Feeding Strategies for Pups and Pros


A bird dog’s nutritional needs change with its age

By Tom CarpenterLead image by Erik Peterson

A one-formula-fits-all-ages approach does not work when it comes to feeding hard-working bird dogs. Puppies, dogs in their prime, and pros (my term for our beloved older or senior dogs) each have different nutritional needs. 

No one understands those needs better than Arleigh Reynolds, a senior research scientist with Nestle Purina who also happens to be a practicing veterinarian with board-certification in clinical nutrition, professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Alaska – Fairbanks, and a PhD in animal exercise physiology. He also raced sled dogs for 30 years in the wilds of Alaska.

As Pheasants Forever national sponsor Purina introduces three new formulas for younger and older dogs this year, I caught up with Reynolds to get his take on what’s going on in our dog’s bodies early and later in life, and how that affects their nutritional needs.


The first questions surround puppies. Why do puppies need differently formulated food? What feeding strategies go with those development milestones? When do I start weaning a young dog off a puppy formula and transition to an adult formula?

“Physically, most working dogs are starting to level off their growth at 8 months of age or so, and done growing in the 12-to-14-month range,” says Reynolds. “Their skeletal growth is usually done by the time they are a year old, but they are adding muscle after that. A one-year-old dog looks very different than the same dog at two.”

“Cognitively, maturity takes a long time, but it’s important to support that up front too,” Reynolds adds. “A lot happens early on. You can’t go back on things, such as with the way young dogs bond and the way they learn.”

“That’s why good puppy formulas are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids,” he continues. “Research tells us that component incorporates into their brain cells better the younger they are. Even their vision develops better with Omega-3s. Studies show that Omega-3 fatty acids make puppies better at problem solving and easier to train.” Puppies’ brains are adept at soaking these nutrients up.

Protein is important for growing puppies too. “But what’s also important is the quality of the protein,” adds Reynolds. “Muscles, bones, hair and organs … it’s all going on at once. A dog’s protein requirements are highest when it is a puppy. But be careful not to overfeed energy or that puppy grow too quickly, which can cause problems with skeletal growth.”

He says, “We did studies that showed that Labrador retriever pups ‘restricted’ in their feeding regimen, rather than free-choice, any-time feeding, lived longer and had less chronic disease such as hip dysplasia.”

In short, maintaining the right body weight and not letting them grow too fast is important. And, big dogs and small dogs have different needs. That’s why Purina developed a Large Breed Puppy Development formula. 

What is large? “Any dog expected to end up over 50 pounds is a large breed,” says Reynolds. 

“We want all puppies on the thin side,” he adds. What’s that? Here’s what Reynolds describes. If on a scale of 1 to 9, with 1 being super skinny and 9 really obese, you want puppies at a 4. Reynolds says: “Take longer, go slower, build healthy bones and joints.”

When should a bird dogger transition a pup from puppy formula into adult food? “When they get about 80 percent of their anticipated adult weight,” says Reynolds. “At that point skeletal growth is mostly done and now it is muscle they will be putting on. Take a month to or two to transition.  You still want them at that 4 out of 9 on the scale.”


At the other side of life, when should a dog owner move their mature dog to an older dog formula?

“It’s really going to differ,” says Reynolds. He explains:

“Some dogs start showing signs of aging at 6 years old. Others, not until beyond 8. You know your dog. When he or she begins to slow down a little bit, then you want to start eliminating some of that high-fat diet built into good adult formulas. Note I didn’t say cut fat out, but reduce it.”

Reynolds also emphasizes the need to maintain a dog’s ideal, lean “4” body weight now: “Extra weight that could pile up now is really hard on a dog’s hips and other joints, and its mobility.”

“Our old dog formula supports every aspect of the dog as it ages,” says Reynolds. “We’ve got a lot of Omega-3 fatty acids in our Pro Plan Adult 7+ formula, which helps tone down the inflammation of arthritis and help keep mobility up. It also helps maintain their muscle mass, move easier, and studies show that cognitive function is better as they stay active.”

“Chondroitin and sulfates help with keeping their joint fluid nice and thick and cushiony to keep that mobility going,” adds Reynolds, “and arginine helps with blood flow to the brain, for enhanced cognitive function.”

“You can’t stop a dog’s aging, but you can sure slow it down,” is Reynolds’ bottom line. “And remember: There is no harm or downside to starting a little early with an old dog formula. That’s better than late. The sooner you start, the more impact it is going to have for your dog’s movement and mobility.”

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Purina Pro Plan SPORT Puppy Development 30/20 promotes concentration, problem-solving and trainability with real chicken as the number one ingredient. Its 30-percent-protein / 20-percent-fat ratio promotes age-appropriate strength and endurance in active puppies, and Omega-3 fatty acids help cognitive development.

Purina Pro Plan SPORT Large Breed Puppy Development 30/18 supports a healthy growth rate and age-appropriate strength and endurance in active large breed puppies. Real chicken is the number one ingredient here too, and the high-quality protein helps build lean muscles and a healthy heart while Omega-3 fatty acids support cognitive development.

Formulated specifically for active dogs age 7 and up, Purina Pro Plan Adult 7+ Sport Performance 30/17 fuels the active lifestyle of senior dogs with fine-tuned nutrition. This high-quality formula features concentrated nutrition that supports oxygen metabolism for increased endurance, while glucosamine and EPA, an omega-3 fatty acid, support joint health and mobility. The ratio of 30 percent protein and 17 percent fat helps fuel metabolic needs and maintain lean muscle. Brain-supporting nutrients like DHA, EPA, antioxidants, B vitamins and arginine help promote cognitive health. This is a chicken & rice formula.

Tom Carpenter is editor at Pheasants Forever. Depending on the formula you use, he figures he is 8 or 9 years old in dog years.

This story originally appears in the 2022 Summer Issue of the Pheasants Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to be the first to read more great upland content like this, become a Pheasants Forever member today!