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Conditioning the Single, All-Season Gun Dog

How to keep your lone gun dog happy, healthy, and in peak performance for the duration of the fall.

Conditioning the Single, All-Season Gun Dog

Avoid burning out your only bird dog by setting appropriate expectations and practicing proper maintenance. (Photo By: Tony J. Peterson)

The ability to rotate in fresh dogs throughout the duration of a hunt is a luxury most hunters don’t have. The majority of upland hunters are running a single dog, which means to avoid retriever burnout, they’ve got to think things through on a daily, or weekly basis. This goes for the hunters who might only hunt a few weekends each season, or the folks who devote weeks to traveling hunts while targeting multiple species of birds.

No matter how full your hunting calendar is, this all starts with your dog’s physical fitness at the onset of the season. We all know that our dogs should be in really good shape before that opening bell, but a lot of dogs aren’t. This is reality, and it’s crucial that you’re aware of how much activity your dog can handle before you start hunting.

In fact, being in tune to what any dog can handle is the key to being responsible in the field. Aside from pre-season shape, this also hinges heavily on nutrition and hydration.

Fuel Up

Hypothetically speaking, you could have a seriously in-shape retriever and still see some second- or third-day burnout on a hunt if you’re not careful. A dog that doesn’t get the calories he needs, or an adequate amount of water, is going to falter.

To make matters worse, I’ve seen Labs that were obsessed with food suddenly ignore their dish when the excitement of the hunt takes over. The same goes for water, which is easy for high-drive dogs to ignore when they are in the field and laser focused on the next rooster flush. Just like with the dog that isn’t physically ready for a serious, all-day hunt, the dog that isn’t eating quite right or drinking enough needs plenty of breaks to relax.

bird hunter giving dog water
Be sure to give your dog an adequate amount of water and the calories it needs to fuel it through multiple days of hunting. (Photo By: Tony J. Peterson)

These rest periods during a day of hunting are the key to getting a dog to drink more water. It’s also a good idea to have a tasty (and healthy) supplement to add to their water so they are guaranteed to drink up when you offer them a water bottle or fill up their travel bowl. I use Purina’s FortiFlora for this, because I know I can always get my dogs to drink it no matter where, or what, we are hunting.

When it comes to eating right, you don’t want to be shoveling food into your retriever’s mouth when you’re halfway through a pheasant slough. This is a bad idea. The best feeding window opens up about 45 minutes after the hunt is over and they’ve had a chance to settle down. This is the time to feed your dog a heavy meal, not half an hour before you start hunting in the morning, which will only lead to problems. During hunting season when my dogs are going to be getting after it at least a couple of times per week, I feed them a 30-percent protein, 20-percent fat formula so that they get enough fuel to keep going.

Weekend Warriors 

Maybe you’re the kind of hunter who holds down a steady job and only gets into the field every weekend, or every other weekend. You might think that your dog has four or five days a week to recover from his time hunting, which is true. How you use that time is important to not only allow your dog to recover, but to stay in shape.

Depending on the dog’s age, I like to allow for a day or two of total recovery after a weekend of hunting. An older dog might need two full days, while a younger dog might be back at it after a single day. Read your dog and give him the right amount of time. Either way, by Wednesday, it’s time to do some drilling and get the dog some exercise so you can ramp up the activity level as you head toward the weekend.

bird hunter with dog
Learn to read your dog for when they may be struggling to keep up in the field. (Photo By: Tony J. Peterson)

To take this a step further in regard to your dog’s age, consider energy versus stamina. Young dogs tend to have a lot of energy, while older, in-shape dogs tend to have a lot of stamina. This matters, because we can easily misread young dogs and their body language and assume they can go all day because during the first hour they get after it hard. They also tend to fizzle quickly, which can signal that it’s time to either call it or start taking some serious breaks.        

Older, peak-age dogs manage their own energy levels much better, and they tend to have the stamina necessary to keep hunting. This, of course, comes with a big caveat as far as conditions are concerned. The most physically fit dog in the world is going to flame out if the temperatures are in the 90s, or if it’s late-season and the dog must grind through two feet of slushy snow.

This combination of retriever and conditions is a tough one to navigate because it’s easy to overestimate their abilities. It’s also easy to talk yourself into hunting through horrible conditions when you’ve only got a day or two a week to hunt. But it’s up to us to keep our dogs healthy and going strong all season, and sometimes Mother Nature dishes up unbeatable conditions. It stinks, but it’s the reality for random Saturday hunts or those once-per-season trips to some over-the-road, bird-heavy destination.

Trip Burnout

Managing a retriever’s health throughout an entire upland season is a challenge, but so is the day-to-day management during a weeklong hunt. In fact, this is often tougher just because it’s easy to let the ego have a say in a hunt when you’ve paid good money and put serious miles on your truck to get to a new state for a vacation hunt.

Here is where it pays to remind yourself that dogs are animals, not machines.

It doesn’t matter how much you want another limit of South Dakota roosters if your dog is wearing out from two days of working in front of you and four of your dog-less buddies.

Remember that no one knows your dog better than you. If your retriever is usually quick to get up in the morning and always works nicely in front of you, only to suddenly want to sleep in and then fall in line behind you in the cattails, there’s a problem. Asking a dog to push it when it’s clearly showing you signs of fatigue will only spiral in a worse direction.

bird hunter with dog
Your dog will be at their peak performance when they are properly conditioned, fed, watered, and rested. (Photo By: Tony J. Peterson)

Instead, call it and let the dog recoup. Plan for a few good, afternoon hours of hunting instead of all-day affairs where your dog can barely keep up. While this might not be what you wanted out of any individual hunt, it’ll help you have a better season overall by managing your expectations and your retriever’s performance. It’ll also help your dog avoid injury, which is far worse than burnout after a few days of hard hunting.

In the end, managing our dog’s physical health should be our number-one priority. It’s more important than adding a few more sharpies or ruffs to the game bag, and it’s something that is absolutely crucial to responsibly enjoying an entire season with your retriever—which should always be the goal.  

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