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Pre-Season Preparations

How to condition your dog's body and mind to start the season at the top of their game.

Pre-Season Preparations

Taking a three-tiered approach to your pre-season plans with your gun dog will ensure they are ready for the hunting season. (Photo By: Susanna Love)

With seasons opening, plans are being made for some great time in the field. Vacation time is being set aside for hunting and road trips are being plotted to new and familiar destinations. The rewards for patiently waiting through the long off-season are nearly upon us!

As we look ahead to those highly anticipated hunts, and as we dig into the necessary preparation, we need to be sure that we don’t overlook the true stars of the show: our bird dogs. These may be dogs that finished their formal training this past year and are about to enter their first hunting season, or they may be dogs that have multiple seasons under their belt and extensive experiences. Whichever the case may be, there is a degree of preparation that should take place to ensure that those dogs start the season at the top of their game.

Conditioning

Attention to fitness is the most obvious preparatory action that we need to take before the season starts. In anticipation of long, hard days, our dogs must be physically in shape. Generally speaking, bird dogs spend the summer laid off. By summer’s end, they are often in poor physical shape, but their mental condition may need attention, too. To be fair, conditioning of both the body and the mind needs to be high on the list of pre-season preparation.

Physical conditioning is fairly straightforward, and can be accomplished through running in the field, roading, or even swimming. By making sure the dogs are physically prepared for the hunting season, we can extend their opportunity for time on the ground hunting, and therefore we can enjoy a longer, better hunt. Physical conditioning also helps to reduce the dogs’ risk of physical injury during the season.

To get a good head start on physical conditioning, at Ronnie Smith Kennels we recommend keeping dogs on a high-quality feed and maintaining those dogs in an ideal body score throughout the year. We feed Purina ProPlan Performance Sport all year long, and we simply adjust the amount of feed needed to maintain an ideal body score as the demands of exercise change with the seasons.

Ronnie Smith with a red setter on a leash
At Ronnie Smith Kennels, a controlled training environment may be the concrete aisles in our kennel building, the quiet environment of our kennel room, or a mowed grass field. (Photo By: Susanna Love)

Mental conditioning is a little more nuanced, but no less critical. The demands of hunting season require that our dogs are confident, composed, and compliant in a working/hunting situation. A significant portion of the mental conditioning required in the pre-season lies in dusting off previous training that may have gotten a little sloppy during the summer vacation. Dogs are just like humans: When they do not utilize and practice a learned behavior regularly, they forget how to execute that behavior well. With a lack of regular practice, a bird dog can easily become confused about what is expected, especially when called upon to make decisions at a time of high stress, confusion, or excitement.

When looking at specifics of mental conditioning in anticipation of the season, first look at the most elemental trained behaviors a pointing dog needs in order to be proficient in the hunting field. When doing so, you can really boil these trained behaviors down into three essential skills: the ability to “stand still,” “go with you,” and “come to you.” The ability to “stand still” is applied in pointing and backing scenarios, as well those times when we are getting gear on our dogs or attending to health/medical issues. The trained behavior of “going with you” falls in to place with a loose-lead or off-lead heel and handling in the field. The “here” or trained behavior of “coming to you” when called is both a recall and the foundation of a good retrieve.


Training Review 

When dusting off your dog’s prior formal training, it is important to go back to a controlled environment. There it is possible to ensure that all three of the above behaviors are still in place, and that your dog still has a good understanding for each cue. At Ronnie Smith Kennels, a controlled training environment may be the concrete aisles in our kennel building, the quiet environment of our kennel room, or a mowed grass field. It is ideal that the environment be sterile (i.e. an area birds are never planted in), and relatively free of distraction at first. We typically use our Challenge Course area where we originally taught obedience, can finesse cues and increase the complexity by utilizing our agility obstacles, and have room to turn dogs loose when they are ready. Our clients often utilize a calm backyard environment.

Our training review usually begins by heeling a dog on a loose lead (demonstrating the mindset of “going with you”). Once that is perfected, we progress back to an off-lead heel, using remote momentary corrections with the e-collar to continue working on polishing a good heel. While in a heeling scenario, we also review the cues to stop (refreshing the concept of “standing still” on cue). We simply have a dog heel by our side and cue him to stop with the lead. If there is a lack of compliance or confusion, we stop our forward movement and, if necessary, cue the dog with the lead to stop as well. By setting up the situation in such a way that the dog easily complies with the cue every time, we can build reps quickly and bring the old, trained behavior back to a polished state. We also work to overlay the verbal commands at this time, simply for the sake of refreshing the meaning of each command as it relates to the desired behavior.

Because an over-arching goal remains that these dogs are able to comply with cues in the field, we slowly build back up to that level, ensuring the dog’s success at every step along the way. As the review progresses over a few short days, we increase the distraction level and phase away from a highly controlled environment at a rate that fits the individual dog. We progress from heeling on a lead, to the off-lead heel enforced with remote cues to, as the dog is ready, turning a dog loose in a tall grass area that they associate with the potential presence of game birds. Our clients often accomplish this stage of their dog’s review in a quiet dog park, or in a safe, vacant piece of ground in their neighborhood.

dog trainer with a red setter on a leash
As proficiency in “going with you” increases, so does the dog’s ability to be successful in an area with a higher level of distraction. (Photo By: Susanna Love)

In this less controlled, larger area we ask our dogs to exhibit the same three basic behaviors that we will ask of them in the bird field (“stand still,” “go with you,” and “come to you”) from a distance. We review the concept of stopping both on a verbal cue and solely on a remote cue without any verbal command. We make sure that if we use a verbal cue or a remote cue for handling, our dogs turn and go with us and out to the front. We also ask them to come to us without hesitation or deviation. A good recall has the same finish as we would expect to see on a retrieve.

It is critical to remember we are not teaching any of these behaviors at this stage, but rather dusting off and reviewing old training that has already been instilled. We are simply moving through a progression quickly, adding distraction and levels of difficulty as the mental state of the dog takes fitness. Once these review exercises are perfected in a tall grass environment, we progress to the next step, one that more closely simulates the hunting scenario that we will soon be performing in. It is time to move to field work with birds.         

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Bird Work

With the cues we will be utilizing firmly refreshed and crisp, we plant birds, and we take our dogs to the field. In this stage, we set out to ensure that our bird dogs are still at a level of steadiness and proficiency that we initially trained to achieve, and that we expect to maintain throughout the upcoming season.

Regardless of the level of steadiness that we hold our dogs to, we approach the bird work with the intention of helping the dog get re-acquainted with success in stages. The first stage is the point. We work to reshape an honest, calm mindset on point, one that will allow the dog to stand on point for however long it takes for the hunters to get in position. Then we work to see success in our dogs through the flush, stopping our dogs using verbal and/or remote cues as necessary. Lastly, we incorporate the gun and then retrieve work.

It is our experience that once a dog has gone through a progressive tune up or review such as this, he/she is mentally prepared for the season. With a thorough, progressive refresher, all the training elements fall rather seamlessly back into place. In all our training we find that the most important predictor of an animal’s success is to establish a healthy mindset (confident, compliant, and composed) and a solid foundation, with a good understanding of the cues. From that point, trained behaviors can be applied in a myriad of environments and situations to keep the animal’s performance at a high level.

orange and white american brittany dog on point in a field
The ability to “stand still” is applied in pointing and backing scenarios, as well as those times when we are getting gear on our dogs or attending to health/medical issues. (Photo By: Susanna Love)
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