Ok, it's now past mid-summer and if you are like most weekend bird hunters, you are starting to look forward to opening day of bird season within the next 60 days. Also, if you are like most folks, your canine partner has been spending his/her summer days lying about, spending endless days of inactivity. Fat, dumb and happy is a great way to spend the summer, but it is no way to start a strenuous hunting season, especially when you consider that this dog of ours will be doing most of the work once we take to the field.
What I will say next may anger alot of my readers, but I have hunted with alot of folks over the last ten years and I think that I can say without question that 90% of the dog owner/hunters out there have no idea what it is to hunt over a well conditioned dog that is capable of hunting hard in full possession of all of it's bird finding tools for a full day's hunt. Simply out of their own laziness alot of hunters have come to accept a sub-standard level of performance from their dog where from lack of conditioning, their dog can hunt fine for an hour or so but long before the morning is over, their dog is more or less just snuffling along, tongue dragging, eyes glazed over, simply plodding along with their master, any desire to hunt birds long gone. Long before lunch the dog is hoping that the boss will soon lead them back to their bed for a rest. I have seen it time and time again. (not that I am complaining as this usually means that there are more birds for my dog to find) I think that this amounts to cruelty to your dog and in fact might be endangering the dog's life.
We were hunting in pheasants in South Dakota in December a few years back, right before the season closed. The temperature was near zero and the ground cover was crusty, icy snow. There were loads of birds to be found and the dogs were going hard to locate the many birds hidden in the cattail sloughs amongst the cut-over crop fields where we were hunting. One member of the party had a young dog with him that I had hunted over many times under less strenuous conditions and the dog had performed adequately. But on this day, when we started out after lunch, it was obvious that the dog had simply had too much already and within a half-hour the dog limped back to the truck and had to be physically lifted into it's box, where it stayed for the rest of the weekend except to come out and eat. This dog was a house dog that was walked a few times a week and had been hunting a couple weekends already that season. The poor dog was physically exhausted from fighting it's way through the snow crust in the cold and simply was not interested in any more pheasants. All of the fur and some skin was gone from it's legs, neck and belly, despite having worn one of those belly-protector thingies. and it's feet were each a swollen, pulpy mess and it's breath came in such raspy gasps that at times I feared for it's very life. This one day afield left the dog is such miserable shape that it was not hunted for the remainder of the season. Other dogs on the ground that weekend also took quite a beating from the conditions, but most were able to hunt hard the whole weekend and none suffered any lasting effect except for the poor beast previously mentioned.
The difference for the dog that suffered was simply conditioning. A dog cannot spend it's days in an air-conditioned and/or heated house all year, sleeping it's days away and then be thrown to the lions once the seasons starts and be expected to perform well in a continuous manner.
I can hear it now, "Oh, Steve, don't get on us about conditioning, because you are going to tell us to road our dogs and I don't want to go to all that trouble and besides that is really only for those field trial dogs..."
The bird dogs that run in a trial are called on to perform for one hour, maximum (most are running for only a half-hour at a time) a day for two or three days a week at the very most. Now if roading is beneficial for a dog that only has to run one hour at a time, why would it not be good for your dog who is going to be called on the put in 2-3 hours in the morning and then be asked to put in a like amount of time again after lunch?
The fact remains that very likely there is a pudgy, out-of-shape bird dog somewhere around your house right now that could benefit from a conditioning program that includes amount other things, a good half hour of roading two days a week to condition the dog's cardiopulmonary system and toughen it's feet as well as develop the muscle tone in it's body that will allow it to perform at top shape for an entire day of hunting, as often as you care to go this season.
Conditioning is not just a question of stamina for the run of the hunt, it is also a factor in how fast and well your dog will recover it's wind and legs from one day to the next when hunted on consecutive days. A dog in poor shape will just slide down a declining performance curve once you start stringing days afield together, whereas a dog in good condition will actually thrive and get stronger with each passing day.
We need to start a weekly program that consists of Roading, field work and diet to accomplish this result. For those of you who have never done it, "roading", the actually running of a dog where it is tethered to and at times actually pulls the vehicle along is great exercise for a dog. This conditions all of the dogs vital systems including the heart and lungs, all the muscles and bones and the feet.
I am not suggesting that you outfit the family car with a running bar or get yourself a four-wheeler and spend your evenings roading your dog out in the country. For the average guy, like me, I think that this is best accomplished using a bicycle with the dog tethered to the bike while hooked up in a padded roading harness. Do not road your dog attached to any vehicle by it's regular neck collar! Of course you will want to do this somewhere where traffic is not a problem, such as out in the country or on a school track, if available. I live in a sprawling new development where there are always new roads being built where there are no new houses and very little traffic. These roads make passable roading areas. Country roads are ideal as the surface of gravel and dirt are much easier on the dogs joints, I think. I like to get out about two times a week for about 30-45 minutes each. Freck learned to heel to the bike attached to a six foot lead. I would recommend that you always wear safety gear, such as a helmet and proceed very slowly in an isolated area until you both are comfortable with the arrangement. Obviously, avoid working out in the heat of the day, mornings are going to be the best time for this until Labor Day at the earliest. Carry lots of water for all participants and stop every 10 minutes or so for a drink and a soaking.
The other factor in to consider in all of this is of course the dog's feeding program. A dog that work's and put's out as much energy as an adult bird dog does during training and hunting season needs energy and protein to fuel and maintain it's body. There are a good number of high energy, high protein feeds on the market. Much like how an athlete trains for a meet or game it is crucial for your bird dog to be trained and dieted correctly for his or her birding activities. A rigorous workout routine that is kept consistent is just as important as keeping them on a steady diet with the nutrients that they need. There are many nutrients that an athlete might take in order to better prepare their bodies for the workouts they will be completing. Krill oil is one of these nutrients an athlete may take for the Omega-3s in it. This has also been found to be very beneficial for your dogs helping with brain development, immune systems, and joints. Combining this with your dog's diet will help them through these critical work outs. Consult your vet concerning your dog's age and activity level for specific recommendations on the type of feed you should consider.
You may not want to feed this type of feed year round depending on your dog's age and overall health. Again check with your vet before you jump into feeding your dog a high energy and protein diet. Whatever ever choice you end up with, you will likely have to bite the bullet and realize that this "high-octane" feed is just not available for $8.00/50 lb. bag at the local supermarket, as a rule. However, I will also say that those feeds that are going for a price approaching $1/lb., while they are great rations, don't really offer much advantage to me over other dog food that is out there that cost's half that. Shop around, there are many good regional brands out there and some of the "big names" are finally putting out decent performance feed at an affordable price. You might call a local club and get the names of some folks in the club that run field trials and call them and see what they are feeding. The dogs that these folks run require a high grade ration and you can bet that most of them are not spending anywhere near $1/lb. for dog food.
Just as an aside, during the fall last year, I changed my dog's feeding program just slightly with good results. During the Fall and into the Spring trial season, one day each week I replace 2/3 of my dogs regular ration with the following:
The result I get seems to be better energy, consistently small stools, better eyes and skin and a really nice coat. Besides, Freckie has come to seem to really look forward to this treat and of course, you know the Westie likes it. I know I will get email saying "Changing food every few months messes up my dog's eating habits.." and "that can't be good for your dog, aren't you worried about e-coli?"
Uhhh....Look. If the dog is hungry, it will eat what you put in it's bowl. Dog's the world over live on a diet of an assortment of carrion, road-kill, all the live vermin they can catch, McDonald's Happy Meal toys,Barbie doll hands and feet, and at times, it seems, each other's poop with seemingly little ill effect. I really don't have time for "my dog won't eat". Talk to your breeder and ask why they need to breed such psychos. I think if you took a bowl filled with pencil erasers, watch batteries and used motor oil and put it in down in front of most healthy bird dogs, they would at least give it a try. I really don't know if feeding this little concoction does my dog any good. All I know is the small change that I think I see and if that small boost in the dog's health comes from feeding it this mess, so be it. At best it is a nice tonic for the dog's muscular, nervous, vascular and digestive systems and at worst it is a yummy treat.
If one were even to put half the effort into getting your hunting partner ready for fall that I have described here, I am sure you will see a marked improvement in the way your dog hunts. A dog that is in shape is happier because it is not miserable when afield and is able to concentrate on doing what it loves, finding birds for you!! When it comes down to it, why even bother feeding that dog all year if it can not be fully useful come hunting season. A little effort now can pay off big this fall when you hit that first field on opening morning and for the remainder of the season.