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Pre-Season Conditioning for Gun Dogs

Essential considerations for off-season work.

Pre-Season Conditioning for Gun Dogs

Following considerations around nutritional support, environmental conditions, and physical demands will help maximize your summer training. (Mark Atwater photo)

Each year as summer approaches, I return to the fields of Salt Point, New York, where my friend Dan Lussen and I spend the warm-weather months training flushers. For much of my career, I trained and guided year-round in the northern climates, but with age, warm winter weather has become too tempting, and so I follow it. I ride out each winter in Florida, and only return north when I am guaranteed long days and short-sleeve weather.

My annual migration back to New York makes me think about the seasonal nature of a trainer’s life. For many of us, regardless of location, the hunting season carries us through the fall and winter months, at which time our dogs should be at peak fitness and logging plenty of practical hours at work in the field. Typically, there is a period of recovery through late winter and spring, at which time we all recuperate, and simply maintain a baseline level of fitness. With the warm, longer days of late spring we re-focus on the task at hand and dig back into conditioning and training in a significant way. Doing so requires a few considerations.

When discussing successful summer conditioning, I like to focus my attention on three primary criteria: nutritional support, environmental conditions, and physical demands. All these factors must be attended to in order for the pre-season conditioning and training to be delivered in a safe and effective way. I hope in this installment to shed some light on my approach to each of these elements, and how I use them to inform my training.

English cocker spaniel
Make every effort to keep your dog hydrated and cool during the warm summer months. (Venée Gardner photo)

Nutritional Support 

Summer training demands are different for a dog than those encountered during the cool fall and winter days of hunting season. For this reason, I need to pay attention not only to food quality and composition, but also to the specifics of hydration.

As I ramp up the activity level of my dogs in late spring, I want to be sure I am taking a measured approach to feeding. I don’t necessarily increase the food volume at first, and I will only do so over the course of the summer if I see noticeable weight loss. I do, however, want to make sure that my dogs are getting a high-quality feed with a 30/20 breakdown of 30 percent protein and 20 percent fat. This composition, in my experience, ensures enough fat to feed the metabolism during exercise but also enhances lean muscle growth. Personally, I am a big believer in Purina Pro Plan for my food needs and have seen my dogs thrive on this diet through both training and hunting seasons.

In terms of nutritional supplementation, I like to either choose a food that includes a probiotic, or I add a probiotic over the food. The reason for this step is to ensure gut health, which in turn makes all other systems more effective. I also never want to see a dog with diarrhea in the summer, as the loss of both nutrition and hydration can be stressful.

Hydration, especially in summer training, is critical. Danny and I make sure that water always has an electrolyte powder supplement added. It is absolutely vital that a dog maintains proper electrolyte balance during the added stress of summer training, particularly when increased respiration and heat can result in dehydration. Electrolyte supplements will help ensure proper water absorption and will also ensure that the muscle functions of a dog in training are performing properly.

Environmental Conditions 

One of the reasons I come back to New York each summer is the warm weather, which offers quite a contrast from the cold and snowy winter. However, heat and sunshine offer their own challenges. When training in the summer, these environmental factors must be worked around to ensure the dogs stay healthy and productive.

Danny and I generally train in the morning hours and quit during the heat of midday. Remember that dogs cannot regulate body temperature as well as humans, and therefore we trainers have to create a training environment that is safe. Training early and late in the day is the easiest remedy, though it is also worth noting that on particularly hot or humid days, it is ok to pass on hard field-training. A day off training in the name of health and safety will pay dividends in the long run.

Handing off a chukar partridge
Several shorter training sessions are better than single extended duration stretches. (Venée Gardner photo)

The other environmental consideration revolves around sun. When we set up our training day, it is vital that we stage or dogs or our stake-out in the shade. Moreover, it is important to think about how that shade will move as the sun moves across the sky. Dogs, particularly those with dark coats, simply can’t handle direct sunlight in a healthy way for long periods. Consider this and attend to it up-front.

Physical Demands 

When we start our summer training in May or so, we have to remember that our dogs are coming off a period of relatively low-intensity exercise. For that reason, we have to ease into the training sessions, looking to build up fitness over time. To do this, we start our dogs working in short, 5- to 10-minute training sessions, and we build from there. We may do several sessions a day, but they are short, and we stagger them to ensure that the dog cools down between sessions. The longer lessons will come, but start slow, and work up.

From a fitness standpoint, we love to swim our dogs during the summer as an alternative to running/roading. Swimming is a great option as it keeps the dogs cool, it is easy on the joints, and the resistance of water exercises a range of muscles that don’t get worked on dry ground. Remember, though, that swimming is still demanding, and our dogs need recovery time. Don’t assume that swimming does not require any pacing or recovery time. Providing boundaries is the trainer’s obligation.

Depending on the training session and the lesson, a dog may be working with a bumper or bird in his mouth. Remember that this makes breathing more difficult, which exerts a dog more quickly. Conversely, the challenge also puts increased demand on the lungs and muscles, thereby building muscles and stamina quite efficiently. Measure the impact of retrieving drills but note that they can be a great fitness tool if used properly.

Finally, remember that as a trainer you need to be your dog’s governor. Many gun dogs are bred to be high RPM hunting machines, and in being so they lack an ability to pace and self-regulate. They may or may not have an on/off switch. Far too often we simply let them out of the box, ask them to go all-out for a set period, then put them back in the box. Following the lead of racehorse trainers, we should really loosen up our dogs and cool them down as a component of each session. To do so, simple heel the dog on a lead for a few minutes in the shade before running, and possibly work on some obedience. The middle of the session can be the high-output bird work, followed by a cool-down once again on the lead. This allows the dog’s muscles to warm up and cool down, and also allows their mind to adjust. The better balanced they are, both in mind and body, the better off they will be.

Summer is a special time of year. It is a time when new dogs come into their own, and old dogs, re-focus on the season to come. It is the time when I return to my home, and again find myself in the training fields each day. But summer training, and summer conditioning, require special attention from both dogs and trainers. With a bit of consideration, you can ensure that your dog stays safe, healthy, and motivated during the best months of the year.

Chocolate Lab in water
Swimming is a great form of conditioning in the summer, but still requires pacing and recovery time. (Jerry Imprevento photo)
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