game or waterfowl (or some combination) for a month or more. Your canine partner is looking good but trending to the lean side, and you want to continue getting top-caliber performance from him every hunting day.

Should you change anything up? Are there any practices or food-related activities you should avoid to keep your dog safe, healthy and performing at her best?

The following 7 questions are the most common ones that dog-owning hunters ask when thinking about how to change (or not change) an established dog-feeding regimen before, during and after a day of hard hunting.

Should I feed my dog more on a hard-working hunting day?

Yes. You’re going to need to replace those extra calories burned while cruising prairie, field or forest for upland birds, chugging through cold water to retrieve ducks and then trying to stay warm, or coursing thickets for bunnies or coons.

According to Russ Kelley of the Royal Canin Pet Health Nutrition Center, a dog’s energy requirements can increase by 2 to 4 times, over the course of a hard-working hunting day. Increase your dog’s food intake, but limit total volume to 5 to 6 cups.

Should I offer more food to increase my dog’s calorie intake the night before a hunt, to build energy reserves?

Yes, and the reason is simple. Digestion takes about 12 hours. The night before a hunt is the absolute best time to “stoke” a dog with calories because he actually has time to fully ingest the food and realize a benefit.

Should I start my dog out on a hunting day with her stomach empty?

Yes. Feeding your dog before a hunt may seem good, but it won’t offer any immediate benefit. In fact, it will probably do more harm than good because the undigested food will sit there as the dog goes to work and pulls blood away from the stomach and delivers it to muscles.

Remember: Full digestion takes about 12 hours. Torsion and bloat would be extreme consequences, but could result. If you can’t stand not feeding your dog in the morning, understand the dangers, and make the meal as light and early as possible. But really, all you’ll be doing is making yourself feel better.

Should I feed my dog a meal at lunchtime, while I am eating, during a hunting day?

Never feed a dog a big meal midday when hunting. You’ll weigh her down at the least, and torsion and bloat are worst-case possibilities. It’s best to forego food altogether, but at the very most, go mighty light on the dog’s food intake. A half-cup or handful of dry kibble is enough; but you won’t be enhancing afternoon performance, you’ll mostly be satisfying yourself.

Should I offer more food than usual after a day of hunting?

Yes. Similar to feeding the evening meal before a hunt, increase food intake at the end of the day to provide extra nutrition for restoring muscle tissue, building energy reserves back and getting ready for the next day. Two important tips:

  • Add water (perhaps warm, to make some delicious gravy) to help re-hydration.
  • Wait at least one hour after the hunt to let the dog cool down, before feeding. This helps prevent torsion and bloat.

Are there any considerations to make for feeding a dog on an extended, multi-day hunt?

Yes. Endurance dogs (which is what most hunting dogs are) require a diet higher in fats, according to Joseph Wakshlag DVM PhD and Justin Shmalberg DVM in their study Nutrition for Service and Working Dogs. Fat is naturally higher in calories. But only change a dog’s diet gradually leading into the season overall or up to a multi-day hunt event.

What’s a smart summary of the concepts for feeding a hunting dog while she’s active and working hard?

Prime the dog up with a somewhat larger-than-usual meal the night before a hunt. Avoid breakfast if at all possible the day of the hunt; if you can’t bear that, cut breakfast way back. Do not feed a dog a meal of any kind midday, though a very small snack probably won’t hurt if the dog has rested up and cooled down a little. Reward your hard-working canine with a robust dinner after the hunt, and consider adding warm water to the food to assist in re-hydration. Increase fat intake on or a hard-working hunting dog, especially one that will be going on multi-day hunts.

And … a cup of canned food or dog treat added won’t hurt anything and will reward a job well done.