Shaping Up Your Gun Dog

Keep your dog active so they don't burn out on the first hunt of the season. Well-conditioned dogs don’t happen by accident.

The dog rose from its bed, stiff-legged, slow and creaky, like an old-timer that couldn’t get its joints working. The English setter was just 5 years old, yet it moved more like an antique than a dog in its prime. It was the second morning of bird season, and the dog was muscle-sore with little energy left from opening day, when it ran out of gas before noon. A long rest added less than an hour to the afternoon’s hunt, then it was clear the setter’s first day was over. It should’ve been equally clear the dog would be even less productive the second day.

The setter was well-bred, -fed and -trained, in perfect health and cared for from all angles—except one: Its owner ignored physical conditioning until bird season arrived, then decided the hard-going dog’s bird-drive would carry it until it had hunted itself into shape. But the setter’s reality was entirely different, as the hunter should’ve known after 4 years of similar low-performance opening days that stretched into weeks.

At some point, a good many hunters have found themselves facing bird season with an out-of-shape dog or dogs. Although there are legitimate reasons for this, it usually results from neglect. From one season to the next, a typical gun dog will be out of the field for 9 months. And if it’s inactive during that time, it won’t hunt effectively, if at all, come autumn. For those folks who believe they can “hunt a dog into shape,” not only will it be physically hard on their dogs, but they can expect a chunk of their seasons to be frustrating and unproductive. Conditioning a gun dog in advance of hunting season is the only way to go.

Canine Conditioning
Last year, I attended a seminar sponsored by Nestle Purina that featured a lecture by Purina Senior Scientist Arleigh Reynolds. Dr. Reynolds is a veterinarian and physiologist/nutritionist (he holds two doctorates), as well as an internationally recognized canine conditioning and endurance expert. Reynolds trains and handles his own teams of sled dogs, primarily in open-class sprints. Although they vary regionally, these races can be 30 miles long. That’s right, 30 miles is a “sprint,” which is one reason why sled dogs are the best-conditioned canines in the world. (Note: Reynolds’ dogs, along with those of other championship mushers, are husky, pointer and German shorthair crosses. The sled dog/gun dog combinations seem to have the attitude, drive and stamina necessary for top-tier racers.)

During the Purina seminar, Rey­nolds gave a presentation about “Conditioning and Feeding for Optimal Performance.” Given the length and complexity of Reynolds’ presentation, space precludes offering more than an outline of his conditioning program. Therefore, I’ll discuss only the broader concepts underpinning his conditioning of hard-working dogs.

To prevent exercise-associated medical problems, a veterinarian should evaluate your dog for general health, vaccination history and parasite status before starting a conditioning program. Your dog should be on a complete, balanced nutrition schedule (as I discussed in my November 2007, column). Reynolds emphasized that throughout any physically demanding program, you should closely monitor your dog’s body condition, the quality of its coat and its overall attitude toward work and training.

Two aspects of canine well-being that are often neglected are the quality of a dog’s rest and the need for water. It’s critical that a hard-working dog has warm, dry, comfortable quarters that aren’t cramped, and adequate downtime to rest between conditioning or other work sessions. By the way, traveling in a crate bouncing in the back of a truck en route to training grounds, hunting cover or competitive events is not restful in the least.

Hydration Is Critical
Clean water is the single most important item you can provide for your dog, yet it’s often the most overlooked. Inadequate hydration can impair thermoregulation and removal of bodily waste products, as well as increase the heart’s workload. Naturally, the greater the intensity or duration of exercise, the greater the water loss (thus, water demand); the same goes for very warm or very cold environments. Use whatever strategy works—soaking dry food, “baiting” water for taste, etc.—to get enough fluids into your dog to keep it well-hydrated.

The basic operating principles of Reynolds’ conditioning program is to begin with easy effort and progress toward hard work, to incorporate whatever exercise options you have available to optimize all muscle groups, and to periodically evaluate and adjust your program upward as your dog’s capacity for work increases. A fundamental aspect of the program is that there must be physical overload to move forward with conditioning; that is, for conditioning to pro­gress, the stress of exercise must exceed a dog’s capacity at that time. This does not say to work a dog into the ground. It is, rather, like the “no pain/no gain” concept, which doesn’t mean we should suffer, only that we should push ourselves. I’ll say it again: A dog must have adequate time off between episodes of stress to allow its body to recover, otherwise performance will diminish.

A key piece of this “adaptation cycle,” as Reynolds calls it, is “supercompensation,” in which a dog’s body adjusts to elevated work levels and becomes stronger, increasing work capacity by supercompensating for the stress of overload. “What was overload a month ago might not be an overload today,” Reynolds said; thus, “the magnitude of overload must be increased in order to achieve the desired effect.” A dog’s adaptation cycle is roughly 4-8 weeks long, after which its condition will level-off and improvement will be minimal. Training focus should then shift to a different facet of fitness workouts for the next 4-8 weeks.

According to Reynolds, optimal conditioning of any dog requires a minimum of 2-3 months, which he breaks into a regimen of five broad, overlapping stages that can be carried out concurrently with field work and skill training.

The first is an early season conditioning period from late spring well into summer. This low-intensity period involves slow, long-distance trotting and cross-training work, such as swimming, that minimizes heat and joint stress during this early stage.

Next is the 4- to 6-week foundation training period of August through September, or late summer/early fall, that includes low to moderate intensity workouts, such as free running and roading (dogs are “roaded” in a variety of ways including attaching them to a 4-wheeler or using a bicycle and leash), then easy resistance training (dragging a chain is inexpensive resistance training) of 2-3 weeks.

The preparation training period of 4-6 weeks, roughly October to early November, with moderate to high-intensity work of running longer distances and training in anticipated hunting terrain or actual hunting depending on geographic location and seasons.

Next is the specialization, or peak time period of 2-3 months, the bulk of hunting season. By this time you can expect high-level performances, though distances and intensity will not be as long or hard as during conditioning workouts. However, maintenance of your dog’s condition will depend on regularity of hunting and continued workouts.

The post-season transition period runs several weeks after hunting season and is a recovery time of low-intensity activities such as walking, free running or casual workouts such as retrieving thrown training dummies.

Conditioning your gun dog to a high-performance level takes commitment; it isn’t something that can be done in 10-minute sessions every other day. What level will work for you and your dog depends on how often you’re afield and the terrain you hunt, how hard and how long you hunt, and what you expect from your dog. Although Reynolds’ conditioning concepts remain valid across the board, all dogs aren’t created equal, which means that not all dogs shape up alike and that the program’s stages and intensities must be adjusted to meet the demands of location, owners and individual animals. But whatever conditioning level you set as a goal, and whatever your dog attains, it will be physically healthier, mentally sharper and far more productive than if it did little or nothing for that same period.

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