|When hunting season starts again, remember to increase food rations to compensate for greater energy needs.|
During summer, your hunting dog will be less active than during fall and winter. There will be no quail to point, no squirrels or raccoons to tree, no rabbits or deer to chase, no ducks or doves to retrieve. If allowed, your dog will lay around like a human couch potato during the warm months — fat, dumb and happy. When hunting season starts again, the dog will not be properly conditioned for the rigors of hunting. And that's not good.
Hunting dogs are athletes of a sort, and like their human counterparts in the world of sports, dogs need off-season conditioning to keep them in tip-top shape. In order to make that opening day hunting trip successful and ensure your dog has all the stamina and energy needed to carry it through the following weeks, you must pay attention to physical conditioning, not only during the fall and winter when hunting seasons are in full swing, but year-round, even during summer.
Many hunters tend to take for granted their dog's performance and fail to realize the level of stress and exertion that a dog's cardiopulmonary system experiences during a day's hunt. We should all realize, however, that if a dog becomes fat and out of shape during the off season, it won't possess the physique needed to carry it through a full day of hunting in a useful manner. Proper conditioning during summer months is a very important part of your hunting companion's overall health regimen.
When developing a summer conditioning program, you should focus on three primary areas: exercise, field work and diet. It's very important, however, that each facet of the conditioning program be geared to a level compatible with hot summer temperatures. You don't want to overdo things, or your dog will be in grave danger of dehydration and/or heat stroke. Use common sense, and avoid pushing your animal too hard.
Proper exercise helps trim excess poundage, toughen soft feet, tone flabby muscles and build stamina and lung power. A regular exercise program of running for 10-15 minutes daily should begin at least six weeks prior to hunting season. After two weeks, you can gradually increase the exercise periods by several minutes over the next week, building steadily by a few minutes every week thereafter until your dog can safely handle a half-hour run every day.
"Roading" is one method for exercising your dog in this way. In this practice, the dog is run while tethered to a vehicle with a special padded roading harness (never by its regular neck collar). Some hunters do this with a four-wheeler. Others prefer to use a bicycle or even a truck or automobile. In any case, roading should always be done where traffic is not a problem, such as on seldom-traveled country roads or on a bicycle path.
It's important to use a fairly long lead when roading your dog and to work patiently with the animal until it has learned to heel to the vehicle. Proceed slowly in an isolated area until you both are comfortable with the arrangement. And never road your dog during the heat of the day when asphalt or gravel may be hot and burn your pet's feet.
Always take along plenty of cool water for dog and handler, and take frequent breaks to get the full effect of roading sessions.
Along with physically conditioning your dog in preparation for each new hunting season, you should give it a refresher field course on basic commands to keep the dog mentally sharp and obedient. Try to devote at least 15 minutes daily to a general review of all commands. Work on hand and whistle signals, and verbal commands that are appropriate to your dog's working style.
If your dog will hunt as part of a pack, as with beagles for instance, it's also important to provide repetitive exposure to other dogs, in and out of its kennel. Also, repetitive and frequent exposure to potentially unsettling situations such as truck rides, kenneling and gun noise helps reduce the stress that could influence the dog's performance when hunting season starts.
Most of the best dog handlers I know try to let their dog hunt an area for an hour or so every week or two — some place they have a good chance to encounter some game. This, they say, helps maintain an animal that will be in much better command of his nose and hunting skills once the season begins. Play with your dog, too, throwing a ball in the yard, letting it swim for a retrieving dummy or just running about in a field or in the woods. Give your dog lots of one-on-one attention, and when opening day arrives, you'll be ready to go afield with a dog that is physically and psychologically conditioned to begin his job with proper enthusiasm.
|A prime example of an unhealthy diet for your hunting partner.|
A balance of energy is important to maintain a dog in good health throughout the summer. Too little can result in loss of weight, lethargy and poor condition; too much will lead to obesity and all its complications.
The summer energy requirement of your dog will depend on activity levels and other factors — if he is exercising regularly, kept either indoors or outside, and if he is ill, elderly or still growing. Pregnant and lactating dogs have greater energy requirements. If your dog is less active in hot weather, you may need reduce his food ration a little so that he doesn't become fat.
When you use a prepared pet food, the label on the packaging provides a guideline recommending how much to feed your dog based on its weight, age, etc. Bear in mind that these recommendations are guidelines only, and you must make adjustments according to your dog's needs. If you exercise the dog frequently, he may need more than the recommended amount, but if he is quite sedentary, then he probably will need less.
The easiest way to keep an eye on your dog's feeding habits and general health is to use the evidence of your hand and eyes. If the dog appears alert and bright-eyed and is neither thin nor overweight, then he probably is healthy and benefiting from a properly balanced diet. If your dog seems to be getting fat, however, you may be overfeeding him. In this instance, try to establish a balance by cutting down the total amount of food or by reducing the amount of treats and table scraps you are feeding him.
Most adult dogs of nine months and older can be given their daily food allowance in one meal, although this can be divided into two or more meals if it is more convenient for you or suits your dog better. Remember that small dogs have small stomachs and may prefer to be fed twice a day. Similarly, growing and working dogs, bitches that are pregnant or lactating, and dogs that are sick or convalescing will usually need more than one meal a day. Use your judgment to ensure that your dog is taking the right amount of food at the right times.
When hunting season starts again, remember to increase food rations to compensate for greater energy needs. A hunting dog taken afield on a regular basis may require two to four times the summer maintenance ration.
Keeping Your Dog Cool
|Remember that small dogs have small stomachs and may prefer to be fed twice a day.|
Heat control is very important when working your gun dog in summer. And that means, most importantly, carrying plenty of water for cooling your dog. Some dog handlers I know carry water in canteens or big jugs to cool their dogs on hot days.
When working with retrievers in summer, beware of the mistaken notion that a water dog can handle unlimited exercise not matter what the temperature is. This simply isn't true. Researchers at Purina have found temperatures of up to 105 degrees in dogs after water workouts. Normal is about 101, with an acceptable range of 100 to 102.5. Heat stroke occurs when a dog's body temperature rises four to seven degrees above normal. Swimming is great exercise, but be sure to limit the workout and condition the dog gradually.
Dark-colored dogs are particularly susceptible to heat problems in summer. Dark colors absorb the sun's heat; light colors reflect it. Therefore, animals such as black Labs or dark-colored hounds are like mobile solar-heating panels. Pay special attention to these dogs during summer workouts to be sure you don't overdo their exercise.
One further note: Don't feed your dog when exercising during summer. Digestion generates heat. Let your dog drink and cool down first after your outing, then provide a small amount of food.
If you work a well-developed plan of summer conditioning, you'll have invested a sizeable chunk of time and effort in your dog. You'll be glad you did, though, because your investment will pay off in solid dividends of pleasure-filled days marked by crisp autumn weather, colorful foliage and, hopefully, an abundance of game. Keeping a good hunting dog trained and well conditioned is a year-round endeavor, but a fine dog kept properly conditioned will provide an endless bounty of joy.