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Helping You Get the Most From Your Hunting Dogs

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Most gundogs get in shape during bird season and by the end are physically fit and raring to go. They get into this great shape by exercising aerobically. If a dog starts running regularly six weeks prior to hunting season, it will be in shape by opening day--and allow you to maximize the first six weeks.

Practically speaking, for a dog to get into aerobic shape it must be exercised at least four times a week--six times would be preferable. Taking the dog for a leashed walk after dinner won’t cut it; neither will jogging a couple of miles with it after work. A bird dog may run close to 100 miles in a full day of hunting, and a trot around the block simply won’t build the necessary stamina.

Harness pulling will develop dog's muscles and increase their stamina.
Our Grouse Wing conditioning program alternates between harness-pulling and free-running. For harness-pulling, I attach a bar to the front of a four-wheeler, connect a roading harness to it, then put the harness on the dog the same way I would a sled dog. I drive the four-wheeler at roughly 5 mph and let the dogs try to pull faster--just as they did on leashes before being taught to heel. Harness-pulling is like a workout in the weight room and will develop the dog’s muscles and increase its stamina. The day after roading is a free-run day, on which I ride the four-wheeler and the dogs run with me. Long and slow (as opposed to sprint training) is key to building endurance, and I’ll run the dogs for an hour at 18 mph. (Which is much better than running them for five minutes at 30 mph.).

Don’t try to run your dog for an hour at 18 mph the first day. Increase the speed and length of time gradually. The first day I might have a dog only pull or run for five minutes. Then I slowly increase the workout until the dog is in peak condition. Once a dog is in condition, it will stay in condition if it’s run every other day.

If you don’t own a four-wheeler, roading from horseback is another option. Or you can improvise a conditioning program that will fit your lifestyle and available equipment. Snowmobiles work great in the winter, as running a dog in the white stuff is great exercise. If you ride a bike, jury rig something to let the dog pull you, or simply have it run alongside (being careful to ensure the dog won’t dart into traffic). Checking out coverts before opening day (but not during nesting season) will serve the dual purpose of conditioning the dog and scouting. (Be sure to check local laws about running dogs in the woods.) Swimming is another great alternative and will keep the dog from overheating in the summer months.

If none of the above fit your lifestyle, consider sending your dog to a reputable professional for conditioning. Most fulltime trainers with credentials are knowledgeable about sound programs. Visit the facility to get an idea of the methods.

Another advantage of summer camp for your dog is reinforcing "Whoa, "Hup" or "Sit." Training with live birds prior to opening day will improve greatly your odds of success. Make sure your dog is going to hold point, hunt in range and retrieve. Don’t make opening day a practice day; be prepared.

Training in the heat in an overgrown field is self defeating. The dog will expend too much energy just getting through the cover, and scenting conditions will normally be adverse and counter-productive. A field with cover no higher than 12 to 14 inches is preferable. Many preserves offer grounds groomed expressly for dog training at a nominal charge.

Weather is another big factor affecting conditioning and training. I spend winters in Georgia, but it would be difficult to train during hot summers in the deep South. Once again, sending a dog to a professional might be the most logical choice.

Maintenance most often involves control drills. Once a dog has been properly trained, a few drill repetitions incorporating "Here," "Whoa" or "Sit" will reestablish that the dog is expected to perform. Often all that is necessary is to revisit the exercise that was used originally to train for the response. Repeating this on a consistent basis is still the key.

A nutritionally sound diet is the third ingredient in achieving peak performance. The rule is: Feed for the dog’s lifestyle. If a dog hunts two Saturdays a month during the season, it doesn’t need a high-fat diet. On the other hand, if a dog is hunting hard two days a week or more, I recommend a poultry-based dog food in the 30-percent-fat and 20-percent-protein range. Dogs are not grain eaters. Poultry is readily digestible and is an excellent source of protein. Don’t overlook fat content. Fat is there for the long haul and will give your dog the necessary energy for a hard day’s work.

Be prepared on opening day, and both you and your dog will get the most out of the season.

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