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Meet The Dog Nutritionist Taking Doggy Dinners To A New Level

A nutritious, well-balanced diet is the foundation of your dog’s health, as well as their training.

But with so many different dog foods on offer in pet shops and supermarkets, it can sometimes be difficult to know if you’re giving your dog the best food available.

In this week’s Training Spotlight, we meet dog nutritionist Holly Barker. We discovered Holly over on Instagram (@sportdognutrition), where she posts mouth-watering pictures (see above!) of the amazing fresh meals she makes for sporting dogs, including her own three pups; border collies Wren, 18 months, and Flynn, one, and collie cross deerhound Arthur, four.

Here’s what she had to say… 

Tell us a bit about how you got started…

Holly: I became involved in nutrition for sporting dogs as a natural progression from formulating fresh diets for pet dogs. I have friends with working and sporting dogs, who were impressed with my dog's condition and vitality and wanted to know how to achieve the same standard. 

I use evidence-based practice as a basis for formulating meal plans for dogs in sport and work. Initially my practice was focused around working sheepdogs, where feeding to provide a balance between calm energy and ‘brain fuel’ is required. From finding my roots in optimising nutrition for working sheepdogs, I found the same methods could be applied to dogs running flyball and agility with great results.

What’s the philosophy behind the meals you make?

Holly: Although I feed a predominantly raw based diet, I also cook for the dogs to add variety and to support specific needs; there are times when cooked foods are preferable.

My philosophy continues to develop as I learn more. Learning never ends and I'm always happy to move with the research. I add as much variety from animal and plant based sources as I'm able to. I often say, ‘Feed the Rainbow!’.

While we know dogs are not wolves, we know they are genetically similar enough that the eating habits of wolves can be studied to provide valuable insight into ways of eating for domestic dogs. Wolves supplement their meat based diet by choosing to eat berries, grasses, roots, seeds and herbs. That’s because a diet of different coloured foods provides essential nutrients and antioxidants.

Another important factor in my way of feeding is fats. I feed a variety of plant and animal fats and use them as fuel for body and mind. I tweak fat and protein ratios to find the right balance for the individual dog. The result is a calm dog, with a quick brain and plenty of stamina.

How do you find the time to make such amazing doggy dinners?

Putting together a standard meal for my own three dogs takes about ten minutes. I set aside a couple of hours each week to batch cook, portion and freeze things like dog friendly stews, meatloaf and tray bakes.

I also spend some time preparing batches of offal, nuts, seeds, fruit and veg that can be added to meals as needed. Once a month, I set off jars of fermented vegetables to add to feed as a pre and probiotic, along with their kefir.

I’d really recommend letting your dog watch you cook their food. Dogs love to be able to use their senses. Rather than being tormented by delicious aromas for hours, they engage in the scent, their brain and digestion responds, then they have the joy of eating it. It's a fulfilling and enriching experience.

You will see for yourself how your dogs respond with heightened interest to your own food, especially things like curry and Italian food. The dogs know those smells equate to novel nutrition sources, such as herbs and spices, and they want it!

What are the benefits of your approach to feeding? 

There are many benefits to this way of feeding. As I critically analyse my dogs' performance, activity level and behaviour, I can adjust their diet accordingly to keep them perfectly nourished. I feel this has also helped my relationship with them; we are more attuned to each other's needs.

Responsive feeding in this way means your dog is less likely to have deficits that only become apparent when there's a problem: the age-old adage of prevention being better than cure. It also means you can plan ahead to provide additional nutritional and herbal support for the various activities and life events that require it, as well as replenishing them when anything unexpected has occurred. 

This way of feeding also supports a healthy gut and immune system, so (touch wood) my dogs are rarely sick. 

What tips would you offer someone who's keen to follow in your footsteps?

  1. Don’t let my pictures put you off having a go! It all looks very ‘lah di dah’, but it doesn’t really doesn't matter what it looks like; my dogs still eat out of a dog bowl. 
  1. Look into courses that teach you how to research well and critically analyse data. There are many, many myths being propagated in raw feeding circles. Facebook and internet blogs disseminate information on natural canine health at an astonishing rate and sometimes facts can be misinterpreted. Studies into canine nutrition are often funded by pet food companies, making the data biased, unreliable and often not applicable to a species appropriate diet. It’s about finding information you can trust.
  1. Feed your dog as an individual. 15 years ago I thought carbs for dogs were evil. 10 years ago I thought a high protein diet was the answer. 8 years ago I thought all the plant based stuff wasn't really necessary. And today I know that, just like us, all dogs are individuals and what suits one may not suit another. So, feed them as an individual and always strive to do better by your dog.

You can also follow Holly for more amazing meal inspiration @sportdognutrition.

**All images used with kind permission from Holly**

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