Collapse bottom bar

Pre-Hunt Gun Dog Training

by Tony J. Peterson   |  June 20th, 2011 9

If your dog takes to the water, then swimming is a great option for conditioning. Water work cuts down on the worry of heat exhaustion, is low-impact on joints and builds cardio quickly.


If your plan is to simply hunt your dog into shape this fall, it might be time to consider an alternative.

Sporting dogs require a level of conditioning similar to human athletes and, yes, even human hunters. Every one of us has at one time or another found that hiking through waist-high CRP fields or hoofing it after a high-powered Lab in hot pursuit of a running rooster during opening weekend leaves us ridiculously short of breath.

If you start training your dog in the immediate pre-season, heat will be the No. 1 concern. Noted gun dog guru Tom Dokken suggests working dogs early in the morning or late in the evening to take advantage of cooler temperatures.

Beyond that, after the dogs are cared for, the birds are cleaned and we’ve settled into the evening rituals following a hunt, we suddenly realize how sore our muscles are. Imagine how it feels for our dogs if they are not in hunting shape when we ask them to go at it full-bore as soon as the opening bell rings.

Even though our dogs can become wiry and lean hunting machines as the season progresses, that doesn’t mean on-hunt-conditioning is the best route to take. In fact, if you’re looking for a good way to injure your dog (or worse), hunt-conditioning is almost a guaranteed method. But for those of us looking to ease into the season opener with a dog that’s healthy, full of energy and ready to take on the world of all-things-fowl, a pre-hunt conditioning plan is in order.

30 Days & Counting
Ideally, year-round training and exercise is best for our dogs. But if you haven’t kept up a strict routine following last season’s close, don’t fret. All it takes is a month or so to whip pups back into hunting shape. To find out the best routine, I contacted Tom Dokken, owner of Oak Ridge Kennels and inventor of the DeadFowl Trainer, to see what he recommended.

“Most people need to keep in mind that they need at least a 30-day head-start when it comes to conditioning,” Dokken said. “It’s important to start out on a gradual basis and to plan for hot weather because it’s a given.

“I try to run my dogs in the early morning or late evening to eliminate, or at least greatly cut down on, the heat factor. With a retriever it can be a lot easier because the best exercise is water exercise. It’s low impact, great for cardio and dogs don’t have to pound the pavement to get into shape.”
Dokken suggests assessing the dog’s physical shape before starting an exercise routine. If your dog has packed on a few pounds in the off-season, consider adjusting feeding amounts. Also, even if you feel your dog is in decent shape, it’s a good idea to start with short sessions on a daily basis.

Dokken also warned of taking it too easy: “Dogs need to work their way up from the beginning sessions, but it’s important to not under-do it,” he said. “It’s not enough to simply take a dog for a walk every day, because your walk is a crawl for them. You need to find a place where they can get out and move, whether that means running or swimming or both.”

Although there’s certainly nothing wrong with walking a dog, it’s not the most efficient way to get a hunter into shape. Tom Dokken puts it best by saying, “Our walk is a crawl for them.”

The Specifics
Obviously a lot of factors come into play as far as what kind of hunting situations you should condition your dog for. A hardcore waterfowler will want to concentrate on water exercise, while the owner of a pointer may want to focus on running. The conditions you expect to hunt in during the early part of the season are those that you should prepare for in the summer.

“It’s important to find out what you’ve got to work with when conditioning dogs for any hunt. You need to ask yourself if you can train in the water, or if you’ve got a breed that needs to run, can you get them to a place where they can safely get out and really go?” Dokken said. “In either situation it’s important to monitor your dog closely. Some dogs will push it until they’ve swam or run themselves into real danger.”

Beyond different breeds and their natural inclinations, age of the dog makes a big difference as well. A prime-aged dog can easily get back into shape in a 30-day or less period, but an older dog requires a lengthier, gradual process. These dogs also require more recovery time after each exercise session, and they need to be watched closely for any evidence of injury.

It may seem as if an entire month of pre-hunt conditioning is overkill when you consider that a dog is going to get into shape regardless by the end of the season, but it’s just plain irresponsible to ask dogs to hunt hard on opening day without giving them the chance to get ready. It only takes a little bit of time each day to tighten muscles, shed extra winter-gained pounds and ease your four-legged cohort into the condition necessary to enjoy an injury-free, successful first day–and season–in the field.


At the beginning stages, it’s important to assess your dog’s individual shape. If your dog is overweight or past its prime, a much more gradual process is necessary to avoid injury.


If your dog is not in proper shape by the time the duck or pheasant opener rolls around, you’re asking for trouble. For most dogs, a month of daily exercise is all that’s needed to get into hunt-ready form.

  • Ralph DeCunzo

    These articles keep talking in generalities. Why can't someone come out and describe a program or regiment that tells exactly how much time for each exercise and what exercises. We all know it takes a month or two to accomplish this but what many of us don't know is exactly the best type of training that works. How much swimming for how long, how far to road them and for how long. Sure each dog is diferent but come on, you claim to be experts, so give us some expert advice

    Thank You

    • Sam H

      Just use some common sense….For example…If it is hot to is hotter to your dog…Take your dog out for brisk walks in the afternoon…morning too , if you have time and walk until you have a light sweat….Increase(length of time) it every couple of days…then go to a trot ,roading them for a hundred yards at a time for a few days…then 150yds and then220yds ,so on until about 400yds(+/-1/4mi)…after your dog can do this consistantly..(of course let them run all out some,if you have the control and room)he should be in pretty good condition to start the season…for a water retriever(lab,etc)…you could/need to put some water/swimming time ,to use muscles they wouldn't use running…I followed this with my Britt and it works well…(no water though)

    • Jonni Joyce

      @Ralph: I have a conditioning program for pheasant dogs here in South Dakota as well as police and search and rescue dogs that need physical conditioning for their training. It includes proper nutrition and individualized program based on the needs of the dog. Happy to share my recommendations for your dog. Feel free to email me at

    • Jordan Ward

      Here's my training schedule that will begin at the end of august (since i will begin duck and dove hunting in november). I have a 1 year old lab. Since she is young in stays in fairly good shape it's not to bad for me. During the winter and summer when the birds are no longer in season, I just let her out in the evening for around 30 minutes. During that time I will throw the bumper one or two times just to keep it fresh in her mind. Nothing to bad. Just 10-20 yard throws. Now come the end of August I will begin getting my dog in shape.

      First I have a goal set. Since I do a lot of river hunting and field hunting, My goal for my dog is to do 3 down stream retrieves (making her have to swim against current with a bumper in her mouth) and 8-10 field retrieves (represents not just the retrieve but walking the field.) by opening day.
      I am starting off with 3 water throws and 3 land throws in a pond (still water).
      Every 1-2 weeks I will increase the sets of the three throws. For instance, by week 2 I should be doing 3 water, 3 land, short break, 3 water, 3 land and so forth increasing the sets per week to 2 weeks.

      At the end of month one I will take her to the river and do one down current retrieve to see if i can continue or if i need to back up.
      The next month I will begin up stream retrieves so she is coming back with the current with the bumper in her mouth.

      By the end of month 2 I will have her ready to do two down stream retrieves.
      And so forth for the 3 third month.

      Now I am no expert but I do know my dog and know what she can and can't do. It might be different for your dog.

  • Dave Cudlip

    I have an attachment on my bicycle that a leach and roading harness attach to. I take my dog to an area away from road traffic and we've gradualy worked up to 10 miles of bike work. He's a strong enough dog,(Wirehaired Pointing Griffon), that he can pull me all the distance without me pedaling. We use a bike path that runs along an old canal so I can let him take a break and cool off by taking a swim. I usually bike in the early morning, and cancel bikeing sessions if it's to hot. Bikeing is a great way to build up your dog's endurance and keep the pounds off. It also is great for toughening their feet. Just start new dogs out slowly and at at short distances.

  • Steve Hearing

    I think that all dogs are different and will require different levels of prehunt conditioning. With all the heat now, swimming is a very effective and safer exercise regimine to use. My labs do not do well in this heat so I keep field work low and water work high.

  • Grady Smithey

    Here in Texas it is very hot almost every September 1 when dove season opens. I would never take an unconditioned dog out on opening day. I work my labs early in the mornings several days per week throughout the summer and keep them in and around water during the workouts. Swimming is good conditioning work in the summer here, but even the water is very warm. Don't over do it.

  • Chuck Forry

    I have Spinone Italiano's and I field them all year long for about 30/45 minutes a day. They want to and it keeps them, and me, in what I call "fielded shape" — yes when it's really hot, we keep it to a minimum and use the ponds — duh! but they are ready to go. Due to that, they have field manners such as whistle commands down and are rock solid conditioned, their feet are hearty and they have great stamina. The only thing I train on before season opener is pigeons to get the obedience side of hunting re-programmed into them such as pointing, holding and retrieving so they don't go postal when the roosters start busting. They keep me in shape as well so I am ready to chase those roosters as hard as they do without dropping dead of a heart attack. Use the year to make your dogs something to be proud of and to keep them from having foot problems and obedience issues. It's not fair for them to get in trouble when no time is spent letting them know what is expected except the 15 minutes the day before.

  • Marc McGee

    My 14 month old GSP is next level hardcore. Her daily regiment is a full speed run of 7 miles. followed by a 200 yard swim. to cool down. Then we down our training drills. She eats a high energy dogfood and responds to it well. Maybe I'm overboard but the mutt will send most labs back to their kennels with EIC and keep going.

back to top