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Helping You Get the Most From Your Hunting Dogs

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Ready, Set, Hunt

by George Hickox

By the time hunting season rolls around, sportsmen everywhere will have invested many hours in preparation. Old side-by-sides will have been cleaned and proper shells purchased. Boots will have been oiled, decoy lines unraveled and vests and hats retrieved from the attic. Evenings and weekends will have been spent on the sporting clays course brushing up on shots that proved difficult during the past season.

But what about their canine companions? Will they be ready for opening day? It’s not simply a matter of taking 01’ Duke or Belle out of storage, dusting them off, giving them a shot of oil and having them perform. For the beginning of bird season to be productive, fun and safe for both the hunter and his dog, a little pre-season preparation is necessary. I recommend a particular three-course plan consisting of a sound conditioning program, maintenance drills and a nutritious diet designed to meet the working dog’s needs.

Far too often a gundog sits idle during the many months between seasons. At the close of one season, the dog is in great shape, aerobically and weight-wise, with well-chiseled muscles. It has been working out regularly in the field, burning calories while questing for game. During the less-active months that follow, ingested calories are not converted to energy but stored as fat. The dog may not be getting its heart rate up regularly and, as a result, will not be able to run as long without becoming exhausted.

Often temperatures on opening day would tax the health of any dog. We all have heard warnings about not entering into a crash exercise program. It would be sheer folly to attempt to run five miles in the heat if we were overweight and out of aerobic shape. For the same reasons, it would be unwise to ask a dog to run four to eight hours on opening day if it had not been conditioned properly. Not only could this be risking the dog’s health but, at the least, the dog’s bird-finding abilities would not be maximized. A dog scents while inhaling, not exhaling, and the harder it is seeking air, the less it is able to use its olfactory sense.

Enough preaching. Let’s look at the how-tos of getting a dog physically fit. The first step is to schedule an appointment with a vet. Make sure all the dog’s shots are up to date. Bring a stool sample and make sure the dog is free of intestinal parasites such as hookworms, whipworms, roundworms and tapeworms as well as coccidiosis. The vet will check for heartworms and Lyme disease as well as any signs of infections or abnormalities. Have him or her check for any irregularity in the dog’s heart and lungs. Once the dog has received a clean bill of health you can begin a conditioning program.

Assuming the dog is not carrying more than 5 to 10 percent extra weight, a good gauge would be that it will take six to eight weeks to get the dog into peak condition. This time frame will change if the dog has maintained its proper weight during the off-season. If the dog has been allowed to become obese, it will take longer. If a dog does not have a problem such as thyroid abnormalities, weight is a function of calories in, calories out and when it eats more calories than it burns, weight gain is inevitable.

When hunting season ends, cut back on the amount of calories being fed. This can be accomplished with less volume or by switching to food that is lower in fat. Dogs also should be weighed regularly. Shaving one or two pounds off is easier than dropping 10.
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