Imagine a buddy showing up at your house at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning dressed in a running outfit. He's competing in a 10K race and is urging you to join him. The event starts in an hour. Could you make it to the finish line?
Your days are spent sitting in a chair tapping on a keyboard; your evenings are centered around dinner, a couch and a television. Thank God for remote controls. Odds are your dog leads an equally sedentary life this time of year. When opening day comes around, however, you expect your dog to finish the equivalent of a 10K without a day of conditioning. He'd fail as miserably as you would.
Your dog needs training right now. In much the same way that professional athletes must keep in top physical and mental shape during the off-season, your four-legged hunting partner needs to stay sharp and strong, too.
Kerkhoven, Minnesota resident and Avery Outdoors territory manager Mark Brendemuehl works his Labrador retrievers virtually every day outside of hunting season. If he's not in the field, there's a good chance he's tossing bumpers, even putting his dogs on live birds at least an hour each day. Much of the activity is general conditioning.
A dog that stays in shape throughout the summer will hunt harder and last longer in the fall. Brendemuehl, however, also keeps his retriever's hunting skills sharp through regular training.
"A dog can certainly forget what she's learned over the course of a few months if the things they've learned aren't reinforced on a regular basis," he says. "We forget how to do things if we don't do them often. Dogs are no different."
Put Her On Birds
Upland bird hunters don't have to worry about decoys, of course, but they should consider real-world training, too. You don't have to actually shoot birds over your pointer in order to keep her nose sharp. Simply exposing your dog in the off-season to the scent of pigeons or pen-raised quail will keep them eager and excited.
Training on birds is especially important for puppies and young dogs with little experience on live birds. The more they work with the real thing, the better they'll hunt when you have a shotgun in your hand.
'I'll put my dogs on preserve birds when I can, its just good practice, ' says Brendemuehl.
Beat The Heat
Dogs don't sweat, at least not like we do. Instead, they dissipate most body heat by panting. However, they can only avoid so much heat stress on a blistering hot day. That's why it's vital to pay close attention to your dog during mid-day workouts. Brendemuehl says a panting dog is okay, but when the tongue hangs from the side of the mouth instead of the front, it's time to quit for the day.
Still, training on hot days is a great way to acclimate your dog to the often-warm days of dove season and the early days of most upland seasons — just don't overdo it. Start by working out in the mornings or evenings and make sure your dog has plenty of water. Train for short periods in the middle of the day, but watch your dog for warning signs.
'A couple of years ago, dogs were dying of heat exhaustion all over South Dakota on opening day of pheasant season, ' recalls Brendemuehl. 'Guys were either pushing their dogs too hard or they just weren't in shape to begin with. '
Labs and other retrievers are built to swim; a day at the local lake should be a routine workout session. Although some hardcore trainers may insist all retrievers should be worked with a bumper or a dummy made specifically for dog training, Brendemuehl won't hesitate to throw a ball or a stick if there's nothing else available at the moment.
"What matters is that your dog is getting exercise, ' he says. 'Swimming is great exercise for a retriever and they stay cool even when it's hot out. '
Arguably, nothing is more important than keeping your pointer or retriever in top physical condition. There's no better way to keep any breed of hunting dog in good shape than a daily run. Throw a ball, a stick, a bumper, anything to get your dog on her feet and moving. Start slow, though.
Remember how sore you got when you went to the gym for the first time in years? Increase the workout a little each day until your companion can run at will. Your dog may not admit when she's tired, so be careful not to overdo it.
There's no telling how many hunters keeled over after a day of plowing through cattails and corn stubble, as well. Overweight and under-exercised is no way to go through hunting season. There's no point in getting your faithful companion in shape if you can't keep up with him. You need to get in shape, too. Is there anything more humiliating than being outhunted by your dog?
Instead of tossing a bumper from the comfort of a lawn chair, lace up your running shoes and pound the pavement with your faithful companion at your side. Once you get your running legs back, switch to your hunting boots and start climbing hills and other obstacles you might face on a typical bird hunt. Duck hunters need to get in shape, too. Your dog will respect you even more than she already does.
Brendemuehl doesn't just toss a bumper into a pond for a half-hour. Instead, he tries to mimic real hunting conditions in an effort to combine conditioning and training. He'll launch a dummy across ditches, over thick brush and, once he's confident his Lab is in shape, as far into the water as he can. Because training and conditioning go hand-in-hand, he also works on commands during workout sessions.
Some duck hunters go so far as to toss out a decoy spread and then lob a dummy across the decoys to keep their dog accustomed to swimming through the obstacles. A few even set up a mock hunt in a blind or a boat to mimic what the dog experiences during the actual season. It's a lot of work, but it may pay dividends come opening day.