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Filling up with the right fuel

Overwhelmed by the choice of food on the market? Industry experts tell Felix Petit about what is best for our dogs.

My red setter Muckle and I are all but inseparable and his wellbeing is one of the top couple of considerations in my everyday life. When I was in the Army, he was allowed to follow me around all day at heel, whether that was marching across the parade square, trotting down to the tank park or stables, or curled up on his bed in my office. 

We spend just as much time together today as he lies like a massive ginger croissant at my feet while I work at my desk on our farm in Sussex. We have settled into a routine in which he has a small breakfast while I have mine, followed by a larger meal around midday with all the other farm dogs. This seems to work for him and he is energetic, glossy and handsome. However, the routine has not always been so established. 

In the early days, when I was keeping odd hours in the military, at his feeding time I would realise I had run out of dog food. These were Muckle’s favourite days because I would then cook supper for both of us. This might be a tuna pasta bake, a meaty risotto or, on more decadent occasions, a dog-friendly beef bourguignon. Once, with little in the cupboards, I made him a Bovril jelly with rice, which he wolfed down. 

These occasional diversions from traditional canine fare went down well and provided further opportunity for bonding. Aside from one bolognese where we took a fancy to different ends of the same strand of spaghetti, the period of shared feasting passed without incident. 

While Muckle seemed to enjoy the odd foray into culinary exotica, he might have been better served were I to have had a firmer grasp of the tenets of canine nutrition and been more dogmatic in their application. 

Hayley Harrison, director of raw food specialist Pet Shack and Gundog Gear, gave me a comprehensive schooling on her Mastermind subject: canine nutrition. From a standing start, Hayley instructed dog owners to look at the ingredients in their dog food and the level of processing. 

Balanced diet 

Hayley says it is hugely important to provide a balanced and varied raw diet including meat, bones and offal alongside specific supplementation. However, once the basic foundation of nutrition is there, it is important to tailor both diet and supplementation to the dog in front of you. 

“We don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Hayley. She advises that when looking at the constituent parts in dog food, it is worth considering the number of ingredients, their purpose and the bioavailability and nutrient density of the food. This is arguably an even more important process, she stresses, for working dogs as they are tools of the trade: “You wouldn’t put petrol in a diesel car.” 

The pet food landscape is subject to similar trends to its human counterpart so, as with research in the latter, it is advised to give your dog food containing minimal ingredients with low levels of processing and fewer unnecessary ingredients. Kibble or wet food with high volumes of cereal-based fillers are to be avoided, while foods with good levels of usable animal protein and fats will be more effective in providing your dog with sustained and balanced energy. Many different dog foods now contain plant-based protein such as soya, which is not as easily processed by dogs as the animal-based equivalent. 

“Gundog Gear’s Pro Field Cold Pressed food is, as the name suggests, created at low temperature so the ingredients retain more of their natural nutritional value,” says Hayley. “Many vitamins and minerals are heat sensitive and can be destroyed during the traditional high temperature extrusion methods used in dry kibble foods on the market.” 

We have all experienced an over-boiled school canteen carrot, and from experience it is obvious that much of the goodness has been leached during the cooking process. 


Dog & Field retail manager Rebecca Tebbutt says dogs should be treated as individuals and that it is well worth investing the time in understanding your own dog’s nutritional needs based on its age, size, breed, health and preferences. 

She concedes that price is where a lot of people start when it comes to selecting their dog food, but says it is vital not to use this as the only determinant. Cheap foods will almost always have a low protein content and protein is key in the production and healing of hair, nails, tendons, cartilage and connective tissues, as well as supporting the immune system and the production of hormones. 

As Rebecca says: “All of our eight recipes are cooked at a low temperature to protect the proteins, and from here the high-quality oils are deposited back into the kibble to enhance flavour and palatability.” 


Nutrition officer at Skinner’s Dog Food, Zoe Russell, says: “A diet should be appropriate for your dog’s life stage and should be formulated as such. A puppy or junior diet should contain balanced levels of calcium and phosphorus to support skeletal development, while a senior diet may provide joint and heart support to help an older dog.” Many foods are labelled as “complementary” rather than “complete” and this is an important distinction. A complete food contains enough for a balanced diet, while complementary foods are to be fed in moderation alongside a complete food. 

Zoe also warns that people frequently feed their dogs incorrect quantities of food even when using graduated scoops or cups. “These tools can be highly inaccurate and can lead to overfeeding, or even underfeeding,” she says. “We therefore recommend weighing your dog’s food using accurate, calibrated scales for more precise portioning.” 

Along with incorrect measurements that could lead to compromising your dog’s health, you must also make sure you store the food correctly. Zoe says Skinner’s uses human-grade meat in its foods so it should be treated with the same care and respect as our own. “Storage guidelines are important to adhere to, as they help maintain the nutritional integrity of the diet, the palatability of the food and help to maintain the high quality of the food,” Zoe adds. 

Not all dog foods work for all dogs and sometimes it can be hard to pin down exactly why a diet disagrees with them. “If your dog cannot maintain a healthy weight and condition on the recommended amount, try adjusting their intake by 10% to 20% and monitoring again. If you need to feed significantly above or below the feeding guidelines to help maintain them, a dietary change may be required,” says Zoe. 

Dog food marketing campaigns for expensive brands can be compelling and aimed at specific breeds of dogs, so it is important to not be too swayed by these. However, even if your dog seems well, it could still be worth tinkering with their diet. 

“From our perspective, it’s not about fixing, it’s about improving. What we used to believe was the norm in relation to our dog’s body condition and behaviour is no longer the same — we have new norms,” says Hayley Harrison. 

“We now have a completely different benchmark for what we would consider healthy — we have seen what optimal nutrition looks like in context for our own dogs and hundreds of customers’ dogs.” 


Diet can be used to train and mentally fatigue your dog via practices such as spreading soft foods over Likimats and/or into Kongs to moderate the speed of dogs’ consumption and make sure they are well stimulated. Fine-tuning individual diet can alleviate the need for dogs to be on certain medication, as well as reducing the severity of symptoms from certain allergies. 

Dog food producers seem to be making moves towards lowering their carbon footprint and using local ingredients as well. Skinner’s uses carrots and potatoes in its wet food that are farmed only 11 miles down the road from its Norfolk site. 

Whether your dog is a fussy eater or at the other end of the scale, all the companies who talked to us urged dog owners to contact their local food supplier if they are thinking about changing their dog’s diet and to check in for advice. With the huge focus and research that goes into human nutrition today, it stands to reason that we would also apply some of these learnings to the diets of our faithful canine companions.