When summer wanes and hunting season is in the air, it’s time to tune up your bird dog with this 4-step plan
By Steve Hickoff
Karl Gunzer, Senior Manager of Purina’s Sporting Dog Program, has worked with bird dogs for over 25 years.
Before joining Purina in 2013, Gunzer owned and operated High Spirit Retrievers, training and handling dogs to compete in retriever field trials. Competing in eight National Championships with over 20 different dogs, he trained five National Finalists and a two-time Canadian National Champion. He’s won more than 40 Open Stakes and 60 Derby Stakes.
He recently shared helpful insights on pre-season dog training.
STEP 1: OBEDIENCE
Pheasants. Quail. Prairie grouse. Ruffs. All of the above. No matter what birds you hunt, pre-season tune-ups are needed.
“Even older dogs are rusty before hunting season,” Gunzer said, “but they get abilities back quicker. If you skip the pre-season training with younger dogs, it’ll take a lot longer to get tuned in.”
Training is year-round—for the dog at least
“Whether you’re intentionally working with the dog year-round or not, the dog is always in training, watching you, looking for direction” he said. “Obedience training can be done anywhere, any time … while opening a gate or at feeding time, for example.”
Two commands rule for Gunzer. “Sit and come commands are 95 percent of what most retriever people want and need from their dogs,” he said.
And sit and come are related. “You teach one with the other. Sit. Then come. If a dog handler requires obedience to these two commands, they’ll have the most important foundations for their dog as they add other instruction.”
STEP 2: CONDITIONING
“A dog needs both muscle conditioning, and cardio (endurance),” said Gunzer.
For Gunzer, the cardio training is roading the dog with a four-wheeler or bike. Jogging with your dog is also good for both of you. Building endurance at a slower pace for a longer period is key. It’s harder to do when it’s hot though because it takes time. Dogs might overheat.
“When it’s hot, you can do some muscle building: sprints with retrieves, full bore for a short period of time. You can throw bumpers into water and have them swim as much as they can,” he said.
STEP 3: MISTAKES AND CORRECTION
“You own what you condone,” Gunzer laughed, but he was all seriousness too. “If you allow jumping, nibbling, licking, whatever, that’s what you’ll get. The longer it’s unchecked, the harder it is to eliminate.”
You’ve got to let the dog know what you want.
“Dogs have to understand why they’re being corrected while training,” Gunzer emphasized. “A dog can take a stern correction—if they understand what it’s for. If they don’t understand, even small corrections can have negative consequences.”
And it can translate to a hunting situation.
“If they don’t understand,” Gunzer warned, “they may blink in the field—finding birds but pretending they haven’t. Other unwanted behaviors might appear.”
How do you work on this in the pre-season?
“The best thing is to train with some planted birds in a controlled situation,” he said. “Go to a hunting preserve or train with planted birds yourself. Make the steps from obedience training to conditioning to hunting. If mistakes are being made, correct these before a live hunting situation.”
STEP 4: PRE-SEASON CARE AND YEAR-ROUND FEEDING
“Early mornings typically have the coolest temperature but the highest humidity. So early isn’t always best,” Gunzer said. “It would be intuitive for a handler to swim their dog, but sometimes the water is too warm. A dog can even overheat swimming.”
During workouts, in or out of water, he looks for signs of overheating such as the cupping and curling of the dog’s tongue or a gaping mouth.
As they say, timing is everything.
“When you get to a hunting location with your dog—whether training or hunting—the last thing into the field should be your dog,” Gunzer said.
“When you come back, the first thing you put in the truck should be your dog. This is for safety reasons. You don’t want to leave your dog unattended. Passing vehicles, porcupines, skunks, barbed-wire fencing, all can spell trouble. If the dog is hot, stake it on a chain in the shade to cool. Confine the dog before you worry about other stuff like gear.”
Must-Carry Gear Item
Gunzer carries a multi-tool when dog training and hunting. A pliers, knife and other tool options are essential for what you might encounter.
“It takes at least two months for a dog on a high-fat/high-protein food diet to fully utilize it. Reduce quantity in the off-season,” Gunzer advised. “Dogs need energy to run. Food isn’t energy until it’s absorbed, sitting in the gut before digestion. An empty stomach is ideal for running a dog.”
Gunzer said, “Feed once a day, in the evening, after the dog is cooled out. If the dog has a high metabolism and needs a lot of food to keep it going, feed a small amount in the morning—several hours before training. If two feedings a day are required, feed early, again several hours before they work. If a dog has health issues, like hypoglycemia, check with your vet.”
Outdoor writer Steve Hickoff is a Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever member who bird hunts around the country, most often with his English setters, but other dogs too.