By Jessie Richards
A hunting dog performs better when it’s in shape. But what exactly does “in shape” mean?
Maintaining a healthy weight through proper feeding is certainly important, but that is only one aspect. A dog that is in shape, or “well-conditioned,” has an edge in the field. Activities that help your dog build endurance and maintain muscle during spring and summer pay dividends come hunting season.
I keep my retrievers and clients’ dogs on a training regimen year-round. Naturally, all of these dogs get a conditioning benefit from lots of land and water retrieves during normal training, but I also “road” them—keeping them moving at a fast trot—a couple of times a week alongside my four-wheeler. The added help of a four-wheeler is a necessity because, with up to two dozen dogs in my care, I need to exercise six to 12 of them at a time.
If you own multiple dogs, have access to a large property and have already built your own roading program, that’s great. But if your goal is simply to keep one or two dogs healthy with a minimal investment in time and money, let me share a few ideas for you to consider.
My veterinarian when I’m training in the South during winter is Dr. Jennell Appel, DVM, CCRT, who practices in Tallahassee, Florida. She also travels to field trials and other sporting-dog events with her mobile SportVet business, where she puts her Canine Rehabilitation Therapy certification to good use tending to competition-related injuries.
Whenever I’ve discussed conditioning regimens with Dr. Appel, I’ve noticed that her advice consistently has included three themes:
• Give your dog time to loosen up before taking on strenuous exercise.
• Use conditioning exercises that minimize the chances of orthopedic or muscle injuries.
• Conditioning should be more like training for a marathon than a sprint.
Do you let your dog out of the kennel and start immediately flinging “fun bumpers” over and over? No doubt that’s an enjoyable way to help your dog burn some calories, but it’s not the best. Charging at full speed, slamming on the brakes, making sharp turns . . . . All of these things take their toll on your dog’s joints and increase the chances of injuries, particularly in older dogs.
I’m not calling for a ban on the occasional fun bumper, but Dr. Appel makes a strong case for a different approach if you’re serious about aerobic activities that have long-term benefits.
“Dedicate yourself to getting out for a fast-paced walk with your dog twice a week for 45 minutes to an hour,” Appel said. “Go fast enough that your dog is moving at a steady trot. This builds both endurance and muscle. Once a sporting breed is in good condition through these extended sessions, studies prove that doing this same routine as infrequently as once every 10 days allows them to maintain that high level of fitness.”
If you have a retriever or any other breed that enjoys swimming, tossing bumpers into a pond on a hot day is a fun way to keep your dog in shape. Appel pointed out that even that routine can be improved upon.
“It’s pretty standard for folks to throw a bumper or ball into the water for their dog to retrieve 10 or 12 times and then call it a day,” Appel said. “You can greatly improve that exercise time with a simple modification.”
Rather than having the dog come out of the water after every retrieve, Dr. Appel advises that it’s a more beneficial workout if you put on a pair of waders and walk out to a depth where your dog can’t touch bottom and work from there.
“The idea is that your dog is always swimming or treading water in a controlled manner instead of the constant start-stop of coming back onto land over and over,” she said. “When your dog brings back the bumper or ball, toss it out again to keep it moving. If your dog is in reasonably good shape to begin with, try starting with a 10-minute session, and then add another minute every few days, working up to 30 minutes of constant swimming.”
I’ve added this constant-swimming regimen into my dogs’ workouts and can attest that the endurance gains are remarkable. I see the payoff when my dogs return from a challenging retrieve and immediately try to focus on where the next bird is going to fall. They’re not exhausted or stressed; they’re at peak condition, which is exactly where I want them to be when we head into a long hunting season.
For your dog to perform its best, conditioning is only half the equation. Fuel from the right food—in terms of both quality and quantity—is paramount. Next time I’ll share tips on the science of putting together a good year-round feeding program.