When most of us think about training our dogs, we think about helping them develop some hunting or obedience skills. This might involve steadiness, long-distance blind retrieves, or simply not jumping up on a stranger. The idea that you should train to sharpen skills and in-field manners is a solid one, but don’t forget the side benefit of certain types of training - physical fitness.
Even the best-bred dogs can get out of shape if we allow it, which means those great big doggy brains won’t do them much good with a body that will crap out after two hours in the field. Just like with human elk hunters, matching hunting skill with a high level of physical fitness is the winning combo for higher-than-average success in the mountains.
And no, you can’t hunt your dog into shape. Well, that’s not technically true. You can, but you shouldn’t. Just like you wouldn’t start running marathons to be in marathon-running shape, you shouldn’t ask your dog to do the canine equivalent. This is a good way to rack up serious vet bills and put your bird dog in a lose-lose situation.
Think it through and work responsible physical fitness into your training. Here’s how.
First off, I’m not a vet and I don’t know your dog. If for any reason you’re already worried about your dog’s health, get him checked out by a professional before asking him to work. If your dog is healthy and ready to go, consider how you’ll get him running.
This is easiest with a retriever because they (theoretically) like to retrieve. Find a place like a soccer field that has nice, soft grass and allow your dog to make a few short, fun retrieves to loosen up the joints. You won’t want to ask your dog to go from the couch to an all-out sprint for a dummy without a little easy running at first. They need to warm up, just like we do.
The grass is important for obvious reasons. Asking your dog to pound away on the pavement or asphalt is unfair and a great way to do unwanted damage to hips and knees. This is where it gets a bit tricky if you’ve got a dog that doesn’t like retrieving or gives up after a few drills. That mindset in a pup usually means we look for a different way to get them running, which might mean having them follow us as we tool along a backroad or trail on a four-wheeler or UTV.
This can be okay if it’s safe, but be mindful of the surfaces you’re asking your dog to run on for a few miles. A little gravel or asphalt isn’t bad and can help work pads into hunting shape, but mile after mile of punishing surfaces is no good.
One thing that I’ve done with all of my dogs is to train them to run alongside my bike, so that I can ride the trails and they can run along the grassy edge of the trails. This is best introduced with a puppy and a lot of patience, and remember that they’ll take some time to develop confidence running next to you while you pedal. And also remember that it’s easy to ride a couple of miles and not feel like it’s much of a workout, but your dog is running next to you so be cognizant of their effort - not yours.
I’m of the humble opinion that all bird dogs should be properly introduced to water when they are an appropriate age. Even if you never plan to hunt ducks, having a dog that is confident in the water comes in handy while upland hunting around sloughs and throughout the summer when it’s time to get into shape.
In other words, having a dog that will go into the water is better than having a dog that won’t. Now, I’m a Lab owner currently so that comes with the caveat that having a dog that will always go into the water can suck when you (or your spouse) would really prefer a dry dog at the moment, but that’s fodder for a different piece.
Swimming is no-brainer exercise. For us, it’s a real cardio test, much like hiking up a mountain. For dogs, it’s a great way to work the lungs without putting any real strain on their skeletal system, which is a huge benefit. Again, if you’ve got a dog that will retrieve, there are all kinds of water-based drills worth working that will not only help him develop hunting skills but also get in shape.
My dog will jump into the water for a dummy roughly 3,000 times in a row without stopping, so getting her in shape via a pond or lake is pretty easy. I prefer to mix it up, however, just like I have with my past dogs to ensure that they are doing the work while siphoning out the maximum amount of training benefits.
This might be some dummy work in a nearby river when she is fresh so that she has to think about (and swim against) some current. Or it might mean using a dummy launcher to ask her to do a 75-yard retrieve in the water versus a shorter retrieve that is the result of how far I can wing a dummy by hand.
During August, I like to work my dog on land during the cooler hours of the day and then hit up a local waterhole during the middle of the day when it’s hottest. Each training session might take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes but results in a dog that is continually learning and steadily getting into hunt-all-day shape. As we get closer to the season and the temperatures cool further, she’ll get longer sessions.
Look at your dog and be honest about its physical abilities right now. You’ve got time before the season and are likely planning to do some daily training anyway, so consider beefing up each drill with an eye toward pure physical fitness. It doesn’t take much to get dogs to work more and start to develop into the full-on athletes they are, but you’ve got to provide the platform for them to work and then ask them to get after it.