Widely acclaimed hunter and outdoor writer Nash Buckingham had it right in a 1941 article when he wrote, “I was wondering why guys stall off putting their bird dogs in trim before the hunting season. They come home empty-handed and bellyaching about how their dogs played out or couldn’t smell the birds. They never blame themselves.”
This was a problem then, and it’s still a problem now. When the season begins, we wonder why our dogs don’t perform at high standards, or walk out of the field limping after the first hunt. Why is that? Because oftentimes, we don’t use the summer months to condition our dogs. It is on us as handlers to have our dogs in top shape, so they can hunt safely and be productive bird-finders by fall.
It may seem too early to begin an exercise program, but much like with human athletes, it takes around eight weeks of progressive exercise to get a dog into shape for hunting.
Resistance and Long, Slow-Distance Training
You should set up a progressive training and conditioning plan to help build a dog’s cardiovascular base along with musculoskeletal development. Your goal is to also prepare your dog for a variety of environmental situations, including weather and humidity.
Your overall plan will include resistance training and building up to long, slow-distance (LSD) training.
Resistance training helps to build muscle mass, but it is important not to build too heavy of muscles that could change a dog’s gait, or affect its reach and drive. LSD training helps to build a dog’s cardiovascular pace by increasing endurance. Dogs train at a slower than normal pace, but they travel a longer distance than they are accustomed to.
During advanced training, resistance training should increase, and LSD training should decrease. Other methods used in advanced training include pace runs (exercise at or near performance intensity), and variable-speed intervals that alternate between slower and faster speeds. High-speed intervals, which can be used when a dog is fit and prepared, are fast runs that help to finish a dog’s training toward the end of summer before hunting or competition.
You want to let your dog recover by letting it relax—both mentally and physically. Proper rest between workouts is the single most important part of recovery, and is paramount to success.
Nutrition is Key
For proper nutrition, adequate protein is crucial in a high-quality performance diet. Dietary protein should comprise about 24 to 40 percent of the total kilocalories (energy), and should be highly digestible. If a diet does not contain enough protein, muscle mass may be depleted, increasing the risk of soft-tissue injuries. Immune function may also be impaired. Fat is the most important energy nutrient for work. Dogs fed a high-fat diet can run farther faster than those fed a low-fat diet. Carbohydrates are important for maximum energy output, especially when a dog is hunting over several days.
Not long after you settle into an exercise program, you’ll find the problem becomes finding ways to exercise as your dog’s needs progress. For example: Allowing your dog to run free and exercise is a good idea in the beginning, but unless you’re spending hours at it, over time you’ll find your dog really isn’t benefiting to the extent needed to reach our goal of peak performance before hunting season begins. We must be creative in finding a way our dogs can safely work to increase exercise and gain endurance.
One simple idea is attaching a lead to the dog’s harness that allows you to hold back, adding resistance as your dog pulls forward during walks. Another idea is to use the same harness, and attach a weighted chain to it. As the dog moves forward, the weight drags safely alongside. More resistance equals more energy used in a given amount of time.
Another common exercise for your dog is to use an ATV. With a four-wheeler, you can set up outriggers to attach a bungee cord to the dog’s harness. The bungee should be short, and the outrigger long enough as to not allow the dog near the ATV’s wheels. Using a four-wheeler allows for close observation of the dog as you apply resistance or move to LSD workouts by controlling the dog’s speed/effort in relation to the speed of the four-wheeler.
Swimming is another great form of exercise, and it’s especially helpful as a low-impact form of LSD work that really benefits cardiovascular systems. Most dogs will follow when you paddle ahead in a canoe, or you can do retrieving drills from the shore. Swimming is a great form of exercise for hot summer days, but you still must pay close attention to overheating, especially in shallow water where surface temps are surprisingly high.
Hopefully, these ideas will be enough to get you started. Remember to start easy and build gradually, always be alert to signs of heat stress, and keep it fun for both you and the dog.