Dr. John Chalstrom, Ph.D.
Football has returned. The Major League Baseball playoffs are in full swing. Hot, humid weather has given way to cooler days and blue skies. It is time to make sure your canine companions are in optimal shape.
Fall training shouldn’t be a crash course to get a dog in shape. Treating the fall like it was a dog navy boot camp is a recipe for disaster. Rather, a dog’s fitness must be maintained year round and proper exercise must meet the conditions. Provided a dog’s health has been properly maintained, regularly exercised, and properly stimulated, conditions are now favorable for improving the fitness program.
Hunting dogs are athletes and must be treated as such. A strict fitness plan must be adhered to all year round. When the season ends, it’s time to relax while moving on to a gentle but consistent workout. The condition of a dog that is groomed regularly keeps the dog ready for the hardships of the fitness camp in autumn. That being said, what are the best ways to prepare a dog for the field and the blind?
Swim: Perhaps the best way to exercise vigorously, improve cardiovascular health, and build muscle tone is to get a dog to swim in a pond or lake. Gentle training builds muscle mass and stamina without putting excessive strain on the joints. It’s also a great way to work on skill development in an environment where your dog won’t overheat. A rigorous swimming program will enable a dog to quickly start the upcoming season in perfect physical shape. This exercise is best for the evening hours.
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Recall: Along with swimming comes the work of fetching in the field. The use of dummies or live birds and the reinforcement of hauling in under simulated hunting conditions is imperative. It is also a way to improve a dog’s physical condition, stamina, and endurance by providing intense and fun exercise for the dog and trainer. Take your companion to the field, not the back yard. This further simulates actual hunting conditions without the distractions the neighborhood might offer. At the same time, re-expose your dog to gunfire if it has not been exposed during the off-season. I usually take my dogs to the weekend trapping events, followed by a training session in the field.
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Nourishment: Perhaps the most important aspect of case conditioning is diet. There are many different thoughts to this, and none of them are right or wrong. Rather, they are simply preferences. I know some trainers who like to increase a dog’s food intake and weight in late summer. The philosophy behind this method is simple: a dog is going to use a tremendous amount of energy in the coming months, perhaps more than its daily caloric intake. So by gaining weight before the season, a dog has an excess reserve. Personally, I try to maintain my dog’s weight year round without overfeeding or gaining weight before the season starts. Gradually switching to higher protein foods during the fall season is my preference without overfeeding the dog. My concern about weight gain is increased stress on the joints at all times, especially in older dogs. The transition to a higher protein diet is sufficient for an exercise program. And of course high quality dog food all year round.
It is important that your dog is ready for the field in early fall. Exercise, familiarity with birds, and proper diet are critical to success during the highland and waterfowl seasons. Expecting a dog to withstand the rigors of the field without proper fall conditioning is a recipe for disaster and potential injury.
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