Pre-Hunt Gun Dog Training

If your dog takes to the water, then swimming is a great option for conditioning. Water work cuts down on the worry of heat exhaustion, is low-impact on joints and builds cardio quickly.

If your plan is to simply hunt your dog into shape this fall, it might be time to consider an alternative.

Sporting dogs require a level of conditioning similar to human athletes and, yes, even human hunters. Every one of us has at one time or another found that hiking through waist-high CRP fields or hoofing it after a high-powered Lab in hot pursuit of a running rooster during opening weekend leaves us ridiculously short of breath.

Beyond that, after the dogs are cared for, the birds are cleaned and we've settled into the evening rituals following a hunt, we suddenly realize how sore our muscles are. Imagine how it feels for our dogs if they are not in hunting shape when we ask them to go at it full-bore as soon as the opening bell rings.

Even though our dogs can become wiry and lean hunting machines as the season progresses, that doesn't mean on-hunt-conditioning is the best route to take. In fact, if you're looking for a good way to injure your dog (or worse), hunt-conditioning is almost a guaranteed method. But for those of us looking to ease into the season opener with a dog that's healthy, full of energy and ready to take on the world of all-things-fowl, a pre-hunt conditioning plan is in order.

30 Days & Counting

Ideally, year-round training and exercise is best for our dogs. But if you haven't kept up a strict routine following last season's close, don't fret. All it takes is a month or so to whip pups back into hunting shape. To find out the best routine, I contacted Tom Dokken, owner of Oak Ridge Kennels and inventor of the DeadFowl Trainer, to see what he recommended.

"Most people need to keep in mind that they need at least a 30-day head-start when it comes to conditioning," Dokken said. "It's important to start out on a gradual basis and to plan for hot weather because it's a given.

"I try to run my dogs in the early morning or late evening to eliminate, or at least greatly cut down on, the heat factor. With a retriever it can be a lot easier because the best exercise is water exercise. It's low impact, great for cardio and dogs don't have to pound the pavement to get into shape."

Dokken suggests assessing the dog's physical shape before starting an exercise routine. If your dog has packed on a few pounds in the off-season, consider adjusting feeding amounts. Also, even if you feel your dog is in decent shape, it's a good idea to start with short sessions on a daily basis.

Dokken also warned of taking it too easy: "Dogs need to work their way up from the beginning sessions, but it's important to not under-do it," he said. "It's not enough to simply take a dog for a walk every day, because your walk is a crawl for them. You need to find a place where they can get out and move, whether that means running or swimming or both."

The Specifics

Obviously a lot of factors come into play as far as what kind of hunting situations you should condition your dog for. A hardcore waterfowler will want to concentrate on water exercise, while the owner of a pointer may want to focus on running. The conditions you expect to hunt in during the early part of the season are those that you should prepare for in the summer.

"It's important to find out what you've got to work with when conditioning dogs for any hunt. You need to ask yourself if you can train in the water, or if you've got a breed that needs to run, can you get them to a place where they can safely get out and really go?" Dokken said. "In either situation it's important to monitor your dog closely. Some dogs will push it until they've swam or run themselves into real danger."

Beyond different breeds and their natural inclinations, age of the dog makes a big difference as well. A prime-aged dog can easily get back into shape in a 30-day or less period, but an older dog requires a lengthier, gradual process. These dogs also require more recovery time after each exercise session, and they need to be watched closely for any evidence of injury.


It may seem as if an entire month of pre-hunt conditioning is overkill when you consider that a dog is going to get into shape regardless by the end of the season, but it's just plain irresponsible to ask dogs to hunt hard on opening day without giving them the chance to get ready. It only takes a little bit of time each day to tighten muscles, shed extra winter-gained pounds and ease your four-legged cohort into the condition necessary to enjoy an injury-free, successful first day--and season--in the field.

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