"Feeding to Unleash Your Dog's Potential"
Mike Watkins, Ph.D.
Dairy Manufacturers, Inc.

Mother Nature (natural genetic selection) has been determining which dogs produce the next generation since time began. Humans (artificial selection) began determining which animals would produce the next generation a few centuries ago, and we continue to do so today. Through refined selection techniques and quantitating the heritability of some traits, performance dogs today have far greater potential and ability than dogs of only a few decades ago. Proof of selection success is often expressed in the refrain “better bred than fed.” The challenge today is feeding these highly bred performance dogs to “unleash” the genetic potential trapped inside.

Entrepreneurial pet food product manufacturers endeavor to produce products that go beyond meeting basic dog nutrient requirements to products that unleash the potential bred into performance dogs. These workers realize that “functional foods” and optimum nutrition are key. “Functional Foods,” an emerging area of nutrition, are foods, food components, and nutrients that provide important benefits beyond the traditional nutrition function. For example, the dietary essential fatty acids, Omega-3s and Omega-6s, known for their role in membrane structure and precursors to some other metabolic compounds, are now recognized as having a role in reducing the incidence of cardiovascular disease. Additionally, it is recognized that higher levels of certain nutrients are more beneficial than previously known.

Some new dog food supplements are starting to capitalize on functional foods to help unleash the genetic potential trapped in today’s performance dogs. These products are starting to be recognized by more and more dog owners and trainers for their value in getting dogs to the winner’s circle. The purpose of this article is to explain how three functional foods--lecithin, enzymes and direct-fed microbials--work to help unleash the genetic potential of well-bred performance dogs.


Phospholipids (commonly referred to as lecithin) are natural compounds found in plant and animal tissue. Most commercially available lecithin is derived from soybean oil, and lecithin is commonly used as an emulsifier in foods and some animal feeds in small amounts. Phospholipids, in simplistic terms, are composed of fatty acids (linoleic (omega-6), oleic, palmitic, linolenic (omega-3) and others), phosphorus, choline (a B-vitamin) and other lesser compounds. Phospholipids are essential components of cell membranes, are synthesized in the body, and are the most abundant lipid component in animal cell membranes. Adding additional lecithin to human diets, as well as animal diets, is proving to be very beneficial as its value as a “functional food” is being discovered.

Enriching dog diets with lecithin can result in better-looking dogs, mentally sharper dogs and dogs that perform at a higher level. Dogs receiving additional lecithin are known to have a healthier hair coat and better skin condition compared to that of dogs not receiving lecithin. Research has demonstrated that supplementing dog foods with 1% to 3% lecithin provides the phospholipids and essential fatty acids needed to maintain membrane fluidity, permeability and integrity as well as the synthesis of some other metabolically active compounds. Dogs with healthy skin are more resistant to irritations, infections, allergens, and scrapes, and cuts heal more quickly. Likewise, their hair coat has the sheen and luster that just radiates “healthy dog.”

Cell membranes throughout the body are affected by greater lecithin consumption. The impact on skin and hair is a visual impact; however, virtually all cells return to “normal” when a more optimal level of lecithin is consumed. The synthesis of certain metabolically active compounds returns to normal, permitting more normal overall metabolic function and put simply, “Things just work better!” Dogs maintain their appetite and keep better condition during heavy training and working. They not only look better, they respond and perform better physically.

Choline, a component of the phospholipid phosphatidylcholine, is a B-vitamin. Choline has long been known as a component of acetylcholine, the chemical compound essential for nerve impulse transmission. Also, choline, when supplied in sufficient amounts, “spares” methionine, a dietary essential amino acid needed for protein synthesis. By sparing methionine, choline indirectly aids in normal protein synthesis.

New research shows that choline (from lecithin) probably is essential for normal brain development. Research at Duke University indicates that offspring from bitches fed diets supplemented with lecithin during gestation and lactation were, in effect, “smarter” than offspring from bitches fed unsupplemented diets. Brain development studies with rats tend to support the findings of the Duke researchers. These researchers found that in laboratory rats, choline supplementation is critical during certain periods in gestation and lactation. Actually, supplementation during days 12-17 (embryonic) and days 16-30 (postnatal) is critical in rat brain development. These time periods coincide with cholinergic neuron (neurons requiring acetylcholine) formation (prenatal) and nerve-nerve connections (postnatal) in the memory area of the brain. Similar critical periods for choline (lecithin) supplementation may also exist in dogs.

Trainers report that dogs fed lecithin containing supplements for several weeks before starting training are easier to train, learn more quickly, and “know what is going on” better than dogs not fed lecithin until they arrive at the kennel for training. These trainers also recognize that dogs getting lecithin-based products are in better condition and have more stamina than unsupplemented dogs.


Enzymes are being used in state-of-the-art animal feeding to improve nutrient availability and animal performance. Enzymes allow for more complete digestion of what dogs eat, thus essentially raising the nutritional value of the ration. Adding enzymes to diets can increase both the rate of digestion and the extent of digestion. The three most abundant components of a dry dog food are starch, protein and fat. Adding the right enzymes (amylases (starch digesting), proteases (protein digesting) and lipases (fat digesting) ) to the ration via a supplement is an effective way of helping dogs get more of the nutrients they need to perform at their best.

It is worth noting that enzymes are heat sensitive, and the heat applied during the manufacture of dog food is high enough that enzyme activity is destroyed. This is why feeding an enzyme-containing supplement is an effective way of helping performance dogs utilize their ration more completely and attain more optimal nutrient levels to unleash their genetic potential.

Direct-Fed Microbials (DFMs)

Direct-fed micro-organisms, better known as “probiotics,” are viable (live), naturally occurring, beneficial microorganisms. Lactobacillus acidophilus, found in most yogurt products, is just one such “good” micro-organism.

DFMs have long been known to help maintain desirable digestive microflora populations by warding off undesirable, deleterious microbes. The “good” bacteria defeat the “bad” microbes by several mechanisms, which include producing mild antibiotics, being more competitive for sites of attachment and/or nutrients, and by lowering intestinal pH. Daily intake of a supplement that contains DFMs helps ensure that sufficient beneficial bacteria are present to help keep the gut healthy, the dog feeling fit and ready to perform at its best... helps to “unleash” the potential.

Getting the most out of well-bred high-performance dogs requires a lot of time, effort, money from dog owners and trainers. However, by taking advantage of products that utilize functional foods, including lecithin, enzymes and DFMs, to take well-bred dogs to higher levels of performance, owners and trainers may attain their goal of making their dogs winners more quickly.