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How to Plan for a Successful Road Trip Hunt

Tactics to ensure a safe and successful adventure for both you and your dog.

How to Plan for a Successful Road Trip Hunt

Follow these three tips to get your gun dog ready for the road. (Photo By: Jim McCann)

Bird hunting without a bird dog is, pardon the pun, pointless. A great dog is the yarn that weaves land, birds, and hunters into a tapestry of memorable experiences. That said, most bird hunters don’t live where they hunt, and the integration of dogs, birds, land, and people often requires ample planning and some travel. This travel can be taxing, so as you set out to plan a trip, it is important to consider tactics that will ensure a successful, safe, and enjoyable hunting expedition both for you and for your bird dog.

Physical & Mental Prep

Begin your preparations well in advance of your anticipated hunting trip to make sure that your dog is in suitable physical and mental condition. The most obvious piece of this equation requires that you get your dog in peak physical shape, ensuring that he or she can exhibit sufficient endurance and performance levels to keep up with your pace, schedule, and expectations. Generally, a dedicated hunting trip provides an opportunity to hunt longer and harder than we tend to in training sessions or closer to home. It should go without saying that an overweight and poorly conditioned dog will lack sufficient endurance to maintain intensity through the duration of a trip, and that dog will also be more susceptible to injury. In order to get your dog in peak physical shape consider running, roading, swimming, or even using a treadmill. Make sure to start early and build up, allowing your dog to grow stronger over a progression, rather than expecting significant gains quickly in a constrained time frame.

Just as you should take the time to prepare your dog physically, it is vital to prepare him mentally. A dog that has not been in the bird field for a year is not going to be as focused or as efficient locating game as a dog that has had regular, recent work on live birds. As a trip approaches, be sure that your dog “hits the ground with birds on his mind.” Get your dog off the couch and back out in the practice field, get him focused on finding birds, and tune up any weak points in steadiness or handling issues.

English pointer dogs in a field
Preparing your dog for a road trip hunt requires both physical and mental resilience. (Photo By: Susanna Love)

Remember that hunting trips don’t always go according to plan. On occasion, we are unable to find the number of birds that we have anticipated, and conditions can never be guaranteed. It takes a focused dog to find birds in years when birds are few or hunting conditions are tough. Past experiences will play a strong role in ensuring that your dog can quickly assimilate, regaining and retaining that necessary focus, but you cannot expect your dog (even a seasoned dog) to be thinking about and effectively producing birds without any prep work before the trip. The dog’s immediate mental state directly predicts how well he or she will work in tough conditions. It is not uncommon in a controlled training situation to see a dog run right by a bird without showing any signs of scent recognition. With bird exposure comes enhanced focus, and a more focused dog will catch scent at a greater distance, working it successfully to produce a bird. The same will play out on a trip. Don’t count on the first days of your hunting trip for re-establishing your dog’s focus because your trip may be half over before he gets enough bird contacts to be focused. Instead, attend to the dog’s mental and physical preparation in advance of departure.

Reducing Travel Stress

The next consideration in anticipation of a hunting trip lies in getting your dog ready for life on the road. For a dog that rarely leaves home, a hunting trip can be a huge shock, causing stress that can impact both health and performance. Changes in environment and new experiences are all part of travel, and you can take some simple steps ahead of a trip to help reduce a dog’s stress. First, make it routine to take your dog on frequent short trips around home to normalize episodes of travel. Make sure that your dog is comfortable in his crate and in the vehicle, and practice the activities that will accompany travel (i.e. tie-outs, gas station bathroom stops, etc.). In short, get your dog comfortable with the realities of travel incrementally by delivering predictive experiences prior to your hunting trip. This practice will pay great dividends in reducing your dog’s stress level on your trip.

One important element in preparing dogs for travel lies in “training your dog to eat.” This may sound silly—dogs naturally know how to eat, right? Nonetheless, a dog that is accustomed to nibbling here and there during a normal day will likely not have distraction-free time while traveling to accommodate that eating habit. As a result, such a dog will find himself running on a calorie deficit in a high-demand period of activity. It is critical that your dog take in plenty of nutritious food and water while traveling and hunting, so you may have to train that dog to eat one full meal at a time.

hunting dog drinking water
Adequate water and food intake play a vital role in your dog's ability to thrive on a destination road trip hunt. (Photo By: Susanna Love)

If your dog tends to eat slowly over the course of a day, you can begin to tighten the feeding period by reducing the amount of time that food is available in the weeks prior to the trip. Give the dog the opportunity to eat a good meal in a reasonable amount of time, then remove the food bowl, repeating the process the next day. Gradually reduce the available feeding time to a reasonable, focused period, and condition your dog to eat in that one session. Likely, such short windows will be the only opportunity that your dog will have to eat while on the upcoming trip, and as stated, good nutrition is vital.

Always be sure to stock up on extra supplies that you may need on the road. At Ronnie Smith Kennels, we rarely leave home without plenty of Purina’s Forti-flora, a nutritional supplement containing beneficial probiotics that promote a healthy gut and strong immune system. Dogs will be dogs, and you never know what sort of mucky water or nastiness your dog may happily ingest while exploring new country. Forti-flora has saved many an upset stomach on our strings as we travel the country. Keeping the gut strong and working properly will ensure your dog’s comfort, nutrient absorption, and performance. Incidentally, healthy digestion will also make for stools that are easier to pick up around the stakeout area or at a makeshift camp, etc. We go to great lengths to avoid having a sick dog while on the road.

While on a hunting excursion, plan to have more water and feed on your rig than you expect to utilize. Always have surplus water tanks in each vehicle and plan to take water bottles or packs in the field with you. Bring the following incidentals, as you never know what you may need in a pinch: first-aid kit, dog boots, extra leather collars, leads, tie-outs, and needle-nosed pliers or forceps for pulling porcupine quills.

upland bird hunters with pointing dogs
Like most things in life, you get out what you put in. Take the time to prepare your dog for the road ahead to increase your chances for a safe and successful hunt. (Photo By: Susanna Love)

Consistency & Balance

There is thoughtful intention behind everything we do on a hunt. If running multiple dogs on an outing, we pick our running order according to how we expect each dog to handle the conditions of the day. Old, seasoned hands that may tire quicker and young dogs lacking experience usually get the best slots, with optimal weather and the highest likelihood of bird contacts. Experienced bird producers in the prime of their life with high levels of endurance and focus may get slightly tougher time slots in lower-likelihood areas. We factor in the weather, heat tolerance, and ability to navigate the cover when selecting which dog runs when.

Once the trip is on and the hunting has begun, create consistency with patterns. Work to get a composed mindset with your dog before putting on collars or leads and before taking your dog out of the crate. Calm your dog down and get him to stand; heel him to a spot away from the vehicle, making sure that he is composed, and read him before turning him loose. Make sure his mind his right, and only then turn him loose. At Ronnie Smith Kennels we do not subscribe to the theory that “the first half hour of a hunt is his.” Instead, we believe that hunts should begin and end with dog and handler joined as a cohesive working team.

While at your hunting destination, it is important to remember to find some “balance.” Balance your dog’s hunting time with deserved rest and relaxation. Balance focus on game with obedience and manners around game. Build focus and experience. Above all else, pay attention to the details: don’t forget to use your hunting time to build your dog’s proficiency and stockpile experience. Our time in the field is precious; spend each moment with intention and purpose, and of course, have fun!  

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