By Mosier Misfit’s Thad McCracken
Sled dogs, like most living things, are happier, healthier, perform better, and are generally just more fun to be around when all of their needs are being met, on a regular basis. A typical sled dog has needs that range from exercise, to socialization, to feeding and nutrition.
This article focuses specifically on feeding and nutritional needs of a competitive sled dog team. Use of the word “competitive” is intentionally loose in this context, as all of the principles presented here also apply to a recreational team, or even a bunch of “pet” dogs.
In this short article, I present concepts on which I base the Mosier Misfits feeding and nutrition plan, and that have worked for me to-date. While I am very far from an expert in this area, I have built what I feel to be a solid feeding and nutrition plan, from know ledge I have gleaned from experts on the topic, a little trial and error, and some over-arching principles to keep it all pointed in the right direction.
The Feeding and Nutrition Pyramid I base a lot of my feeding program on a “pyramid”, shown below. The pyramid starts at the bottom, with foundational, top-priority items, and gradually adds additional (and increasingly optional) items as we move towards its peak:
Briefly described, the elements of my feeding and n
utrition pyramid are:
Overall Health Maintenance
- Stated simply, this amounts to ensuring that each dog is free of undiagnosed or chronic health issues that will complicate the overall feeding and nutrition picture. One very simple example of this is ensuring that dogs stay free of parasites that will compromise their ability to absorb nutrients, or negate the benefits of a quality feeding program.
I believe that the easiest “foundation” on which to build a feeding program is a quality, high protein, high fat kibble that at least meets (or exceeds) AAFCO nutritional profile
standards. So much research, by experts in the field (including mushers like Arleigh Reynolds,
Eric Norris, and Tim Hunt, to name a few) has gone into producing quality working dog kibble. It is highly unlikely that the average musher will be able to produce a better foundation on which to base their program. A good guideline is to look for a high quality kibble in the range of 30/20 (30 percent protein, 20 percent fat) on which to base your feeding program.
Quality, Balanced, Raw Meat.
While there are a few competitive mushers around that are successful while feeding a strictly kibble-based diet, almost all include raw meat as a major
component of their team’s feeding program. Of primary importance when feeding meat on a regular basis is to ensure that the meat is balanced in its nutrient profile. Specifically....muscle
meat tends to contain a lot of phosphorus, while bones contain calcium. Dogs need both, and a
lack of balance between the two can, over the long term, create deficiencies that, once symptomatic, can cause significant problems. Find a whole, balanced, meat source (there are
several options out there), or plan to become an expert in supplements to ensure you establish
A quality fat, or fat supplement (there are a few on the market) can be a great way to
increase caloric intake for dogs during periods of intense training. Pound for pound, it’s hard to find a food that’s more calorie-dense than fat. Sled dogs have an amazing ability to utilize
fat....but it can also be over-used.
If you look hard enough, you can find a supplement for just about anything. Common ones in use in working dog feeding programs include maltodextrin, fish oil, various antioxidants, and various supplements that aid in recovery after strenuous exercise. With so many elements to the feeding an nutrition pyramid, it is very easy to create a complicated feeding program that does not result in happy, healthy dogs. A very important guiding principle that will help to prevent this, when followed, is best captured in the following statement: Build your feeding program from the base of the pyramid, always resisting the urge to compensate for poor quality on a lower level of the pyramid with excessive attention to a higher level of the pyramid.
Some examples of over-compensation that is indicative of an “out of balance” feeding and nutrition program include:
Compensating for a systemic parasite problem in your kennel by feeding more food. Best to
address this problem by fixing the parasite problem. Making up for poor quality kibble by feeding excessive amounts of meat and fat. Poor kibble is poor kibble. In most cases, the effects of a poor quality kibble cannot be fully compensated-for by just feeding more meat, more fat, or more supplements.
Feeding buckets of fat to make up for an insufficient foundational diet. It is true that sled
effectively utilize very high percentages of fat in their diets (as high as 50% or more). However, this does not mean that a poor quality or insufficient, foundational diet can be compensated for by simply feeding large amounts of fat.
Trying to correct for a host of issues by adding lots of supplements. If your program starts to
feel complicated, and becomes difficult to consistently replicate, look down the pyramid, and
see if you can cut out supplements in favor of higher quality foundational changes in your
program. For instance, adding salmon oil to cheap, poor-quality kibble does not make it high
quality kibble. Best to cut out the supplement, and spend that money on better kibble.
Guiding Principles With the feeding and nutrition pyramid in mind, I use the following principles to guide the evolution and execution of The Mosier Misfits feeding program:
Stick to same diet year-round. It seems to be generally accepted that dogs can take months to
“adapt” to a change in diet. While some adaptations may be very quick (like those seen in a
dogs stool consistency), others may not (like a dog’s ability to truly extract maximum value from a new addition to it’s diet). Constantly changing your team’s diet will probably only result in frustration, and a lot of “I tried that, and it didn’t work,” when in reality you just didn’t try it long enough. Generally speaking, I feed the same diet to my dogs year-round, adjusting only the amount that is fed to align with caloric needs of each dog.
Throw out the precision measuring cups, scales, and other instruments you might be using.
Spend the time you would spend precisely mixing each dog’s food to exact proportions running
your hands over each dog (on a regular basis), and establishing where each one is with respect
to its ideal weight. Feed skinny dogs more, feed overweight dogs less, and don’t stress about
getting it precise with every meal. Are all your dogs starting to look a little thin when you started running a bit longer? Throw a bigger chunk of meat, and a few more scoops of kibble, into the food bucket, and feed everyone more.
Make sure you don’t have to make abrupt, unplanned, changes to your dog’s diet in the middle of the season. There’s nothing worse than having to switch brands of kibble for several weeks during racing season b/c you didn’t order any in time. Plan ahead, and make sure your hard work to establish a good, consistent, diet doesn’t go to waste because of poor planning.
Only add things to your feeding program that you can execute with consistency. It doesn’t do
much good to occasionally feed meat when you happen to find some on sale, or to only buy a
certain kibble right before a race. Figure out the best program that you can put together, but
also consistently execute, given time, logistical, and financial constraints.
Evaluate where you can improve your feeding program on an annual basis, and make your adjustments *planned*. I like to do this at the end of each season, with the goal of having any changes implemented by July, so that they have time to adjust and take advantage of the
changes before we get into heavy training.
As you decide what is right for your own team’s feeding program, consult many mushers that are doing similar style’s of racing. Ask them not only what they do, but why they do it. Above all, resist the urge to focus only on brands, or on specific supplements. There is no magic supplement that will instantly make your team better....each element has its place in the big picture, and it is important to factor this in as you formulate your own team’s feeding program. As you survey many mushers, you will be able to formulate an informed, but customized, program that suits the needs of your dogs, and that works with your lifestyle and individual constraints.