Twice last season while hunting as a guest with folks I did not know well, something occurred that turned our outings into very long days — dogs in poor physical condition.
It happens. Busy schedules eat up time that could have been used for pup's fitness training. Perhaps pup is getting up in years and can no longer attain high fitness levels. Or perhaps pup's owner is also getting older and lacks the energy or ambition to train pup right.
Related to pup's fitness level, first things first. Feeding pup properly over the course of his lifetime is first because it is the easiest thing related to pup's fitness, and is most logical.
Choose a good food brand if you want a fit dog, one that contains all the ingredients necessary to help pup grow properly and stay healthy. Change to an adult food when called for but again, stick with a good brand. In all cases feed pup the proper amount of food as per the manufacturer's instructions.
In his later years pup might need another food that suits the needs of an older dog that mostly lollygags around, rather than hunting hard for several months each year. Honestly, I have fed my dogs the same brand since 1968, using the products that most closely fit pup's needs as life progresses.
Because I always deal with top breeders I have had a lot of very good dogs. I did not always get the best out of them, but that was due to my shortcomings, not theirs. Their food was never responsible for any physical problems.
None of those very good and very smart dogs ever got into a cabinet, refrigerator or feed container and over-ate. Not one of those many dogs got overweight on his own. Follow the manufacturer's instructions on the food bag. Add your knowledge of when you might have to feed a bit more or a bit less due to pup's activity level or time of year, and pup's weight will be fine. Do not overfeed pup.
The best and easiest way to keep pup fit for hunting season if to keep him fairly fit all year. This is not rocket science; it's pretty easy to understand and not too difficult to achieve if you make hunting with pup a priority.
Walk pup one mile three or four times a week, preferably on grass or dirt. As with humans, walking/running on grass is easier on pup's joints than concrete or asphalt.
When pup is young try to walk him at a nearby park so pup becomes acclimatized to people. This is especially important if you live alone or with just a spouse. We often think pup's development and behavior are fine but are surprised when pup barks at other people or dogs, or is afraid of them. Pup needs mental exercise and acclimatization as much as he needs fitness. Meeting people and other dogs helps pup's mental fitness.
Halfway through your mile walk find a spot to toss some training dummies for pup. Try to do that away from people until pup is a very strong retriever and unlikely to be distracted. Twenty or 25 yards is far enough for pup's retrieves.
Make him hup (sit) and stay until giving him the command (his name) to retrieve. Toss the dummy about four times, give pup a drink and continue your walk. Three-quarters through your walk repeat the retrieving drill, and then toss a couple more dummies when you're finished. This is a great dog exercise.
Do not forget to praise pup after his good retrieves, and hurry him along if he lollygags. Every once in a while give pup a small treat after a successful retrieve, but do not overdo it.
If you have a bicycle, preferably one with medium to thick tires, vary pup's workout by riding the bike while having pup run alongside you. You must determine how much control you have over pup before deciding whether or not to try this.
If you use the bike you still must decide whether or not to leash pup with a leash/lead of the proper length. Do not ride too fast for pup; we want to condition him, not make him dread your company.
Do not forget to toss some dummies for pup; this gives him a break and keeps his interest up.
Something about parks: Know the rules regarding dogs when you take pup to a park for training. Some parks are very strict about "leash laws" and there is no sense getting fined for allowing pup to run loose. Often, but not always, one can bend the rules a bit if you arrive at the park very early in the a.m. before others arrive.
Try to get pup into a field for his run once or twice a week. Hup pup while facing cover and cast him off to quarter as you walk behind him as if you are hunting. If the size of the field and cover allow it, ensure that pup quarters the distances to the sides and front that you want him to cover when hunting.
Using your whistle, give him two toots when he should turn. Toot once occasionally to make pup hup. Occasionally while pup is seated, blow multiple toots on the whistle and have pup return quickly and directly to you. Do not let pup ignore the whistle or respond to it slowly. Give pup a treat occasionally when he is sharp.
Sometimes when pup turns to quarter, use a hand signal with your arm and hand extended towards pup's new direction. When you signal hup with one whistle toot, show pup an arm raised straight upwards while your palm faces towards him. These hand signals help enforce the whistle signal and give pup confidence that he is performing the correct action.
Dogs that love retrieving love water as a training venue because it provides variety in their training, and as mentioned, also keeps them cool. Vary the distance and direction of pup's water retrieves to keep him interested and vary his rate of exercise. Even well-conditioned gun dogs cannot go full speed all the time.
A couple of short retrieves after a long one is always a good dog exercise. Again, do not forget to praise and pet pup after a retrieve. While a retrieve is something of a reward for pup, a little "Atta boy!" and pat on pup's head keep him revved up.
At least two months before bird season you must up the ante and move on to a harder training mode, for pup and for you.
You must also be in shape to drop the birds that pup flushes. You must watch pup's every move and learn to read pup so you know exactly when pup makes game.
At least six weeks prior to the season you must put pup on birds. Pigeons work especially well for spaniels while keeping the finances under control.
Get a buddy or two to bring his dog(s) and shotgun along to work the dogs over birds and get some real retrieves. Check state laws regarding the use of live birds for dog training.
Fit dogs and fit hunters enhance bird season and make hunting with your best pal the outstanding experience it can be.