Is Your Dog Ready for the New Season?
The nights are drawing in, a chill hangs in the air as evening approaches, light mists greet the early morning and once more shooting season is upon us. Guns are oiled, cartridges bought in ready, shooting gear and camouflage prepared and all equipment brushed up and ready to go. But what about our dogs? Are they ready for a hard days work in all weather conditions, maybe in and out of water, through the heaviest of cover which has not quite died down yet after its spring and summer lushness? What about muscles that have been relaxing in the back garden soaking up the sunshine and a brain that has not been tested since last year? Dogs also get ‘rusty’, ‘dusty’ and like ourselves unfit.
Too many times I have seen dogs damaged physically. Joints and muscles strained beyond their capabilities and training ruined through bad or more often lack of preparation before the shooting season. Just consider how many miles a beating or rough shooting dog must run in order to get those birds out over the guns. Watch a picking up dog force it’s way through rough cover, get over streams, fences, and ditches to bring back the bird and then imagine the strain being put on muscles and mind. This is not ordinary work. This is the work of athletes, dogs that should be at their peak both physically and mentally to come through a day successfully. This is commando work and to not prepare your dog for the ‘battle’ ahead is tantamount to neglect. You owe it to your dog to get it prepared for the hard season ahead and also to make preparations which will eliminate or at the very least minimise any potential for physical damage or accidents.
Short walks do not get your dog fit for the season. Exercise and fitness routines need to be gradually built up until he looks, acts and thinks fit. There needs to be a spring in the step, a clarity in the eye, an enthusiasm in the brain, a shine on the coat and a figure that shows just the outline of rib, with a good tuck up in the lumbar region. Feeding and the correct exercise bring this about and some of that exercise can be given partly during a brush up training program.
So often I hear the comment “Oh, I like the dog to have a little fat on him at the beginning of the season, he quickly looses it and looks great after a few weeks.” That little extra weight and lack of fitness can cause the problems which may mean your dog is out of action after a few weeks. Good quality food will keep weight on your dog through the shooting season if you feed it the right amounts, of the right type of food. In the summer I often reduce the protein intake of my dogs but about six weeks before the season starts I put them onto a premium food with a higher protein and fat content. This does not mean they get fat just before the season. If you watch your dog you can regulate the quantities and as you give them more exercise increase it accordingly. Don’t go by just what it says on the bag – use some common sense. Every dog is different.
If you can give them ‘road work’ safely, this is a good way of getting them fit. Why not take your mountain bike or borrow one and get off on the forestry or heathland tracks with your dog following. I know some trainers who use ATV three wheelers and get their dogs following them on that. I would not advise running them alongside a car as you cannot see easily where the dog is, and accidents have occurred on a number of occasions where owners have done this. An ATV does make it easier but the bicycle will help get you fit as well. Swimming is another way of creating fitness and does not strain the muscles in the same way as running. So where your dog is overweight, judicious feeding and some good swims will certainly help start the fitness regime. Then move onto ‘road work’ or other forms running exercise. To get the pointers fit for the season in America , not only do they run them behind ATV’s but they also fasten them into special harnesses, to which they attach chains. The weight of the chains are increased as their muscles and fitness level improves. These dogs in competition are often running up to three hours at one stretch, covering such great distances that the handlers follow on horseback to stay with them. Peak fitness for these dogs is essential.
I don’t have a bicycle or ATV but as part of my training program I build the memory and the fitness of all my dogs through memory retrieves. I drop a dummy or ball, walk on and then send the dog for it. Not only is it good training but also it means the dogs does three times the distance that I do and two of those ‘legs’ he is running. With my labs I built their memory up so they can go back well over three hundred yards. Three or four retrieves like this and a dog is beginning to get some good running and stretching out. As the dog becomes fitter why not leave the ball or dummy at the top of increasingly steeper hills. Running up the hill will definitely put muscle on the rear quarters and develop stamina. I regularly watch in admiration people who want to get fit running up slopes and carrying backpacks with increasingly heavy weights. I often saw the Marines doing this. If you live near the seaside, running on a sandy beach and swimming in the sea is a fun way to build muscle and fitness – but don’t forget to wash all that sea water off afterwards.
With my spaniels and any flushing dogs, as well as swimming I like to get them fit through hunting and increase the time hunting gradually until they will work happily for up to an hour, without excessive ‘blowing’. I want to keep pace in the dog and I also feel that the brain gets tired well before the body. So with a flusher which covers a lot of ground I feel more comfortable and confident knowing they can give everything for up to an hour. When I am upland hunting I take more than one dog and alternate them at each drive. One taking a break either walking at heel or in the car while the other works. I guess I am building the sprinter not the long distance runner, but that is my preference.
One way of getting plenty of hunting and exercise is to put in regular training sessions and a visit or tow to a game preserve. In this way not only can you get your dog fit hunting up, flushing the birds and maintaining steadiness, but also polish up it’s training. Simulate situations you are going to encounter in hunting. Blinds, boats, sitting for longish periods, type of cover and prepare your dog for what he will have to deal with
The best time to work on fitness and training is when the day is cooler, early morning or evening. But whenever it is, don’t do too much too quick. Fitness and training however is only part of the preparation. I always check my dogs’ vaccination records to make sure they are up to date. I also always carry a first aid kit for the dogs with plenty of eye wash and wound powder plus a large field bandage just in case of emergencies. The other item I have found invaluable is a water container with a top similar to a Fairy liquid bottle so that I can give the dog a drink by squirting water into it’s mouth. I have a rectangular one pint bottle which I carry in a leather pouch on my belt but it would be just as easy to carry it in the pocket or in a game bag. The dogs become very adept at catching the stream of water to which I add powdered glucose. I have seen a number of dogs collapse including one of my own with sugar deficiency. At the beginning of the season when the weather is still warm and the vegetation lush, it doesn’t take long to burn up a lot of energy and deplete the sugar reserves to the point of collapse. So glucose in the water is one way of keeping that energy level up. As well as refreshing the dog with clean water at any time rather just at lunch time, I believe that wetting the dog’s mouth washes out the dirt and dust and provides lubrication for the mouth and rear nasal passages to absorb scent. This gives the dog a greater scenting ability. Now some of you may think this is a ludicrous idea but I have done it and it does seem to help.
There are many little things you can do to make your dog’s work so much more enjoyable and reduce injury or illness. If your dog has a longish coat trim between the toes so that grass seeds, mud and other debris do not get caught up in there causing soreness. Make sure their ears are clean and free of any infection because if there is the slightest hint, all the dirt, dust, seeds and water will aggravate it to the extent of being very unpleasant. And if you really want your dog to feel on top of the world give it a good bath and groom not only a few days before the first shoot but also regularly during the season. It seems to perk them up, but in addition, while doing it, I always seem to find those little bumps, cuts and scratches which I missed during everyday routines. It’s a bit like the car, you never notice the rust spots until you wash it.
The health, fitness and training of your dog is essential if you want a good shooting season together, and let’s face it if he is going to give you so much pleasure, don’t you owe it to him to make sure he is ready in every way.