Obesity and The Working Dog
We had heard several stories about Zack the ‘Wonder Dog’ before we ever met him first hand. His handler loved to rave about Zack’s size, claiming his dog was the German Shepherds answer to Arnold Schwarzenegger. When the team showed up for their first day of our Mantrailing I course, we saw that Zack was big all right – big and fat.
Seemingly oblivious to the actual physical condition of his dog, Zack’s handler nodded his head emphatically as our classroom discussion emphasized the importance of maintaining a high level of physical fitness for both handler and dog. In his handler’s eyes, Zack was ‘solid as a rock!’
While Zack couldn’t be called grossly obese, he was significantlyoverweight. As the weekend wore on, the effects of Zack’s excess weight became apparent during the fieldwork, and we witnessed how much it compromised the performance of this otherwise good working dog.
The effect of canine obesity goes well beyond aesthetics; it affects your dog in every way. Hip problems, heart problems, skeletal problems can all be exacerbated by putting more weight on the dog than it’s structure was built to support.
Most handlers dearly love their dogs. Many people express love for their dogs by giving the dog treats. While the dog may, indeed love these tidbits, we must be cautious about excesses. We must take ourselves to task to avoid crossing the line between loving our dogs and inadvertently sabotaging the health of an animal that does not possess the judgment nor the discretion to refuse.
We don’t know a lot of $50.00 words, but we do know one or two. Here’s one for you: Anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism is defined as the tendency to place human values and emotions on animals. This is what it looks like:
“Prince, the experts tell us we’re not supposed to give you stuff from the table. Here’s your plain old food” Dear, look at Prince. Doesn’t he look disappointed? I know I’d be disappointed if all I got was dry cereal every day. Awww, look at him now. He’s thinking, “Is this all I get? They must be mad at me.” Come on, Dear, let’s just give him a little something tasty just so he knows that we still love him.
Anthropomorphism can take many forms and is rampant in our culture, but the bottom line is simple: We, as our dog’s caretakers, are responsible for making the decisions that are best for our working dogs. These choices will directly affect our dog’s abilities, attitudes, longevity, and overall well being. If we abdicate those responsibilities and give in to the whims and ‘sad eyes’ of our dogs, we do them a grave disservice.
Ralston Purina Veterinarian Jane Shaw says that overfeeding can lead pets down the road to poor health. "It tends to create a vicious cycle where obesity creates laziness, and laziness creates further obesity, where you get an animal that can't even successfully walk down to the end of the driveway."
The first order of business is to set up a feeding schedule and stick to it. Feed your dog at the same time(s) every day.
Many people want their young dog to grow up to be a big ole boy (or girl). Too often, they feed the dog too much, or too much of the wrong things, especially during the adolescent phase when the dog naturally looks hollow in the middle. Soon, however, that dog begins to fill out and before you know it, their young dog is overweight. This is a big mistake. Have you ever seen a bookshelf with too many books on it and how it sagged in the middle from the weight? The same thing happens to your dog’s skeletal structure when it bears more weight than it was built to support.We are staunchly supportive of keeping a pup lean during its first year or two and very fit thereafter.
Control what your dog eats by accurately measuring your dog’s food. The term ‘measuring’ food cannot be defined as scooping out one ‘Big Gulp’ cup of food. We’re saying that you should use a measuring cup (filled precisely to the line) and keep a record of how much each dog gets per feeding.
At each feeding, your dog should consume the entire amount provided. If your dog does not eat it all, measure the amount left over and decrease the amount given at the next feeding by precisely that amount. This way you can accurately gauge how much your dog is consuming and either increase or decrease until your dog reaches its perfect weight.
A dog that is at a healthy weight should be agile and active. You can gauge the fitness of your dog by standing over it and running your fingers along its sides. You should be able to easily feel your dog’s ribs, and maybe even see the outline of the one or two ribs when the dog is in motion. Many people believe that if they can see one of the dog’s ribs, it must be too thin, but this is not true. We’re not talking about looking like a starving Ethiopian, here. We’re talking about an athlete. The working dog should be treated just like a professional athlete in every way. Such athletes maintain a strict dietary regimen that facilitates optimum performance in their field. Your working dog should be treated like just such an athlete.
Be aware that dog’s do not experience the same rise and fall of blood sugar that humans do. They are capable of working well past a mealtime without suffering the diminished performance that people do when missing a meal. Your dog’s stomach will rapidly adjust to his modified food intake, even though at first he may look up at you with eyes that say “I’ll be a pile of bleached bones by morning on these rations!” (Think: Anthropomorphism.)
Many people also believe that it is normal for a dog to gain more and more weight as it ages. This is another fallacy. The only reason that a dog gains weight is when its food intake is in excess of its normal daily energy output. Establishing and maintaining a healthy weight for your dog can be easily accomplished by moderating its food intake closely, and increasing its aerobic activity by taking long walks, retrieving objects, catching a Frisbee, or letting it run in a confined area with other friendly dogs.
A book about scenting dogs, written by Larry Mueller, contains a study that concluded that the quantity and the quality of fat in a dog’s diet has a direct affect on the dog’s scenting ability. Since olfactory cells in a dog’s nose are lipid cells (fat cells), dogs fed a high quality fat in the correct amounts, showed an improvement in their olfactory capabilities. Dogs that are fed a poor quality food, or are fed table scraps are ingesting excess fat of low quality - a double whammy for the dog. Anyone serious about their professional working dogs should consider this to be of extreme importance.
Granted, not all dogs are working dogs. Some dogs are simply adored companions residing in the homes of quiet people. No matter what our dogs’ calling in life may be, our love for them is most accurately measured, not by what makes us feel good to give, but by our giving what is ultimately best for them.