"To tell whether a spaniel is in good hunting condition," Don said, "stand behind him and look to the front. His neck should be apparent so that his head doesn't appear to grow out of his shoulders. His rib cage should be well defined, with just a suggestion of rib bones. Between his rib cage and his hips, he should have a slight 'Barbie-doll' indentation."
Don has found that some spaniel owners let their dogs get badly out of shape between hunting seasons. Their dogs spend most of their off-season time as family pets, getting little or no strenuous physical exercise, especially during the harsh winter months.
"Overweight is usually the major issue," he said, "brought on by too little exercise and too much food, especially table scraps and other treats. When you start conditioning your spaniel, you should stop the excess feeding and rely on a high-quality dog food in appropriate quantities."
Don recommends that you start the conditioning process with a trip to the vet for a check-up, followed by a grooming session to remove mats from your dog's coat.
That done, you should start taking your spaniel for daily runs in the field, ideally in hunting cover. Don pointed out that if you walk along while your dog runs and hunts, you'll be less apt to overwork him. When you're tired, so is he, so quit.
"When you're walking," he said, "your dog is covering three to five times as much ground as you are."
As your spaniel begins to get into condition, you can add some training drills to your program: patterning work, hunt-deads, retrieving, and so on. But you should keep these drills short and fun for your dog.
Don recommends limited swimming for conditioning a spaniel, such as tossing fun dummies in water, swimming with your dog, and short marking and blind retrieve drills.
"Spaniels are not retrievers," he said. "If you try to swim your spaniel as much as you would in conditioning a retriever, it'll quickly become counter-productive. He may wear out. He may start swallowing too much water. He may start 'puppy paddling.' And he may even refuse to enter the water. So keep his swimming sessions short--and fun."
Don stressed that when conditioning your spaniel in warm weather, you must prevent overheating. In fact, he feels that overheating is the most serious danger the dog faces.
"When you and your dog are exercising together," he said, "he is putting in three to five miles for every one you put in. And he's wearing a fur coat!"
During warm weather, do your conditioning work early in the morning and late in the evening, and have plenty of fresh water available. Never confine your dog in a closed space immediately after exercising. First let him cool down in a lake or in some shade. Then, when you confine him, make sure he has plenty of ventilation.
Don described the signs of overheating as very rapid breathing; hyper-extended tongue; excessive drooling, often followed by a dry mouth and nose; stiff, uneasy movement, weakness; and seeming confusion. At the first sign of overheating, you should cool your dog down immediately with cool water.
If you have cold packs or ice packs, apply them to areas of high blood circulation, such as the groin, armpits, and the front of the neck. If possible, get air circulating around the dog, either with a fan or by putting him into the cab of an air-conditioned vehicle.
"The final, and most important step," Don said, "is a trip to the vet. Even if your dog seems to be stabilized, he's still in serious danger of belated complications, not excluding death!
"An overheated dog needs, and deserves, veterinary supervision."
As a final thought, Don added this: "Hunting is a team effort and both of you need to be in shape so you can support one another's efforts. By working out together in the pre-season, you'll be a better team afield in the fall."
This tip is from Donald P. Krueger of Orion Guide Service, 1825 Lakeview Terrace, Stoughton, WI 53589; (608) 873-8549; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. John has been training all sporting breeds (spaniels, retrievers, and pointing breeds) professionally for 14 years. He trains for hunting and hunting tests. He is one of the few, perhaps the only one, to have trained and handled spaniels, retrievers, and pointing breeds to their AKC MH titles. He has judged spaniel and retriever hunting tests, and occasionally breeds Sussex spaniels.