"Proper condition," John said, "varies depending on the hunting job the retriever does. A dog that hunts mostly in the uplands is like a cross-country runner, needing good aerobic lung capacity and agility. A waterfowl specialist is like a middle linebacker, needing bursts of energy and good muscle mass for swimming."
John feels that typical off-season training sessions don't keep a retriever in proper condition for hunting. Training sessions are too short to build endurance. Then, too, they are usually focused on teaching or reinforcing various training concepts, like steadiness, honoring, marking and remembering multiple falls, handling on blind retrieves, and so on. With so many of these things to work into training sessions, few owners give much thought to physical conditioning until just before hunting season.
"If your retriever is really out of shape," John said, "you should plan on spending about three months to get him into good hunting condition."
John offered the following schedule for that process. During the first four weeks, give your dog 30 minutes of continuous physical exertion two days a week. During the next four weeks, increase the time to 40 minutes a day and the frequency to three days a week. During the last four weeks, continue the 40-minute sessions, but increase the frequency to four days a week.
What sort of "continuous physical exertion" does he recommend? On land, you should take your retriever for long romps in the field, just letting him run loose. This will get both the dog and the owner in good shape. In water, you should row a canoe or kayak around a lake with your dog swimming along behind. This too will get both halves of the hunting team in shape.
"During warm weather," John cautioned, "overheating can be a serious problem. I heard that in 2004 on the opening day of pheasant season in South Dakota, 65 dogs died from overheating!"
To avoid this, John recommends exercising on land early in the morning and late in the evening. Even then, the dog needs frequent rest periods in the shade. If you train near water, as you should, you can cool your dog off as frequently as necessary.
"But shallow ponds can be too warm," he added, "so exercise near deeper ponds and lakes. Another caution: black dogs are more susceptible to overheating than lighter colored ones."
John gave the following signs of over-heating: The dog begins to pant rapidly, in fact, twice his normal rate; his eyes look blank and dazed; he staggers around.
"As soon as you notice any of these signs," John said, "carry your dog to the nearest shade or, better yet, water, whether it's a lake or a garden hose. Wet the dog down for 15 to 20 minutes, with drinking water continuously available. If he hasn't started to improve within five minutes, call your vet immediately."
As a final thought, John added this: "During training sessions, you should train mostly to your dog's weaknesses. This not only improves his overall work, but it also helps condition him by working him longer and harder in each session than training to his strengths would."
This tip is from John Johnson of JBJ Kennel, P.O. Box 277, 2355 122nd Avenue, Hopkins, MI 49328; (269) 793-7722; e-mail email@example.com. John has been training all sporting breeds (retrievers, spaniels, and pointing breeds) professionally for 20 years. He trains dogs for hunting and does not participate in field trials or hunting tests. He breeds British field-bred Labrador retrievers.