Imagine, for a moment, that you’re sitting on your recliner just before nodding off. It’s early fall, the nights are getting cooler, and every instinct in your body is telling you to rest, eat, and generally prepare yourself for the long, cold winter just around the corner. The house is nice and warm, your belly is full, and now your eyes are getting heavy…heavier…
It’s at this precise point an Olympic trainer busts through the front door, tosses you a blaze orange vest, and tells you it’s time for your two-month-long biathlon to begin.
For most of us middle-aged types, the transition to hunting season and the long walks it often entails can result in sore muscles and general fatigue. When it comes to our four-legged companions—especially those pampered mutts whose idea of exercise is circling three times before lying down next to the fire—the change from lap dog into hard-charging hunting dog can have drastic impacts on their physical well-being and desire to hunt. For older or seriously unfit dogs, entering the hunting season overweight and short on stamina can result in joint injury, susceptibility to illness, or even death by heat exhaustion or drowning.
None of this should be news; we all know a properly conditioned hunting dog is the greatest attribute of the modern bird hunter. The problem, as with 95 percent of any problem, is the execution. Hectic work schedules, lack of open space and our own physical fitness “issues” can all add to the challenge of keeping our dogs lean and mean. And let’s face facts; it’s difficult enough to see our own ribs at times, so expecting your dog to conform to the veterinarian’s weight guidelines seems downright hypocritical.
The key to overcoming these obstacles is simple; we need to recognize that Homo sapiens and Canis familiarus are two very different animals. I often take my Labrador on a brisk mile-long run after work, which leaves me sucking for air and my dog wondering when we’re going to actually go do something. For proper dog training to stand a chance, we can’t rely on them keeping up to our own meager physical fitness standards. Instead, we need to take advantage of our strengths—increased brainpower and technology—and couple those attributes with the dog’s natural instincts. Mix in that greatest motivator of all, the fun factor, and getting ready for autumn can be almost as enjoyable as the hunt itself.
Following is a year-long training regime for keeping your dog in hunting shape. It’s meant to keep a mature dog healthy, happy, and ready for whatever challenges the woods and fields have to offer come October. We’ll start with summer, as that’s the time you’ll be reading this. But we’ve also included suggestions for spring and winter because, ideally, keeping your dog—and yourself—in shape should be a year-round activity.
For older dogs, or pups just coming into adult frames, practice restraint in all training exercises, especially in weather extremes.
The bloom of spring has gone, the calendar is creeping toward autumn, and all across the land, hunters are taking long, hard looks at their soft dogs. Too many people purse their lips, shrug and think: He’ll burn it off in hunting season.
Not cool, neither the idea nor the weather. It’s simply unfair to the dog to let it enter the season carrying extra baggage, and it’ll cost us birds in the fall. But what can you do? The days are hot, the evenings all too often filled with baseball or fishing or golf, and the temptation to leave Chubby panting in the shade can be strong.
There’s a natural solution, of course: it’s time to hit the water. Water retrieves are a great all around muscle-toning exercise, and breeds that aren’t overly found of swimming will often overcome their dislike of the water on a warm summer day. If you have an older or seriously out-of-shape dog, make sure you choose shallow stretches of water with a hard bottom so you can offer assistance if the need arises.
For non-retriever types, break out a canoe or kayak and go for longer swims, staying offshore just far enough to work the dog and close enough to get to land if he tires quickly. Be sure to check the water carefully for scum or mats of biological growth prior to training.
These toxic clumps of cyanobacteria (often called blue-green algae, though colors range from red to green) contain microcystins, a waste product that kills hundreds of dogs each summer. As a general rule, warm stagnant waters harbor most cyanobacteria colonies, with peak activity during mid to late-summer.
It only takes a mouthful and your dog could get seriously ill or die, so again, avoid any suspicious-looking, scummy water.
Okay, this is the time you’re afield with your dog, and we’ll hope that when the season opens you’re both in good shape. If you’re not—either you or your dog, or both—take it easy for the first few outings, and don’t overdo it!
The hunting season is over, and you swear to yourself that next year, by gum, things are going to be different. No more huffing and puffing, side-heaving, drooling breaks at mid-morning. And your dog’s going to be in shape, too.
Wherever you live, whether deep in the snowbelt or among the brown fields of more southerly climes, winter is a natural time of dormancy. It feels good to relax, to eat well and recover from the rigors of autumn. But for too many dogs, this time of “recovery” can be the most damaging season of all. Sudden weight gain and the slow atrophy of hard-earned hunting muscle can offset any physical improvements gained the past few months.
Where I live in the Upper Midwest, the ruffed grouse and pheasant seasons don’t end until late December, but deep snows often make hunting the last month impossible. This layer of snow, however, is a perfect medium to start your post-season conditioning regime. The focus for your “hunting conditioned” dog is not losing weight, but rather maintaining muscle mass and stamina.
There are few better, or simpler, ways to work the different muscle groups than plowing through snow on a couple dozen retrieves every evening. In many ways, this routine mirrors the full-body workout provided by swimming. For areas without snow, thick grass offers a good medium to provide a little extra resistance.
A few years back, I took winter training to a different level. It was on one of those after-work runs, with my Labrador pulling me along the snow-packed road. It was obvious he wasn’t content with my shuffling pace; I, in turn, wanted to regain circulation in the fingertips clenched to the leash.
This was around the same time that the presence of a national dogsled race was occupying the local airwaves, which supplied the spark of an idea. I swiped a horse halter from my wife’s tack supplies, the sled from my kids’ favorite hill, and in minutes my dog and I were engaged in the ancient sport of pulka, the forerunner of skijoring.
You don’t have to use a horse halter, of course. Sled dog harnesses are available online for most dogs over 35 pounds and usually cost under $30. Simply hook your harnessed dog up to a sled or toboggan, snap a leash onto the same ring the load is attached to, and you’ve got the prefect strength-training tool.
It’s essential to start out with light loads, which will save on aches and strains, and also prevent the dog from balking. Begin with an empty sled, then work your way up in 10- or 20-pound increments (unopened dog food bags work well; so do bored children). In deeper snow, seek out cross-country ski trails, windswept lakes, or other packed areas to prevent undue strain.
For waterfowl dogs, this technique is especially useful. It builds and develops swimming muscles, while giving your dog a little added bulk and cold weather endurance—perfect training for retrieving a downed mallard in icy, weed-choked water.
Winter might suggest dormancy, but the warmer temperatures of spring all but demand you get your sedentary butt outside. For many, spring is the time of long, blossom-smelling walks; hunting season is no more than a spark in the distance. But the moderate weather and longer evenings make a perfect time to trim any excess fat your dog might have accumulated over the winter.
Again, it’s time to be realistic about the amount of work you can give your dog by walking or jogging it down the road or sidewalk. These are the descendents of wolves, after all; their genetic blueprint contains the kind of DNA needed to run down elk and moose. Keeping up with a domestic biped is like Michael Phelps training for the Olympics by hanging out in the kiddie pool with Larry the Cable Guy.
For retrieving dogs, now’s the time to break out the tennis ball slingshot and let them work on long retrieves. If possible, try to locate your retrieving sessions in a tall field or brushy area, similar to hunting territory. It’ll keep the game fresher for both you and your dog, and also provide some olfactory and visual marking training.
Add a few drops of bird scent on the ball, and this is as close to heaven as an April dog is bound to get. Use an electronic collar to make sure your dog’s case of spring fever doesn’t also give him a sense of wanderlust; birds and rabbits can be great springtime tempters.
For dogs without that retrieving instinct, it’s best to focus on a straight running training regime. For me, this is almost too easy; I hop on my ATV, head out to my hayfields, and set the speed at a medium run. It doesn’t take long for the dogs to get their legs back, and it’s a fun way to get out after a long winter. ATV trails and minimum maintenance roads are also good spots to stretch your dog’s legs and burn a little gas.
For hunters in urban areas, or without an ATV, there’s still hope. Remember the sled dog harness? Find a back road outside of town, a long leash, and a spouse or buddy to drive your street vehicle. This will allow you to ride in the passenger seat, holding your dog’s leash and keeping him on the passenger side of the car, away from any traffic.
It’s essential to keep an eye out for road litter that might injure your dog’s paws, as well as unsafe drivers, but done correctly this is no different than taking your dog for a run down the side of the road. Most dogs will keep a natural distance from the car, as it obstructs their line of sight. Keep the dog at a moderate lope, and make sure to pack some water and a bowl.
The real key to all of the above exercises is simple: avoid boredom, the bane of hunter and dog alike. Mix things up, keep your feet and your dog’s paws moving in some form or another, and enjoy yourself.
After all, that’s what hunting—and hunting dogs—are really all about.