By Tom DavisAs someone who has shepherded three different dogs through an astonishing 16 seasons afield each, Erica Christensen has a unique perspective on the challenges—and rewards—of hunting with a “senior” partner. The proprietor of Rocky Mountain Training Kennel, in Berthoud, Colorado; the architect of the Quartermoon line of golden retrievers; and a dead-serious pheasant hunter who chases roosters until the season’s bitter end, Christensen is adamant that older dogs in good overall health needn’t be left at home. They still can be effective gunning companions—and we owe them the chance to prove it.
Here’s Christensen’s blueprint for “senior success”—a blueprint that, while geared toward pheasants and flushing dogs, has something to offer no matter what birds you hunt or which breed you hunt them with.
• Older dogs should be kept in good condition year-round. “It’s especially important to keep their weight down,” Christensen said. “Swimming is great exercise, and for older dogs it has the added virtue of being low impact. We always hear about how important it is for older people to stay active mentally and physically, and the same holds true for older gundogs.”
• Equip them with a high-vis vest or cape. “It not only helps you keep track of your dogs; it helps the other gunners in your party keep track of them too. So it lowers the risk of an accident while, at the same time, enabling the gunners to get on birds a little faster. I’ve been using a ‘tummy-saver’ vest with bright yellow on the back, and even in heavy switchgrass—which golden retrievers tend to disappear in—it shows up really well.”
• Use both an e-collar and a GPS collar (or the single-unit equivalent). “Older dogs invariably have some loss of hearing, so I use the e-collar as a ‘hearing aid.’ They know to stop and look at me when I ‘tickle’ them, and then, when they’re paying attention and not distracted, they can take the appropriate hand or whistle signal.” The GPS, Christensen says, is simply for “peace of mind” in case a dog fades from sight chasing a cripple or otherwise gets out of pocket.
• Know your fields—and pick your spots. “Don’t hunt an older dog in places where the cover’s extremely heavy or the terrain’s extremely rugged. Try to avoid places that are near roads too—an older dog’s probably not going to hear a vehicle coming. Remember that you’re the ‘field manager,’ and pick spots with an eye toward those that’ll play to an older dog’s strengths and not expose his limitations—smaller spots instead of larger ones, lighter cover as opposed to heavier cover, and so on.”
• Hunt your older dog early in the day. “It’s cooler, the dog is fresh and the first field is often the best field. Your dog can rest up after that—and take his or her nap happy.” Christensen prefers to let her older dogs take the rest of the day off after their morning hunt or, at most, give them another short hunt at the end of the day. She makes an exception, however, when hunting in extremely cold weather; then she may wait and hunt her older dogs later in the day when it has warmed up some. (When the temperature is below zero, she and her dogs simply take the day off.)
• Hunt an older dog with a younger, well-trained dog. “Sometimes older dogs don’t see or hear the flush and fall and, because you don’t want to put them in the position of having to chase a lively cripple, you can send the younger dog for the retrieve. What you don’t want to do is put an older dog down with a younger dog that’s rowdy and untrained. That’s just asking for trouble.”
• Carry extra water. “Older dogs simply need—and use—more water than younger dogs. I always make the ‘non-dog’ guys carry water too.” And while the pros and cons of electrolyte-replacement drinks for dogs are subject to debate, in Christensen’s experience they’re beneficial, especially when hunting in warmer weather.
• Give pain relievers after hunting, not before. “Older dogs need to be aware of their limitations. If you give them pain relievers before hunting, they’ll think they’re still three years old and try to do things they shouldn’t. After hunting, yes, absolutely.” In addition to prescription analgesics such as Rimadyl and Deramaxx, Christensen reports excellent results giving her older dogs CBD oil. (Note: According to an article on the American Kennel Club website, “The safety and risks of using CBD for dogs have not yet been researched. The Food and Drug Administration has not approved CBD and has not issued a dosing chart.”)
• Be mindful of joint health. Christensen teaches all of her dogs to “load” and “unload” only on command, allowing her to provide assistance to both the younger dogs whose joints are still developing and the older dogs who are at higher risk for injury. This prevents unnecessary wear-and-tear on their joints and, in her opinion, helps explain her dogs’ remarkable longevity in the field. She’s also a fan of the Twistep pet step (twistep.com), a retractable platform that mounts on a trailer-hitch receiver. “My dogs love it,” she said. “I even have one mounted to the frame of my truck beneath the side door.” She further promotes joint health in her older dogs by giving them a daily supplement of glucosamine-chondroitin with MSM (Methylsulfonylmethane).
• Feed extra high-quality protein while hunting. “I feed raw patties, which I buy frozen and thaw as necessary. It’s an extra eight ounces of raw meat a day. I’m also a big fan of hard-boiled eggs—it’s like giving your dog a protein pill. I boil eight dozen at a time and feed them shell and all.”
• Wear only enough hunter orange to ensure safety (and satisfy the legal requirement). “Dogs—older ones in particular—don’t see Blaze Orange well. They don’t see camo well either. Your dog will see you best if you wear dark, solid-color long sleeves. You can also wear white, the way field-trial handlers do. The point is that you want something with contrast. And don’t be afraid to wave your arms above your head if your dog’s having trouble spotting you.”
• Slow down, and make as little noise as possible. “It’s better for the dogs, and you’ll get more shooting.”
As a final thought—sort of a philosophical overlay—Christensen offers this: “If your dog dies while hunting, she’ll have died doing what she loves to do the most.”
We should all be so lucky.