A working dog sitting outside wearing a harness.

Going Pro: How to Tell if Your Working Dog Needs a Performance Food

Working dogs have widely varying nutritional needs, and not all working dogs actually burn enough energy to justify a working and sporting dog diet. So how do you know if your working dog is active enough to need a performance dog food?

There’s no hard-and-fast rule for choosing to feed a performance or adult maintenance food to your working dog. In fact, numerous factors need to be considered, and we’ll review those that are the most important to your decision-making process.

Activity level exerts substantial effect on daily energy needs

Just as with people, differences in activity levels are responsible for much of the difference in working dogs’ daily energy requirements (DER). The type, duration, frequency and intensity of activity all factor into the mix when estimating energy needs.

As noted in a previous post, dogs have energy requirements that must be met to fuel basic body functions, just like people do. Activity — or “work” — requires a dog to burn more calories than rest, but the key questions that challenge working-dog owners are “How much more?” and “Is my dog’s activity level high enough to need an energy-dense dog food?”

According to Justin Shmalberg, DVM, a board-certified specialist in veterinary nutrition, sports medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine, studies indicate the increases in energy used by working dogs are directly related to the distance traveled during that work. Dogs who travel long distances will require more calories than similar dogs who travel short distances.

In addition, research suggests dogs with longer legs require less energy for trotting than those with short legs, which brings to mind other factors that contribute to differences in working dogs’ energy needs:

  • Body size
  • Breed
  • Life stage
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Neuter status
  • Skin and coat insulation
  • Environmental temperature

When all factors — activity related or not — are considered, some working dogs will require only a 5 percent increase in calories while others may need as much as 25 percent more. A working dog that needs only a small increase in daily calories would most likely benefit from a high-quality adult maintenance food and possibly more frequent feeding. But dogs who work more than 1.5 to 2 hours a day can benefit from a performance dog food with a greater fat content than typical adult maintenance foods.

Dietary protein needs increase with work, too

As with people, a dog’s physical work (or exercise) and conditioning produce changes such as increases in muscle and connective tissues, blood and metabolism — which makes sense when you consider that activity results from muscle activity. (You can read more about muscle metabolism and fueling canine muscle during exercise here.) These changes require amino acids, the building blocks of protein, to make enzymes, hormones, blood proteins, and new muscle and connective tissues. Amino acids are also needed to repair activity-related damage to muscles, ligaments, tendons and other connective tissues. Consequently, working dogs need more dietary protein than pet dogs, including those who are walked daily, and hard-working dogs tend to require more protein than their less-active counterparts.

Activity also increases the rate of amino acid breakdown. Veterinary nutritionists estimate that amino acids provide 5 to 15 percent of the energy used during exercise, depending on the intensity and duration. Most of the amino acids used for energy are essential amino acids, meaning that they can only be obtained from food. So working dogs not only require more protein, they need increased levels of high-quality protein that’s well-balanced in essential amino acids.

What this means for what you put in your working dog’s food bowl

The goals of working dog nutrition are to maintain optimal body condition and weight, support performance, and prevent fatigue and injury — regardless of activity level. Working dogs need a food that provides extra protein, fat and carbohydrates in a formula that can be easily digested and quickly absorbed by their bodies, like Diamond Pro89 Beef, Pork & Ancient Grains Formula for Adult Dogs and Diamond Naturals Extreme Athlete Adult Dog Chicken & Rice Formula.

Does the food in your dog’s bowl provide the energy, protein and other nutrients necessary to fuel him or her? Is your dog losing body condition and weight during periods of high activity? Or is your dog gaining weight? The answers to those questions will shape your decision on what type of food to feed your working dog. Of course, talk with your veterinarian before changing your dog’s food or if you’re concerned about how your dog is performing in the field. Your veterinarian can help determine if your four-legged coworker needs a food that provides more energy from fat or carbohydrates and if they are getting enough protein.


RELATED POST: Do Sporting and Working Dogs Need Different Nutrition?

RELATED POST: Fueling Your Athletic Dog’s Performance


The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.


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