Spring is a wonderful time of the year, but as seasons go, bird hunters all look forward to fall because that's when hunting season opens up. And bird season is when we can do what we love to do best -- to take our best friend afield. And by best friend I mean a bird dog.
My favorite hunting trips include a well-trained dog; we work together as a team: I bring down the birds and my Boykin spaniel fetches them for me. If he doesn't see them fall he will stop on a single toot of my whistle and take arm cast directions to the fall. He will watch the sky and sometimes spot the birds before I do. He might whine in anticipation when he hears the safety click off as I shoulder the gun and swing with the bird to shoot. He might even bark at me if I miss.
Or, we might go upland hunting, where I turn him loose to quarter and flush quail, his feathered tail going ninety miles an hour when he gets a nose full of scent as he busts into the cover and forces the bobwhites to head for the hills. The dog sits to the flush and after I raise my gun to shoot and if I am lucky enough to bring down a bird or two, the spaniel is released to fetch and bring the bird to hand.
My favorite hunting companion is a 10-year-old Boykin spaniel named Mule. Mule has been trained to the highest standards and has titles and accumulated points to show for his lifetime of work. He loves to retrieve so much that he will fetch up bumpers in the yard and if you ignore him he will toss the bumpers at you from his mouth then pounce at them to give you the message to throw it! He doesn't need training to learn new tricks but he does need retrieves every day to keep him in condition.
Senior dogs are a joy to hunt with because they have a lifetime of training behind them and because you have worked through the hunting seasons until you are a great team. If they have bad habits you may have learned to accept them and allow some less-than-perfect deliveries and, possibly, a slipped whistle or two. You might even make excuses for the misbehavior, blaming it on failing eyesight or hearing loss.
But what if, for your old dog, hearing loss is not an excuse but a reality? The older our hunting dogs become the more they are likely to show the effects of their years beside the gun, effects that can include deafness and loss of vision, achy joints and possible arthritis.
On the flip side, senior dogs are a lot like us as we age: We get set in our ways and bad habits become difficult or almost impossible to break. Recently I had two old Labrador retrievers come in for a training tune up for basically the same issue -- lack of control. One would not stop and sit to a whistle in the dove field and the other would break on the shot.
Both of these dogs were trained with electronic training collars and both of the owners did not use the collars in the field. The owners felt bad about hunting with training collars, even though that is one of the best times to use the collar -- to keep the dog honest. You are caught up in the hunt, watching the sky for birds or perhaps anticipating the flush of a covey of quail. Your dog is trained and "should" do what he was trained to do, right?
Well, not always. Dogs will continue to test you their whole lives to see what they can get away with. And like you, they also get caught up in the excitement of the hunt, the adrenaline pumping, and can temporarily forget the lessons they've learned.
When I worked the dogs with the collars they listened perfectly. It's much better to put the collar on the dogs and not need it than to leave the collar at home and end up yelling at your dog in the field. Nine times out of 10, the dog is "collar-wise" and will be the best dog ever when wearing the collar, whether you need to use it or not. If you do need to use it, low-level corrections are all that are necessary to get the old pup's attention.
The training collar can be a positive reinforcer, particularly if you are hunting with an older, deaf dog or one with limited hearing, since the collar becomes a 'hearing aid' in the most literal sense.
Sometimes the deaf dog cannot hear your voice but can hear the whistle. If he can't hear the whistle, you may have to work with the dog to condition him to look at you when you nick him with a low level on the collar. If he has advanced to handling on blind retrieves he will already know the hand signals/casts to get him to go out and find your birds. He may even know the arm movement to come in; arm straight down, palm out extended to the ground.
If your senior dog is not trained on hand signals I would use food treats to get the message across so that the dog doesn't get worried when you nick him with the collar. You can use food treats or, if the dog is not food motivated, reward the dog with a toss of a bumper or tennis ball for responding to the collar nick. You want the dog to understand he is not being punished, but rather the low level nick is a good thing when he makes eye contact.
The best solution to the deaf dog is prevention. To begin with, you need to be more aware of where your dog is in relation to the gun when hunting. As hunters we are cautioned to use ear protection and have the option whether we heed that advice or not. Since we can't get our dogs to wear earplugs we need to be conscience of our canines when we shoot. More often or not, the dog is sitting a foot or so in front of us, sometimes further away, watching remotely either outside of the blind or at the flush. The dog needs to be directly beside us or behind us so that the muzzle blast does not deafen him.
As we all get older it's not as easy to get out of bed in the morning and any over-exertion lets us know how out of condition we are. It's the same with our gun dogs. Older animals, humans and dogs alike, move a little slower and need some time to allow the muscles to warm up, the creaky joints to lubricate as we walk around to start the day.
Our old hunting buddies may have earned the right to live in the house if they have been kennel dogs for most of their lives, but that doesn't mean they stop working.
If they are house dogs, don't allow them to become couch potatoes in the off season and then expect them to jump up and fetch on opening day. Get in the habit of daily walks and carry a training bumper or two with you for some simple marked retrieves or blind drills.
Swimming is the best exercise for us and our senior dogs, because it puts much less stress on the joints than running, but still provides a good cardiovascular workout. Use this conditioning time to work on blind retrieve drills and, whenever possible, train where you will hunt so the dog is confident and comfortable working in the area.
Another issue that comes with age is weight gain and loss of muscle. If your senior dog is gaining weight while his meals have remained constant, then a full physical might be called for to rule out hypo-thyroid condition. A lower fat and lower protein high-quality dog food would be called for, in addition to a regular exercise regimen, with as much swimming as you can give him.
When reading the label on dog food bags, make sure the meat protein is the number one ingredient, whether lamb, chicken or fish. I feed a quality dog food that is grain-free, which means the dog digests most of his feed and there is not much clean up.
Elevating his food dish can also make eating and digestion easier for some older dogs.
I also give my old dog one fish-oil capsule (or a teaspoon of liquid fish oil) and one pill for his joints which includes glucosamine and chondroitin. There are several good-quality joint formulas to choose from and most veterinarians carry them in their practice or you can order some online.
If the supplements for easing joint pain don't sustain your senior hunting pal during strenuous working sessions, then some stronger medications are called for. The prescription medications can cause other serious side-effects, so you don't want to give your dog pain pills on a long term, daily basis. A day or two before your hunt you can start giving the pills and then stop a day or two after the hunting is over.
If your dog needs some short-term relief without a prescription you can use buffered aspirin. Make sure whichever medications you use that you give them with food to alleviate any stomach problems. And don't give pain medications on a daily, long term basis. If your dog has long-term issues with pain, consult your vet.
Keeping your hunting buddy in shape is important at all ages, but it is particularly critical with senior dogs. Warming up the muscles before the hunt is also recommended when possible. A good long walk getting to your duck blind, for example, helps to limber up both canine and hunter before sitting in the blind. During the winter months, a snug-fitting neoprene vest is recommended for all ages of water dogs, but can be especially helpful for the senior dog who is trying to help keep body heat in and fend off hypothermia.
After the hunt don't simply put the dog in a box and forget about him long enough for the dog to just lie down and stiffen up. Walk him again to make sure he's dry in the winter and cooled down in the summer.
Be a real friend to your oldster and massage his muscles at the end of the day. I know I appreciate a good massage and your dog will be grateful for a rubdown from you after a hard days' work.
All in all, I would rather hunt with an older, experienced dog than a young pup, since all the hard work is behind you and it's time to reap the benefits of countless hours of training. You hunt as a team, relaxed and having fun afield, each of you knowing his or her job. Most of the old gun dogs I know would much rather be in the field with you than anywhere else. As long as the dog is kept in condition and you don't push him past his limits, there is no reason not to take him on your next hunt.