Reducing Stress Is Essential To Optimize A Working Dog's Performance

Hardworking dogs know the natural stress that comes from competing in field trials and hunting. In fact, virtually all dog sports involve stress related to travel, being in unknown surroundings and a change in routine. These stressors challenge dogs and potentially could shortchange their performance if not managed properly.

Professional trainer and handler George Hickox of Pittsburgh, Pa., knows well the importance of managing stress in his pointing and flushing dogs. "I am on the road extensively with my dogs, traveling to clinics and hunting destinations," he says.

"I log many miles a year, and it is important to protect my dogs from the stress of extended trips and changes of routine. If a dog is handicapped by stress diarrhea, dehydration results and the dog may not be able to give an optimum performance."

Enthusiasts, like Hickox, who regularly travel with their dogs to train, compete and/or hunt realize that stress results from more than the time spent en route in the travel kennel. Multiple days around other dogs in unfamiliar environments are potential stressors. Fatigue compounds, and the time away from the spacious kennels at home accumulates.

These stressors challenge a dog's gut health. If not managed properly, the result of stress is gastrointestinal imbalance and diarrhea. "Gut health is important to digestion, immunity and microbial balance, all which influence the optimal performance of a hardworking dog," says Purina Research Scientist Brian Zanghi, Ph.D. "A dog's stool characteristics can be directly related to gut health."

Stress may impact dogs on a show or field trial circuit or those taken on cross-country hunting trips. "Any dog putting in field time on the weekends, training intensely or being given increased playtime can be affected," Zanghi says. "The dog's behavior and personality - whether anxious or sensitive - also contribute, as does life stage. Puppies and senior dogs are more susceptible to stress, and diet change can cause stress as well."

Promoting a Healthy Gut

The gut contains a microbial balance made up of good and bad microbes that coexist in proportion to each other. These microbes support the digestive process and help maintain a healthy colon.

"The gut is the body's largest immune organ," explains Zanghi. "It is the body's first line of protection against infectious microbes that are ingested, and it contains a microbial ecosystem that must stay balanced for optimal performance in hardworking dogs."

An imbalance of microbes may be due to elevated levels of bad bacteria and reduced levels of good bacteria. Stress and intense exercise also can cause instability in this microbial ecosystem. To promote a healthy gut and optimize the immune system, there are several considerations for training and nutrition management.

Exercise causes natural stress that challenges the immune system and intestinal tract. Excessive fatigue and inadequate daily recovery can impair a dog's immunity and increase the risk of intestinal upset. Regular conditioning to heighten a dog's fitness level, thus making it more difficult for fatigue to set in, is as important as training the technical aspects of field performance.

Fatigue and excessive panting, particularly in cold temperatures, can cause decreased immunity in the respiratory tract. It can trigger microbial imbalances that increase the susceptibility of stress-related diarrhea. A dog needs as much nutrient absorption as possible to support overnight recovery. Diarrhea not only impairs recovery but also results in fluid loss that can reduce hydration for the next day's performance.

Besides conditioning, another strategy used to prevent excessive fatigue in the field is increased frequency of "timeouts," in which a handler calls a dog to heel. It is ideal to take a timeout every 15 to 20 minutes. This offers opportunities for hydration and respiratory and heart-rate recovery. A dog's working heart rate typically ranges from 180 to 220 beats per minute (BPM) during exercise. Spikes in heart rate can surpass 250 BPM. When a dog takes a break, his heart rate can drop dramatically, helping to avoid overexertion.

Benefits of Probiotics 

Purina scientists have helped advance the scientific field of gut health by demonstrating that probiotics can improve indicators of gut health and reduce the incidence of stress diarrhea. Probiotics also can help hardworking dogs. Good gut microbes aid digestion and disease resistance. They also help to minimize gut upset and maintain normal stool quality.

"Feeding a nutritional supplement with live, active probiotics in advance of and during time in the field can positively shift the microbial balance in favor of a healthy gut," Zanghi says. "Probiotics can be an important nutritional tool to help prevent a hardworking dog from experiencing stress diarrhea when it matters most in the field."

Three Purina studies evaluated the benefits of Enterococcus faecium SF68 in dogs. In the first study, healthy Beagle, Labrador Retriever and Manchester Terrier puppies were fed a control diet or the control diet supplemented with E. faecium SF68. The diets were fed from weaning to 1 year of age.

"We found that puppies fed E. faecium SF68 had better fecal quality than puppies fed only the control food," says Purina Research Nutritionist Gail Czarnecki-Maulden, Ph.D. "When compared to the control puppies, the puppies fed the probiotic also maintained their vaccination titers longer and had higher levels of secretory IgA, an antibody found in secretions that plays a critical role in immunity."

In the second study of elderly Beagles fed E. faecium SF68 for six months, the hounds maintained higher fecal IgA than elderly Beagles fed a control diet. "Enhancement of IgA in this study indicates that ingestion of E. faecium SF68 primes the immune system to respond quickly and effectively to external challenges," says Czarnecki-Maulden.

Early probiotic supplementation was evaluated in the third study of Miniature Schnauzer, Shih Tzu and Labrador Retriever puppies. The dogs were fed a control food or the control diet supplemented with E. faecium SF68 from the first introduction of solid food at 3 weeks of age until they were 1 year old. Fecal concentration of beneficial bacteria - bifido bacteria and lactobacilli - was higher in puppies supplemented with E. faecium SF68.

"These pups had more stable microflora patterns than puppies fed the control food," says Czarnecki-Maulden. "This was reflected in better fecal quality throughout growth."

All three studies indicate that supplementation of E. faecium SF68 promotes intestinal health and balance in growing puppies and adult dogs. "We now know that the probiotic E. faecium SF68 can help promote a stable, healthy microflora balance and a healthy immune system in dogs," Czarnecki-Maulden says.

Purina Veterinary Diets Fortiflora brand canine nutritional supplement contains Enterococcus faecium SF68. (See "Fortiflora Offers a Nutritional Supplement for the Dietary Management of Dogs with Diarrhea" on page 1.)

Hickox regularly uses the probiotic when he prepares his dogs' food. "I add FortiFlora to the evening feeding, beginning three days before a road trip," he says. "I continue to add it to the dogs' food throughout the trip and for three days afterward. Providing this is easier than managing a crisis after the fact."

Proper conditioning and nutrition, like Hickox provides his pointing and flushing breeds on the road and at home, help counter the natural effects of stress. They help to maintain the intestinal balance that allows a dog to perform at an optimal level in the field, the true measure of success.