What to Look for in Active or Working Dog Food Essentials of Nutrition for Active Dogs

What to Look for in Active or Working Dog Food
expert or vet photo
vet verified Dr. Joseph J. Wakshlag, DVM Associate Professor of Clinical Nutrition

Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine Ithaca, NY

Active and working dogs have different nutritional needs from other dogs. Find out what to look for in food for your athletic dog.

If you have an active, healthy dog – congratulations! As with humans, obesity is one of the biggest health problems facing dogs today. Maintaining an active lifestyle is important for your dog. But it’s equally important to be sure you’re meeting your dog’s nutritional needs and helping them maintain a healthy weight

How to Determine If You Have an Active Dog

A dog’s activity level can be determined by a variety of factors, including seasons (for instance, check out the top 5 nutrition tips for dogs during wintertime) and where you live—is he an apartment-dwelling city dog or a country dog with a huge yard? Your active dog could be invaluable to your farm, herding animals daily, police or fire dog training for search and rescue, or a companion who jogs with you every evening. 

The increase in energy needed for these higher activity levels can be as little as 5% and up to 25% more calories, depending on the amount of work your dog does daily. These increased caloric demands can be met by either increasing the amount of dog food you give your dog or by switching your dog to a higher fat diet.  

What is certain is that your canine athlete will need more calories when compared to their sedentary friends. Extremely athletic dogs —like endurance sled dogs— have nutritional needs that require drastic dietary differences that should be discussed with a veterinarian as they might need freeze-dried dog food or fresh dog food. 

What to Avoid in Feeding Your Active Dog

Avoid overfeeding treats or table foods. You may be tempted to supplement your active dog’s meals with frequent treats and rewards. The calories from treats usually don’t have the right ratio of nutrients your dog needs, which can imbalance the diet if you are providing more than 20% of their daily calories as treats. Often treats are tasty because they’re high in salt or fat, so keep in mind the calories in treats count toward your dog’s daily intake. Healthy or appropriately balanced treats can still be used in small amounts between meals. All in all, it's best to rely on a complete pet food meant for active dogs, such as the Diamond Naturals Extreme Athlete Chicken and Rice Dog Food

Avoid feeding times immediately before or following a strenuous activity session. Feeding too close to big activities can give your dog a range of digestive problems, from diarrhea to stomach discomfort. Very active dogs should receive their main meal of the day an hour or more after their major activity session. Typically athletic dogs should be fed once or twice a day. 

Avoid making drastic or sudden changes in your dog’s food. If you’re planning to increase or decrease your dog’s food intake, do it gradually by changing intake no more than 20% a day over 2-4 weeks to allow your active dog’s digestive system to adjust to the higher quantity. Similarly, introduce a new type of food to your dog incrementally to avoid any gastrointestinal problems

What to Look for in Food for Your Active Dog 

Buying dog food with high-quality ingredients will help keep your dog from feeling weighed down while exercising. Easily digestible food is tantamount to good active dog health. Rice and corn are two of the most easily digestible carbohydrates for your dog and contain less soluble fiber than many other carbohydrate sources. 

The good news about feeding your active dog is that many dog food brands have already created lines for an active dog’s needs. As always, it’s important to read the labels carefully when selecting what foods best suit your active dog’s lifestyle.

Look for these percentages in food for your active adult dog to help them meet higher energy requirements. 

Protein Content

Fat Content

Dry Food

More than 28%

More than 20%

Wet Food

More than 7%

More than 5%

Some dogs and some specific breeds are more susceptible to joint issues than others, particularly if the dog engages in a high level of physical activity. Strenuous activity can tax a dog’s joints and bones. These dogs may benefit from food containing the supplement glucosamine and joint supplements for dogs. Ingredients like chicken cartilage naturally contain the compounds glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, both of which may be beneficial in slowing the cartilage deterioration that causes joint issues and arthritis. You can look for the levels of these nutrients in your dog’s food or consider using a supplement. 

Large Breed Dog Food and Nutrition 

Big dogs have different nutritional demands than their smaller counterparts to support their different body structures. Large and giant dogs will have special nutritional needs, from puppyhood through maturity.  

Some common large dog breeds are DalmatiansBoxersCollies, and German Shepherds. Giant dogs tend to weigh over 100 pounds and beyond. Great Danes and Newfoundlands are examples of dog breeds classified as a giant. 

What to Look for When Feeding Large or Giant Breed Dogs

Larger breeds experience huge rates of growth from puppyhood into adulthood, and these growth spurts can be associated with serious health risks. Weight control and proper nutrition through good puppy food are crucial to your puppy’s future health. Giving your dog specialized dog food for large breeds, such as the Purina Pro Plan Shredded Blend Large Breed dry food or Purina Pro Plan Large Breed Puppy, is often recommended.  

Overfeeding a large breed puppy can over-accelerate their growth spurts, possibly leading to joint and bone problems. Slower, steady growth is better for these maturing dogs. Unless you are feeding your dog a puppy food labeled specifically for large breed needs, you may wish to switch your puppy to an adult formula around 6 to 8 months of age to prevent too-rapid growth. 

Protein and Fat Content for Food for Large Breed Puppies





Dry Food

22% or more


1.5% or less

Canned Food

5.5% or more


1.5% or less


Protein and Fat Content for Food for Large Breed Adult Dogs




Dry Food



Canned Food




Health Risks for Large and Giant Breed Dogs

Joint Issues and Hip Dysplasia:

Larger dog breeds are more prone to bone and joint problems because their bones are larger and have more weight to support. All large and giant breed dogs’ foods should include ingredients to promote joint nutrition. Glucosamine, chondroitin, and omega fatty acids (from fish oil) can decrease joint inflammation and can help the body repair and strengthen tissues.  

They are considered preventative care measures for joint and bone problems such as arthritis and hip dysplasia. However, the amounts of glucosamine and chondroitin in dog foods may not always be effective. Your veterinarian will be able to guide you regarding supplementation. 

Dogs suffering from hip dysplasia and other joint problems may benefit from being on a diet high in long-chain omega-three fatty acids and low in fat for weight control, since obesity puts more stress on a dog’s frame. You can try Nordic Naturals Omega-3 supplement for your dog. 

Gastric Dilatation or Bloat:

Large dogs with big, deep chests also have a higher risk of potentially fatal bloat or Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus (GDV) than other dogs. GDV is a condition in which the stomach twists, trapping gasses and swelling the abdomen. Although GDV is a leading killer of large dogs, little is known about the causes.

 Symptoms of bloat include pacing, restlessness, dry heaving or attempting to vomit, and an enlarged or sensitive abdomen. If the bloating has progressed, you may see labored breathing, weakness, and possible fainting. If you have a larger breed, you should learn to recognize the symptoms of bloat and be prepared to take emergency action, including an immediate visit to your veterinarian.  

Feeding your dog several smaller meals each day and avoiding vigorous exercise up to two hours before or after eating are considered preventative measures for bloat.

Much of the evidence on causes of bloat has been contradictory. Feeding higher carbohydrate diets and feeding on food bowls on the ground (as opposed to from raised dishes) were once considered risk factors. However more recent evidence suggests the opposite. What veterinarians do know is that bloat is life-threatening and requires immediate veterinary intervention and an online vet if the local vet is not available. 

Moving into Your Large Breed Dog’s Senior Years

The average lifespan of giant and large breeds dogs is 6-12 years, unfortunately, a shorter lifespan than many smaller dog breeds. This means your large dog will have the special needs of a senior dog earlier than other breeds. There are special food products for senior large dogs, such as the Blue Buffalo Life Protection Large Breed Senior dog food, that aim to provide optimal nutrition. 

Although bigger dogs sometimes require more care, they are known for their gentle and protective natures. With proper nutrition and health care, you can enjoy years of happiness with your gentle giant.

More on Nutrition and Dog Food

Find the Right Food for Your Dog
Food Allergies in Dogs
Holistic and Organic Dog Food

This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis, or treatment by, your veterinarian. It has however been reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Joe, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and graduate of Cornell University's program for Veterinary Medicine.

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