June 01, 2021
While the calendar may suggest that we’re still several months from the start of hunting season, there is no off-season for a bird dog. During the spring and summer, I work my dogs in a wide range of habitats seven days a week.
My goal is to condition and train them in a variety of landscapes and situations so they’re physically and mentally prepared come hunting season. Here’s the drill.
Renowned dog trainer and dedicated upland hunter Jess Spradley of Cabin Creek Gun Dogs in Lakeview, Ore., trains competition and breeding dogs year-round.
"Now is when I start roading dogs," says Spradley. "There are a couple ways to do this, but for hunters the most efficient is to get on a secluded logging road or remote country road and ride an ATV, electric bike or mountain bike and let your dogs run in front."
Spradley notes the goal of roading is to let your dog run loose at its own pace. "You want to reach 6 to 10 miles per hour, and if your dog wants to go faster, great. I like running dogs up a gentle incline, as that builds strength in their back end."
Spradley’s goal it to attain a 45-minute workout. He gives water to his dogs no more frequently than every 15 minutes, since an objective of this training is to condition a dog to perform without constantly begging for water.
"If they ask for it every few minutes, keep working them and make them wait," he says.
I love running my dogs in the mountains and across expansive fields, as it gets them in shape and engages their minds. Hardwoods, creek bottoms, big timber, steep hills, sage brush, even snow at high elevations—all are good workout settings.
"I’ll let my dogs run in the woods or sage brush for an hour," says Spradley. "They go at their own speed, running, jumping and exploring. Let ’em go as fast as they want, and if you have two dogs, that’s better since they’ll push one another. This is great for endurance training, and all the sights, smells and sounds stimulate their minds."
I shed hunt with my two pudelpointers, and during these free-runs I often take deer and elk antlers for them to pack. Carrying a shed antler gets them used to navigating brushy terrain, and a heavy elk shed will build neck, jaw and body strength.
"Remember, hunting dogs are very smart and they get bored doing the same thing in the same place," says Spradley. "Their mind and body need continual stimulation and challenges in order to optimize their happiness and performance levels."
If I had to choose one setting in which to condition my dogs it would be water.
"Long swims work every muscle in a dog. The more water situations you can get them in, the better," says Spradley. “Lots of folks swim their dogs 30 to 40 minutes while they paddle alongside in a canoe or kayak or atop a paddleboard."
I swim my dogs in lakes, ponds, rivers and water with reeds and tall grass, but avoid swift currents. I split workout sessions into two 45-minute blocks; a run in the morning and a swim in the afternoon, four days a week. Two days they run during both sessions, and one day they rest. I mix up bumpers and training dummies to motivate the dogs and keep them interested.
"If you can only devote 15 minutes in the morning and 15 at night, that’s better than nothing,” Spradley says. “But I’d rather go twice a week for 45 minutes and work ’em hard."
COMMAND AND CONTROL
In every workout scenario, whether on land or water, I’m training my dogs to obey verbal commands and hand signals. Such training never stops, and instilling basic commands is important for effective training and, later, hunting.
"My commands never vary," says Spradley. "No matter where I am, I’m teaching my dogs the same commands in all situations. Conditioning sessions are the time to train your dog and get them to do what you want."
Simple commands that your dog already knows, such as "sit" and "hup" can be reinforced in a variety of situations with a variety of distractions present.
That gets the dog used to obeying quickly no matter what else is going on. Sit means sit even if someone is playing catch across the park, just as sit means sit when you are upland bird hunting and accidentally bump a bedded deer.
If your dog’s not in shape, start conditioning slowly. Consult your vet, train smart, outline a program and stick with it. Come hunting season the benefits will be realized.