During a conversation with Dr. Seth Bynum last year, I asked him what the number one issue he sees with sporting dogs is at his veterinarian clinic. His answer probably won’t surprise anyone—obesity. He casually offered up an estimate that 30 to 40 percent of the dogs he sees — both general pets and bird dogs — were overweight.
When I took my own Lab for her yearly checkup this past February, I mentioned Bynum’s estimate to our veterinarian. She laughed and said, “It’s way higher than that here. It’s probably close to 50 percent, and honestly, I think as a society, we have mostly forgotten what an in-shape dog is supposed to look like.”
This isn’t good, and it seems that our four-legged friends are following closely in the footsteps of the general human population. The difference, of course, is that we have control over what we put in our bellies, but dogs don’t. Not really anyway.
If you offer up a Lab a snack, he’s going to eat it. That’s how they are wired and that’s how they’ll stay wired for as long as we’re duck hunting with them anyway. Dogs can’t reason calories in and calories out, and they aren’t the ones buying their own food or treats. They are victims of our desire to keep them happy by plying them with food, or simply our tendency to loosely feed whatever amount we scoop up each day without actually measuring out the kibble.
A Moving Target
When it comes to keeping a working dog in shape there is no set-in-stone plan per breed, per dog size, or per anything that falls into the general category. Dogs are individuals, and while you might look up some statistics on your specific breed and relative activity level, you’ll only discover general guidelines.
Some dogs take in 1,500 calories a day and won’t chub up at all, but those dogs will generally be big and prone to activity every single day. A field-bred female golden retriever that sports a 50- to 55-pound frame on that same diet, however, is going to look like an overstuffed sausage — even with a fairly active lifestyle.
This puts the onus on us, as owners, to monitor our dogs’ body conditions and feed and exercise them accordingly. We all know that ramping up the calories during duck season is generally advised because that’s when our dogs work the hardest, but what about the rest of the year? What if your work schedule turns crazy and you won’t be able to take your retriever for a daily swim or run long-distance drills in the neighborhood park four times a week?
Then you’ve got to pay attention to your dog’s body condition and calorie intake on a daily or weekly basis, and adjust accordingly.
Bias & Treats
It’s hard to recognize a dog is out-of-shape when it’s our dog, because we see it everyday. Add in the fact that we are biased to believe only good things about our dogs, and we have a hard time recognizing that our dog has beefed up. To understand where your retriever is at, professional trainer Tom Dokken recommends being able to feel the ribs but not see them as a general rule. If you can run your fingers along your dog’s side and not clearly feel the ribs, it’s time to cut back on the calories (you also don’t want to be able to see the ribs, because that means the dog is underweight).
It’s also highly advisable that you listen to your veterinarian. They’ll tell you if your dog needs to lose weight and while some folks get offended by the truth, it’s not about us. It’s about the health of our dogs, which often gets out of whack from one simple thing — too many treats.
The canine equivalent of snacking might be putting hundreds of extra calories into your dog’s daily diet, which adds up. It’s easy to measure calories in dog food, but not so easy when you’re tossing your retriever a milk bone every time he looks at you with sad eyes because it makes him happy for a couple of seconds.
Don’t let your bias, or a loose attitude with treats turn your dog into a health hazard.
Obesity in our dogs can lead to liver disease, respiratory issues, osteoarthritis, hypertension, and damage to joints among dozens of other potential issues. That’s the scary part, but the good thing is that it’s avoidable in the first place and mostly reversible if it has already set in. It just takes a little effort on our part, which is worth it to keep our duck dogs healthy in the long run.