Staying In Shape

A fit gun dog is a happy gun dog.

When training dogs a big part of the work centers around exercise. Younger dogs will more or less exercise themselves while running the fields or chasing ducks in a marsh as they learn about life and we learn about them. With older dogs exercise is more purposeful and extensive, yet in either case a good deal of time and effort must be put into exercise and conditioning.


Contesting or hunting, success depends on your dog devoting his full attention to the job at hand. Aches and pains cause distractions; fatigue drains efficiency and erodes any chance of success.

When hunting, if your dog doesn't persist in hitting likely spots and tougher cover he's going to miss birds. In the hunt test world, lack of focus as a result of fatigue can affect scores in desire, field application, or bird finding ability. In trials, when your dog lacks the drive and the sparkle, someone else's dog is going to beat you.


As such, we must make a priority of keeping our dogs in shape throughout the year, or at the very least we should plan a solid conditioning program well in advance of hunting season. Realizing it takes around eight weeks to get a dog who's been living the good life since last season back into shape, I have some suggestions I hope you will find helpful.


Your first step is assessing your dog's current body condition using the "rib check" method. You should make this evaluation before beginning work on overall physical conditioning through exercise.

Rib Check
Using a simple "rib check" you can quickly assess your dog's fleshiness, a far better indicator of proper body condition than general weight charts.

With the dog facing away from you, place your thumbs together and touching the dog's spine. Extend your fingers down around the rib cage and slide your hands from front to rear, feeling the backbone with your thumbs and outline of the ribs with your fingers as you go. If your dog is at a good weight you will feel vertebra with your thumbs and easily pick out the contours of each rib as your fingers move along the ribcage.

Another indicator is your dog's overall body shape. When viewed from above, all dogs should have an "hourglass" figure. A side view shows the flank area "tucked up," or a general upward curve of the dog's bottom line after the ribs through the abdomen into the flank area. You also should be able to see the second and third ribs as the dog breathes. See the illustration on the next page for more details.

If your dog doesn't fit this profile, don't be surprised. When hunting seasons end and activity tapers off, big appetites and winter feeding habits often don't, leading to too many calories, which quickly translate to weight gain.

A dog at rest during the summer may only require half the calories it did while hunting in the cold, wet winter months, so it's easy to see how problems develop.

What's the answer? Planned exercise periods along with monitoring food intake.

Assuming you find your dog overweight, here are some general tips to help get him back on track in preparation for serious exercise to come.

Weight Reduction
'¢ Before beginning, take your dog to your veterinarian to assure yourself that other than the weight problem your dog is in good health, up to date on all shots and free of parasites.

'¢ Record the dog's weight and amount of food offered. At regular intervals continue the rib check and visual observations and note your findings to measure progress.

'¢ Reduce caloric intake. Begin with around a 25 percent reduction per feeding.

'¢ Withhold treats and table scraps; this in itself sometimes solves the problem.

'¢ Rather that once a day, feed a further reduced amount in two feedings, allowing the dog a fully satisfied feeling while reducing total calories.

'¢ If the dog is still not losing weight, switch to a dog food lower in calories with more fiber yet still nutritionally complete and balanced. (Note: Make this switch gradually to avoid digestive upset.)

'¢ Always keep plenty of clean, fresh water available.

'¢ Combine exercise with diet management for optimum results.

Exercise'¢ Take it easy at first, employing moderate exercise for short periods, usually less than 30 minutes.

'¢ Remember obese dogs tire easily and have less tolerance to heat and humidity than those in better condition. Be particularly cautious in their case.

'¢ Always carry clean, fresh water and teach the dog to drink from a squirt bottle. Offer small amounts of water every 10 to 15 minutes during exercise.

'¢ Combine aerobic and stretching exercises along with muscle building exercises.

'¢ Swimming provides great exercise; mix in some training with water retrieving drills.

'¢ As your dog builds muscle, work in intervals of strenuous exercise followed by cooling down time.

'¢ For best results, spend some time on rough open ground running your dog. Going up, down and around hills and over objectives works all the muscle groups and toughens pads, giving your dog a real good overall workout.

'¢ Always be alert to signs of heat stress. Slowed tail action and body animation, increased panting, an anxious or apprehensive facial expression, a darkening of the tongue and gums all indicate elevated body temperature.

'¢ If heat stress is apparent, stop all activity immediately, find a cool shady place for the dog to rest and cool down. If symptoms persist cool the dog with water or ice and consider veterinary assistance.

Now that we can evaluate our dog's body condition and understand the importance of improving his overall physical condition, we'll be better prepared to take a look in upcoming articles at some exercise regimens specifically designed to help put him on top of his game by fall.

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