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Transitioning from Training to Hunting

Pre-season training and hunting logic for your gun dog's health.

Transitioning from Training to Hunting

Three tactics to optimize your training efforts heading into the hunting season. (Venee Gardner photo)

Recently, I was thinking back on my younger years, when training days were spent in preparation for something—a big trial or opening day of the hunting season. Back then, training was just that—training. The big event was something altogether different, some sort of test or performance, and I kept the two well separated in my head. With age, however, I have gained a little bit of perspective. When I think about training these days, I see it as a part of a continuous process that is interspersed with hunting and trialing, and I realize that as a younger man, my eagerness often outweighed my better judgment. Often, I think that in my enthusiasm, I may have at times done more harm to my dogs than good.

This reflection came about because hunting season is approaching, and with it comes the bigger trial schedule. The owners and handlers that I train with are getting excited and talking about the events that lie ahead. I find myself reminding them that well before the season arrives, we must change our tactics and strategies to ensure that the dogs are prepared for longer, more demanding days, and that training should continue throughout. What I fear is that the composure and thought we bring to training will go out the door when pheasants start flying and there are ribbons on the line.

I try to steer my people gently into a mindset of preparation and prevention, hopefully ensuring that they and their dogs can remain happy, healthy, and fulfilled. In this installment, I hope to discuss pre-season preparation, and a measured approach to the exciting days of autumn. It is sadly far too common that we push our dogs too quickly, and what we demand of them in autumn proves to be something we can’t get back.

Slow & Steady

The days of summer training are typically composed of short stints in the field, intensive but focused, with training durations relatively short and scheduled for the cooler hours of morning and afternoon. We run our dogs in an open field setting, and though they go all-in, we are careful to schedule water breaks and swims to offset the demands. We are quick to respond to what they show us: mistakes are corrected, injuries and stresses are tended to, and we simply take a day off if the weather isn’t conducive to health. In the fall, we may still see hot days. We might have a hunt trip planned, a scheduled day of guiding, or a trial wherein we expect a dog to perform. In these situations, the demands on a dog are substantially elevated, and it can be hard for us to keep our expectations in check. We simply must, therefore, move slowly into the season, recognizing a slow and steady progression into the longer days, more demanding environments, and heightened intensity that accompany birds and shooters. We can start this progression with good pre-planning, and a training progression that incorporates conditioning in a variety of settings that mimic the hunt and trial environments. We can also keep our desires in check as the days of fall come to pass.

Spaniel with a duck in water
Save your training for the cool hours of the morning or evening and use available water sources to help your dog handle the heat better. (Venee Gardner photo)

To begin with, we have to set our dogs up for success health-wise. Aside from standard protocols such as tick mitigation and heartworm meds, a thorough vet check should happen in late summer to determine each dog’s baseline health. Make certain that Lyme disease testing or any other relevant parasite checks are done, and infections are dealt with. Make sure that heart and lungs are functioning without impediment, and no underlying issues are reflected in the bloodwork. Any hints of injury should be rested or rehabilitated, and despite the growing excitement, we may have to make hard decisions about delaying some planned events, making time for healing.

Toenails should be trimmed, dental issues should be fixed, and nutrition should be upped according to increased physical activity. Tend to the coat, and check ears and eyes. All of these minor preparations will ensure that a canine athlete is in peak fitness before the gradual uptick of physiologic demands come to pass. An ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure.

Practice Where You Play

In late summer we also change our training. I like to move out of the training field gradually to spend more sessions in the woods, or in a more realistic hunting landscape. The shadowy woods are cooler than the open fields, and they allow us to run a bit longer, and in a more demanding environment. A dog will have to negotiate hazards and terrain that will cause more stress, while requiring more decision making. This process will help accelerate physical conditioning and will also move decision-making to a higher level. Move slowly; the woods represent a heightened environment, and a dog needs time to acclimate. Additionally, the varied scents and stimuli that the woods present will require the dog to think in a way he or she hasn’t been accustomed to coping with, especially if a single, familiar training field has been used for drilling over the previous months.

Spaniel with a chukar partridge
Closer to the season, move your dog's training from the field to more realistic hunting landscapes. (Venee Gardner photo)

Conditioning should similarly build up over time. As summer progresses, up the intensity. Take the dog for longer swims or roading sessions in the cooler early and late hours. Note any changes in a dog and respond accordingly. Don’t expect marathon fitness if the training is not there. Lengthen conditioning sessions incrementally, a few minutes or a quarter mile at a time, and let muscles rebuild. Again, a big day that has not been prepared for could easily put a dog out of commission for weeks.


Prep-Work

A good deal of prep work must be done by the hunter and handler, too. Make sure that your medical kit is re-stocked and ready, and that plans have been made for carrying water if need be. Consider adding electrolytes to the water you carry, and into the water bowl in the kennel or crate. Electrolyte loading can make a remarkable performance difference in any athlete. I have long said that all handlers should carry a plastic honey bear with them in the field. In the event that a dog gets wobbly from exertion and low blood sugar, or if a dog gets taxed by cold, a little bit of honey on the gums can be a game-changer. The honey bear with its pointed plastic nozzle will allow you to safely get sugar into a wobbly dog. When stressed or compromised, a dog may bite if you try to force honey or food into his mouth with your fingers. The honey bear will keep your fingers out of harm’s way. Make sure that you pack away some forceps or pliers for chance encounters with thorns or porcupines and pack a knife in your vest for any of the unexpected circumstances in which a knife might be a life-saver. Always carry a short slip lead to walk a tired or injured dog calmly out of the field.

Additionally, the hunter or handler has to prepare his or her mindset. The first day out in the grouse woods is of course an exciting event, but it should be thought of as an event, and not as a race. Keep the early days afield short and fill them with breaks. Take time to calmly make training corrections, slowing down enough to hold your dog and yourself accountable to all the training standards that were implemented all summer. Take breaks: stop in the shade of an apple tree to have a snack and give your dog some treats and water. Force yourself and your dog to slow down. These days are supposed to be fun, and they are supposed to be enjoyed. Don’t pass over the chance to just enjoy a moment of quiet and use that time to calm your dog’s body and mind, getting him re-set for the next crop strip or covert. In the trial environment, or in the course of a guide day, it can be hard to adjust the schedule to accommodate breaks. Prepare yourself to swap out dogs before they are spent and look for opportunities to incorporate swims or splashes in a brook or pond where feasible.

All of these suggestions lead me back to a simple, but essential, concept: use common sense. Trust me, I remember well the excitement that can take over when that long-awaited moment finally arrives, and the reward is near at hand, or there are sure to be more birds in that one last hedgerow. But it is absolutely essential that we not let our wants and needs distract us from what our dogs are showing us, and what they need from us. It is our responsibility as handlers, trainers, and hunters to make thoughtful decisions that will ensure that more exciting moments with our dogs come to pass safely.  


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