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Water Work For Upland Dogs

Get your pheasant pup swimming now to conquer the season come fall

Water Work For Upland Dogs

To be honest, I've never had an upland dog that didn't also serve as a waterfowl retriever as well. And even though most of my fall bird-hunting time is consumed by pheasants and ruffed grouse, I make sure my dogs are very comfortable retrieving in the water for the days that we do waterfowl hunt — and for the days when they need to get wet to complete their upland tasks.

I realize that there are many upland hunts where a dog is not likely to have to swim, but there are others where it's a good bet they will. Most of my pheasant hunting occurs on public land here in my home state of Minnesota where the land we hunt tends to be the kind of ground that can't be farmed, which means it's too wet to be tillable. I don't know how many roosters I've shot over the years that have fallen into open water, or at the very least have hit the cattails where it's swampy. My dogs have never had a problem retrieving these birds, but I've hunted with a few buddies who couldn't make the same claim.

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The typical rationale goes something like, "I don't duck hunt, so I don't need to work water retrieves with my dog." This is most often heard from hunters who have dogs that haven't been introduced to water properly, or are simply not confident working in the waves.


The thing about this is they might be asked to at some point, and if they aren't confident the whole thing will turn into a train wreck. Of course, that's not the only reason to work an upland dog in the water.


Crossfit Canines

I cringe every time I hear someone say they are planning to hunt their dog into shape. This is a recipe for injury, and simply not fair to the dog. I look at it similarly to a person who decides they are going to run their first half-marathon. No one with the common sense God gave a toad would attempt 13.1 miles without at least putting in a few pre-race practice sessions (and hopefully more than a few).

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One of the main reasons besides sheer laziness that some dog owners don't want to get their dogs into shape is due to the immediate pre-season weather. A lot of times you're dealing with the highest temperatures of the year, and it's just not that inviting outside. And it's not safe for a dog to run multiple drills when it's 104 degrees and the sun is blaring down.

If only there was a way to get a lot of exercise without overheating?


That's right, there is. And swimming does more than give a dog a chance to stay cool while building confidence in the water. It also allows them the chance to get a great cardio workout that doesn't pound on their joints.

There are very few ways to whip a dog into shape without taking a toll on their bodies the way that water work does. Throughout the summer, this is a great way to keep them lean and mean, and to develop confidence to tackle any water retrieves that come their way.

Which Water Works Well?

A good dog will get bored over time if you try the same drills with them. That's one of the reasons why I scout out several spots in which to run summertime drills. I'm fortunate to have access to several ponds, a few rivers, and a couple of lakes relatively close to my house, so that certainly helps. And we use all of them to shake things up and keep my dog interested.


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Scout out some quality locations near your home. If you're worried about having a wet dog around the house every day like my bride, who reminds me of it very, very often, plan to swim early and then run a few land-based drills. I like to take my Lab, Luna, to a nearby lake and run through some long-distance work. On the way home, we swing by the neighborhood soccer fields for some shorter, fun retrieves. She dries off some, and by the time we get home I hear less complaining from my better half.

Solving Problems

Still not sold on taking your quail dog swimming every day? Consider this — the best bird dogs are true problem solvers. The more problems they need to solve in their daily lives, the easier it will be for them to suss out a covey of quail in 1000 acres of cover. Dogs need challenges, and running after a tennis ball over and over isn't challenging, even if they love it.

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Water drills allows for a new opportunity for a dog to work through new challenges. It can also function well as a reminder of steadiness as well as other obedience refreshers. Generally speaking, the more we ask of our dogs the more we get out of them. Just remember to keep your expectations realistic while planning out some diverse-but-doable drills, which encourage comfort in the water while allowing your upland dog to grow sharper both mentally and physically.

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