August is a tough month for training gun dogs. Sure, most of us are fired up by the coming of another hunting season, but it's a hot, humid and a demanding time to train in.
For all of us with well-bred dogs there is danger during training because pup will continue pushing even when exhausted. Well-bred dogs with outstanding breeding have DNA loaded not only with instinct but also with lots of drive.
Be careful and do not let pup overdo his fitness regimen, especially in hot weather. You must be his brains, because well-bred dogs will run until they fall down, and that can be fatal.
Training early in the morning is ideal, and pup must be brought along at a moderate rate. A benefit for those gun dog owners who, in addition to hunting, are also actively involved in hunt tests, is their dogs usually maintain a better level of fitness year-round. Maintaining a decent fitness level is good for both man and beast.
Fitness work near water is advantageous because pup can periodically enter the water to cool down. Additionally, water retrieves offer a great exercise opportunity.
In our crowded East, I find that electric tower right-of-ways provide good training areas, especially for fitness training. Most can be traversed via passable dirt maintenance roads, even on a bicycle. A bike will allow longer training sessions once pup advances to higher fitness levels. And yes, the bike is for you, because even on your best day you cannot cover more ground on foot than pup.
Have a good amount of water readily available for you and pup to drink often, and enough to soak pup's underside if he gets overheated. In addition to what you carry, have more water nearby, and keep it in a cooler with some bagged ice. If pup gets overheated use the cool water — but not the ice itself — on pup's belly and between his thighs to lower his body temperature.
If you cannot get pup out at least two or three times per week for 60 to 90 minutes prior to hunting season — again, monitor the heat! — it is unlikely he will be of much assistance afield. Without a good fitness program pup's health will be at risk, and that is just plain unfair to pup.
Mix It Up
Another valuable pre-season routine, especially with young dogs, is to get them into multiple types of cover while training. Dogs older than 4 likely don't need this because they have "been there, done that." But younger dogs sometimes resist heavy or nasty cover, especially if they have little experience finding birds in these places.
If you find pup is hesitant to enter heavy cover, toss a retrieving dummy in for him to retrieve. In most instances, your spaniel will crash right into the brushy thicket to make the retrieve. Mix things up with pup's training and conditioning by tossing a wing-clipped pigeon into the cover occasionally. If you are using an electric tower right-of-way, or are anywhere near people other than dog trainers, avoid using pigeons to side-step controversy. Know the local laws regarding using pigeons for training.
Years ago, I did a newspaper story on a successful local retriever trainer. I've visited his house and training grounds several more times since then and learned something new on each visit. The gentleman was not only a hunter but also an avid field trialer who normally had from two to four working dogs. He had 200 acres to train on with seven ponds of different sizes, as well as several types of cover. Each training day he loaded his dogs into crates inside a heavy-duty cargo van and drove to a pre-chosen spot suitable for the first lesson.
He ran each dog through the drill or desired lesson, loaded them up and drove them to another location to utilize a different type of cover. I was told, "Dogs react differently to different cover types, even refusing to enter certain coverts occasionally. By changing cover types regularly I am doing my best to reduce any chance of my dogs refusing to enter cover during a retrieve."
One pond on the property was dug near the farmhouse for fire suppression if needed. The other six were dug not only at different times and locations, but also in different shapes and sizes. "Dogs sometimes refuse to enter unfamiliar water," I was told, "the same as with different cover types. Having a variety of water venues to train in regularly, and easily, keeps my dog prepared for the unexpected."
Spaniels occasionally balk at certain cover types. While not common, I have witnessed it firsthand, especially with young dogs. I did, however, once see a top-notch field trial springer dismissed from the field by a judge for refusing to enter a very dark section of cover to make a retrieve. Many observers thought the dog had a chance for a ribbon that day, but the failed retrieve ended that possibility.
Those planning on using their spaniels for retrieving duty while dove hunting would do well to gather some like-minded friends and grab some dummies, pigeons and spaniels to do at least one dry-run before visiting the dove fields. (Again, take plenty of water!)
This scenario need not be set up like a full-blown dove hunt. Having several dogs and their handler/hunters spread around part of a field, though, could smooth out upcoming dove hunts remarkably well.
Either well-tossed dummies (yes, a blank gun is recommended) or blank-activated dummy throwers could be alternated, with only one dog being sent for each retrieve. All the dogs could practice "marking" and all but one could practice being steady for each retrieve that one dog is sent for. Alternate dogs to make the retrieve, but not in order — you'd be surprised how quickly spaniels can catch on to a rhythm.
One tip: drive a stake fitted with an 18-inch chain into the ground and hook pup to it for the first several retrieves, or for as many times as needed until pup remains steady. Fact is, it's not a bad idea to do this when dove hunting until you get compliance on the steady command.
Finally, take your friends and their spaniels to a nice size pond and work steadying drills with them, similar to what you did around the "dove field." Remember, only one dog retrieves while the rest keep steady. Yes, the stake and chain can be effective here, too. You can also do conditioning retrieves, as well as set up water races for your dogs. But be careful about having your dog's race for the same dummy because it could inadvertently cause a conflict between dogs.
These outings are all in good fun, and it benefits the dogs. Us, too!