It was a mistake that could have killed my best dog. It was the ’90s, and my friend Chris and I had driven from my home in Montana to southern Iowa—a time when the state still had fair populations of bobwhite quail.
But shortly after we arrived, we ran into bad luck. Chris’s setter, Nick, badly slashed his chest on a half-hidden strand of barbed wire. We stitched him up promptly, but he wouldn’t be able to hunt for at least another week after our trip was over. Then my setter, Rabbit, tore her pads so badly she could barely run. That left us with just my aging Brittany, Fancy, a pint-sized trooper that would be our only option for the rest of the week.
Fancy, like all my dogs, was in good shape. But she was at the end of her career—she was 10 or 11, as I recall—and it was clear at the end of the first day that she was in over her head. After that day, she retreated to her blanket and didn’t move for the rest of the night. But, by the following morning, she was ready and willing to go.
Unfortunately, her condition worsened with each subsequent day. By the fourth or fifth day, I remember taking a break for lunch. Fancy walked up to me, and without turning, collapsed on her side. She was so exhausted she couldn’t even make her customary full circle before lying down. I realized then something I should have realized much earlier: She had been hunted past her ability to quickly recover.
After my return home, she literally didn’t move from her spot in the living room for over a week—rising only to eat and relieve herself outside. I remember worrying that she may never recover. She did, but I learned a valuable lesson: Hard-working dogs need rest!
Let ’Em Rest
The myth of the all-day, every day dog is just that: a myth. Certainly, there are dogs that are willing to hunt all day for several days in a row, or even a week, but I’ve yet to see one that can hunt as hard on Day Three as it did on Day Two, or even as hard on Day Two as it did on Day One.
Anecdotally, my experience has been that slower-moving dogs tend to preserve their energy longer than hard-charging, faster-running dogs. It makes sense: Any animal, human or dog, burns up more energy during an hour of sprinting than it does during an hour of brisk walking. So, conversely, dogs that aren’t particularly known for their speed (many versatile breeds, some GSPs, some lines of Brittanies, etc.), may actually hold up better on back-to-back days than the more flashy English pointers and setters, which can put in a mind-blowing performance on Day One, but need at least a full day’s rest before they’re ready for a repeat on Day Two.
But my dog loves to hunt every day, you say. Well, consider this: Dogs that hunt for days on end are more susceptible to accidents that can put them out of commission for far longer than the few days they might have missed had they been allowed adequate rest.
But For How Long?
Unfortunately, there’s no established amount of time a dog needs to rest after a hard day’s hunt. The standard has always been a day of hunting followed by a day of rest. I stuck to that protocol for decades, and it worked reasonably well—as long as I didn’t hunt my dog for more than two or three hours per hunt. But in the last decade or so, I’ve found that an extra day of rest, i.e., two days of rest following a hard day’s hunt, works far better. With two days of lying around the house—as much as they may hate it—my dogs seem able to recover almost completely. Many of my friends who hunt their dogs as much or more than I do, tell me they’ve arrived at a similar conclusion.
Still, sometimes I have to remind myself. When I got my pointer, Skylark, three years ago, it was clear from the start that she was different. First of all, she was half the size of a standard English pointer. But her conformation was nearly perfect, and she seemed possessed of an almost super-canine stamina right from the start. None of her hunts seemed to dent her endurance. And, naturally, I began to believe what I should have known was too good to be true: I’d finally come into possession of an all-day, every day dog.
You know how this story ends. Skylark, as anyone who has ever hunted over her will attest, is a pocket rocket. She has more drive in her 40-pound body than it seems possible to possess. So, I hunted her hard, and I hunted her two days in a row on multiple occasions.
At first, the difference wasn’t pronounced. Following a hard day’s hunt, she’d be raring to go the next morning. And on many days, she did quite well. But something was missing.
The spark and snappy ground pace I’d grown accustomed to was diminished, if not gone. Occasionally, I’d catch her slowing to a trot while she caught her breath. After half a season of back-to-back hunts, reality again caught up to me: No matter how exceptional she was, she was still a dog—and dogs need rest!
Just remember: Bird dogs are not super-human creatures immune to the laws of physics. When they hunt hard, they get tired, just like you and me. And just like you and me, they need days off to rest and recuperate…even if they don’t always act that way.