Most hunting dogs are weekend athletes. For five days a week, they’re couch potatoes, lounging around the kennel or the backyard, getting precious little exercise.
On Saturdays and Sundays, the couch potatoes get into their own version of three-on-three basketball or flag football. The results are predictable - poor performance and aching muscles.
That’s why gundog authority Bob West urges hunters to assume the job of conditioning coaches for their canine companions. With more than 20 years of gundog training to his credit, West is field trainer and consultant for Ralston Purina.
“Our studies indicate that it takes six to eight weeks to get a dog into top condition,” says West. “Just like anyone beginning an exercise program should first get medical clearance, you should take your dog to the vet well before hunting season.
“The medical visit is routine in most cases. Make sure the dog is free of parasites and current on all his shots. Tell your vet exactly how you hunt and how much work the dog will be expected to do.”
If you hunt two hours on Saturdays, it’s different than hunting from daylight until dark every Saturday, Sunday and holiday during hunting season. If you run six dogs, rotating them regularly, each dog gets less of a load than a single dog that’s expected to find all the birds.
Retrievers that must swim long distances through cold water are stressed more than dogs that hunt in dry fields or shallow marshes.
Once the medical clearance is given, start the dog on a gradual exercise program of 10- to 15-minute walks each day. Like humans, each dog responds to different workloads, says West.
“It’s very important during the conditioning phase and also during hunting season that you pay close attention to your dog,” adds West. “Watch for signs of fatigue. Signs vary from one dog to the next. It’s important to know the dog’s personality and be able to read its body language.
“During the conditioning phase, you want to push the dog to tone muscles, toughen feet and strengthen cardiovascular system, but you don’t want to overdo the exercise.”
Bird dogs are like basketball players. Few play well if they’re overweight. West wants to see his dog’s ribs and the contours of the dog’s flanks. Retrievers are built differently and are required to work differently. They can carry more weight for insulation against cold water but they don’t need to be overweight.
Once the hunting season begins, a dog that’s well into a conditioning program should be able to hunt himself into even better shape. Unless you’re a pro trainer with plenty of time to spend on your animals, you can’t expect dogs to be in top shape for early season hunts.
For quail and other upland birds, West seldom puts more than two dogs on the ground at a time. Two dogs working together are considerably more efficient than one dog, he explains. Hunters don’t gain much in efficiency by adding more than two dogs to the hunt. It’s also difficult to monitor the activities of more than two dogs.
Chukar-country bird dogs face the added problem of early season heat. West recommends carrying a container of water in the field and training the dog to drink small amounts of water frequently rather than guzzling large amounts once or twice a day.
During the hunting season, working dogs should be fed a well-balanced dog food that delivers at least 1,750 calories per pound.
When West’s dogs are hunting hard, he may feed them a small portion of commercial dog food first thing in the morning, well before the hunt begins. Ordinary feeding time is in the evening, after the dog has had a chance to calm down from his hunting day.
West sometimes feeds his dogs a handful of dry food during the midday break. The need for extra feedings varies with the work load and the individual dog’s metabolism. The same is true of the amount of food each dog is fed.
After the hunt, West puts each dog on the tailgate of his pickup and examines it closely for cuts, sore pads or other physical problems. During the routine examination and the evening feeding period, West studies each dog for abnormal behavior that may signal physical problems.Like pro athletes, most hunting dogs work a whole lot harder than their coaches.