Pre-Season Conditioning For Hunting Dogs

Has your prized hunting dog spent the off-season munching snacks and curling up on the couch? Now's the time to start getting him (and you) in shape for the coming hunting season.

Tim Flanigan

Few things in life are more disappointing than opening the annual small game season with a year's worth of pent-up enthusiasm, but only two hours' worth of dog.

Pushing a fat, unfit "couch hound" suddenly into a marathon hunt amid the briars and brush of bird and rabbit habitat is as foolhardy as it is cruel. Hunting dogs love the chase as much as we do. But when the dog's physical condition doesn't equal his zeal, the quality of the hunt is greatly reduced -- for everyone involved.

I'll admit to years of prejudice against a very popular and stylish bird dog breed. Each hunt with such dogs and their overly proud owners was abbreviated by the early exhaustion of the dogs and their increasingly diminished performance. Two hours of hunting seemed to be the limit of that breed's stamina.

Before one such hunt, the owner of a picture-perfect, calendar-model-quality dog boasted of her exceptional abilities. Unfortunately, the animal's performance failed to reflect his praise.

One hour into the hunt on steep hillsides festooned by brush and vines, the dog refused to retrieve a bird that had fallen uphill of the point. An hour later, the pitifully fatigued dog would simply lie down at the shot and refuse to retrieve. Soon she was moping along behind her chagrined master; her desire to hunt as thoroughly exhausted as his patience.

No amount of yelling by her owner could rejuvenate the spent animal, and his frustration knew no bounds. At the close of the hunt, while I was trying to pose the dog for a photograph with our meager harvest, the exhausted dog collapsed on the birds and fell asleep.

I later learned that the dog spent most of her life in a small outside kennel, with limited exposure to the family and precious little exercise free of confinement. The owner simply shelved this fine animal during the long off-season like a shotgun in his cabinet, ignoring her until next year's hunting season -- a sad but all too common scenario.

THE LESSON LEARNED

Nine months of lounging and pampering with too many snacks, treats and table scraps will turn any Fido into pie dough. An hour into the first hunt of the season, the dog trudges along at the owner's heels with rubbery legs and heaving chest. He flops down at every opportunity to lie panting with his thorn-torn tongue lolling in the leaves.

An unfit dog reflects poorly on its owner. How do you explain this spoiled hunt to your companions? How do you explain it to Prince or Queeny, who sincerely wants to hunt and please you, but is physically unable to perform? If only you'd set aside time for just an evening or two each week during the off-season to exercise and condition him for the rigors of hunting.

There is just one hunting season each year, and we all want to make the best of it. On the other hand, only a fool expects peak performance from a canine hunting companion that's been ignored and relegated to pet status during the preceding months. A lethargic, overweight, out-of-shape dog cannot possibly transform into an athlete on opening day. Worse yet, the stress of sudden exertion may cause severe and lasting injuries. Muscles, tendons and ligaments may be damaged by sudden overuse, and may very well put Rover out of service for several weeks, if not the entire season.

If you love your dog, train yourself to exercise and condition him all year long.

In my youth, I wondered at my Granddad's regimen of releasing his prized pair of beagles on cool summer evenings to chase the local bunnies. Several evenings a week, Pap would take the dogs to the forested ridge across from our rural home and loose them from the dual chain. Max and Jack would run rabbits until they got called back at dark. While beagle music echoed off the hills, Pap simply leaned against a tree, smoked his Lucky Strikes and listened. He made no effort to head off the rabbit -- as we would later, come October -- or even give the dogs any instructions. He simply let them run and listened to the chase with appreciative ears.

Only years later did I realize that what he called "trainin' the dogs" was more than providing rabbit-running experience. It was physical conditioning that paid off later in a limit of rabbits, even under the worst of winter conditions.

Well-trained dogs in good condition that could hunt all day were as uncommon back then, nearly 50 years ago, as they are today. Earning a living and meeting the ever-increasing family and social obligations of modern life leaves little time for dog training during those long months closed to hunting. But getting afield with your dog for training can be a therapeutic diversion from life's demands for both of you.

Granddad's "dog trainin' " was a form of love that Max and Jack obviously responded to. Their abilities on the trail and their athletic fitness assured enjoyable hunts and many tasty rabbit meals from Grandma's kitchen. Pap took great pride in his highly efficient dogs. In earlier years, he'd trained his beloved bird dogs with equal diligence, and many an upland game dinner had been the reward.

For years, my work obligations required many long hours of travel. But at every opportunity, my Brittany traveled with me. Each day I took advantage of little-used roads or private farm lanes where we were welcome, and where it was safe to "road the dog." That is, the dog was permitted to run ahead of my vehicle and explore the many interesting smells along the way. During lunch breaks, we would locate an out-of-the-way spot, usually near a stream, for him to explore while I munched a sandwich. Lunchtime provided an additional exercise opportunity, and the stream provided the fresh water that's so vital to canine health. Best of all, it was fun for the dog. That daily exercise kept him fit and eager, year-round.

GET TO WORK

Hunting dogs are bred for work and they need and enjoy exercise. But if your four-legged hunting partner has grown soft during the off-season, you must conduct pre-season conditioning with special care to avoid overdoing it and inflicting lasting harm to the animal.

In the words of Bob West, director of Purina's Field Programs, "Common sense must prevail." West, who has worked professionally with hunting dog breeds since 1967, noted that hunting dogs possess such a strong desire to hunt that they will actually injure themselves in the process. Their exercise must be tailored to ease joints and muscles gradually back into fitness while avoiding overheating.

LOSE THE FAT

According to West, overweight is the leading cause of health problems in dogs. He suggests six to eight weeks of pre-season conditioning as a minimum to regain hunt-ready status for any chubby, sluggish dog. He adds that dogs entering the hunting season in unfit condition are prone to injury and may not attain proper fitness until just when the season is closing.

It's vitally important to take your dog to a veterinarian for a full physical exam before beginning any exercise and training program. Be sure to tell the vet how you intend to hunt the dog and seek his advice on a proper and safe exercise plan.

Veterinarian Bruce Mueller agrees that overweight causes most canine health problems, but adds that the scale doesn't tell the whole story. To properly check body condition, he advises that you "Put your hands on the dog."

If you cannot feel any ribs or spinal vertebrae because of a thick layer of fat, then your dog is overweight and almost certainly unfit for the strenuous physical demands of hunting. If the ribs and spine are quite obvious to the eye, the dog is too thin and may have a parasite infection that requires immediate attention. But if you can easily feel the dog's ribs and vertebrae, the animal is very likely in proper condition.

During exercise, it's vitally important to monitor your dog closely for signs of overheating. Watch for dark gums that indicate a large amount of blood in the mouth tissues striving to be cooled. Heavy panting, a drooping "lazy" tail, lolling eyes or slow gait are other indicators of overheating that must be closely monitored. At the first sign of overheating, act to cool the dog. Stop, rest and provide water. Flushing the dog's mouth with fresh water will clear heavy saliva from the tongue and gums and promote cooling.

Professional trainers carry thermometers to monitor their charges' body temperatures. For most breeds, the normal body temperature averages 102 degrees. Temps in the 104- to 105-degree range demand immediate attention, but cooling should be done gradually with rest in the shade, and cool water. A seriously heat-stressed dog may never fully recover and may never hunt with the same stamina and eagerness that he had before.

For returning an out-of-shape dog to hunting fitness, West suggests the following tips:

HAVE A PLAN THAT WORKS

Begin with short periods of exercise in the early weeks, as little as 10 to 15 minutes of moderate exercise daily or every other day.

Mix it up and keep it fun. Your dog should enjoy exercising, so make it hunting-related (such as retrieving training for retrievers). When the dog loses interest or appears tired, stop the session immediately.

Gradually extend the duration of the dog's exercise programs as stamina increases and as long as he's having fun.

The owner simply shelved this fine animal during the long off-season like a shotgun in a cabinet, ignored until next year's hunting season, a sad but all too common scenario.

Swimming is wonderful for conditioning all the muscle groups and increasing cardio-vascular fitness. Using water as part of any exercise program is also wise because of its additional cooling benefits.

And encouragement is important.

"Lean on desire," West advises. Push the dog to want to hunt while keeping it fun and of course, rewarding him with praise.

To increase the dog's endurance and toughen his pads, run him on all types of soils and terrain.

Free running is especially good for increasing stamina. Take long walks off the leash, but add some leash training during which the dog will pull against the restraint and strengthen those rear-leg muscles.

Protect your dog from over-exertion. With proper food and ample fresh water, dogs progress rapidly toward fitness, but hunting breeds possess exceptional exuberance and desire. They will give you everything they've got and may injure themselves in the process, so be careful.

SENSIBLE EATING

Do not feed a dog prior to exercising or hunting. A full stomach can stress the animal and cause irritation to the digestive tract.

The dog's nutritional needs will increase as fitness returns, and a hardworking dog requires larger amounts of food and more fats in his diet. When working in cold weather, a dog's caloric needs may double.

A note of caution: Any dog will continue to want large, high-fat meals after the season closes, but it's wise to gradually reduce food amounts in post-season months.

Dr. West suggests that hunting dogs should be fed once a day in the late afternoon or evening, but not within 12 hours of hard work. In fact, it's wise to avoid giving any food within one or two hours of hunting. Carrying a load of food while hunting irritates the digestive tract and will cause the dog to force evacuation for relief. You may notice mucus or blood in the stool. A properly fed dog will quickly evacuate and then hunt with ease and energy.

Some trainers provide small, high-calorie snacks before and periodically during hunting to maintain their hardworking dogs' blood-sugar levels. To avert hypoglycemic (low blood-sugar) emergencies in hunting dogs, some trainers provide them with periodic snacks in a high-calorie paste form. Dogs suffering from hypoglycemia may stagger, appear disoriented and may even suffer seizures. Providing a small amount of corn syrup is a simple, effective treatment for hypoglycemic reactions.

For exceptionally overweight dogs, six to eight weeks of pre-season conditioning may not be enough. Obese dogs require several months of gradual reconditioning.

Most professional dog trainers agree that there's no quick fix for seriously obese dogs and note that obesity is a precursor to many conditions that affect and injure sporting dogs such as diabetes, anal gland disease, cardiovascular overload, osteoarthritis and respiratory function problems as well as leg, joint and foot stress.

Reducing a dog's caloric intake may be as simple as eliminating daily table scraps and special treats.

Diet reductions should be gradual along with the expansion of an exercise program.

GET TO WORK

In the early stages, 10- to 15-minute sessions in the morning and evening may be sufficient. But dogs respond rapidly, and you may want to increase the number of short sessions daily and eventually progress to longer but fewer sessions. As fitness increases, you may wish to adopt a training rotation of three or four days of training and one day of rest to permit the dog's muscle cells to recover and rebuild.

Retrievers as well as upland flushing and pointing dog breeds respond well to a combination of diet and exercise tailored to the dogs' hunti

ng style. Retrievers are often compared to sprinters because they must run or swim short distances and return rapidly, often through deep muck and heavy aquatic vegetation -- and of course, water. These dogs need more muscle and physical power than upland pointers and flushing breeds or trailing dogs, whose work requires increased cardio-vascular conditioning and stamina.

To build muscle and strength in retrievers, consider a process of slowly "roading" the dogs while they pull continuously against a restraint. That restraint may be a leash held by the owner, or a flexible arm or spring attached to an ATV or bicycle operated at very slow speed. For running upland and trailing dogs, steadily increase the speed and duration of such training sessions.

Dr. West suggests that hunting dogs should be fed once a day in the late afternoon or evening, but not within12 hours of hard work.

DOG MAINTENANCE

Experienced trainers also advise that the dog's nails be kept trimmed to prevent crippling tearing accidents, and recommend that the dog's pads be checked after every training session and hunt. Sore, injured feet greatly limit a dog's mobility and may cause serious health problems and infections that -- as Murphy's Law dictates -- will crop up just before the season opens!

There are many benefits to pre-season conditioning. During each training session, the bond between dog and master deepens. Communication skills and obedience are enhanced, as the pair becomes a highly efficient hunting duo that works easily together. A fully bonded hunter-dog team communicates so efficiently that in the field, no shouting is needed. A simple head nod or hand signal effectively and quietly directs the hunt. What an exceptional benefit this is with highly skittish species such as grouse!

Training is the next best thing to hunting and it's mutually beneficial to man and dog. Pre-season training is a real investment in your dog's health and longevity.

Dividends include many years of enjoyable hunting season and a full bag of cherished memories.

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.