Bird Dogs & Training  |  09/24/2018

Preseason Training Strategies for Bird Dogs

Although preseason training varies by age, experience and individual dog, experts agree success results when a program focuses on optimal training, conditioning and nutrition. With the fall season just around the corner, three pro trainers share their tips on what it takes for a successful hunting season. 

Keeping a Dog Sharp

Tom Ness of Oahe Kennels in Menoken, North Dakota, develops all-around gundogs, with a focus on spaniels, by keeping them sharp year-round. “I never let my dogs get out of shape physically or mentally,” Ness says.

Among Ness’ methods of conditioning dogs to build strength and endurance are throwing bumpers, swimming and going on 3- or 4-mile runs, during which Ness rides alongside the dogs on a mountain bike. “Mixing it up helps to keep dogs on their toes mentally, and a dog that is fit both mentally and physically is a dog that is likely to give you an enjoyable day of hunting.” 

Preseason fall training begins with evaluating dogs to identify any training holes. This usually is more of an issue with younger dogs, as older dogs have a number of hunting seasons’ experience. 

“We start at the beginning and go through the whole process from basic obedience to whistle commands to game-finding ability in the field,” Ness says. “The idea is to sharpen their responses and get them back into the groove. No dog is perfect, and every dog can be better.” 

Go Slowly in Preseason

For Chris Scott of L&D Retrieving in Henderson, Tennessee, preseason training starts with assessing each dog’s age, weight and body condition, as well as fitness and skill levels. 

“You want to avoid the situation of allowing a dog to go past his or her limit,” Scott advises. “A young dog doesn’t know when to quit, so it’s up to you to be smart about his or her management. Your dog will tell you when he or she is ready for the next step. You never want to ask a dog to do more than he or she is capable.”

Starting slowly with an older dog also is crucial. “An older dog that’s a little overweight may need several months to get into condition compared to a young fit dog that may only need 30 to 45 days of conditioning to be in tiptop shape.”

Scott says that for a rookie, it’s about learning and building confidence, whereas for a veteran, it’s about knocking off the rust and getting in enough repetitions to let their memory take over, sharpening the skills that may have become dull. 

Building Endurance

Nolan Huffman of Beeline Brittanys in Lewiston, Montana, builds endurance in his dogs with free running and roading exercises involving dogs pulling against resistance. “We start slowly and gradually increase the time and distance until dogs are running easy and not panting excessively,” Huffman says. “A dog breathing hard through his or her mouth simply can’t smell birds the way a dog breathing easily through his or her nose can.”

Rest days are just as important as exertion days. “Typically, I exercise dogs every other day, though if I see a dog struggling, he or she may rest for a couple of days,” says Huffman. “You must also have the ability to read your dog, taking into account that some dogs are born sprinters, others are born distance runners, and some are a little of both.” 

Huffman advises his clients to be aware of putting extra weight on their dogs during the offseason. “Dogs that are overweight start out behind,” he says. “If you want a dog to be in the right place when hunting season opens, you’ll have to start conditioning an overweight dog several weeks before you would if the dog was in reasonably good shape to begin with. To keep the weight off, you shouldn’t change what you feed, but adjust the amount fed to reflect your dog’s exercise level. All active sporting dogs should be fed a high-protein/high-fat diet.”

Maintain your dog’s figure based on the nine-point Purina Body Condition Score System. A dog should have a score of four to five, meaning the ribs are palpable without excess fat covering. By keeping your bird dog at a healthy weight, he or she will be ready to hit the ground running this season. 

Training with a Nutritional Strategy

Experts agree the best conditioning, training and intentions are nothing if a dog doesn’t have a solid nutritional foundation. The ideal food for hardworking bird dogs should be high in fat and protein, such as Purina Pro Plan SPORT Performance 30/20 Formula, a quality performance dog food containing 30 percent protein and 20 percent fat.

“Feeding a high-protein/high-fat performance diet year-round primes a dog’s metabolic engine to efficiently convert nutrients into energy,” explains Purina Senior Research Nutritionist Brian Zanghi, PhD. “It also essentially gives him or her a two-month conditioning edge over a dog fed a maintenance diet that is lower in protein and fat.”

Additionally, feeding a nutrient-dense food allows you not to have to feed an excessive amount to keep weight on a dog. When a dog eats less food, and thus has less volume in the stomach, the dog is more comfortable when working. 

“The goal of nutrition is to optimize performance, which means feeding a food containing key nutrients in an optimal balance to provide optimal benefits,” says Dr. Zanghi. “This enables a dog to hunt longer. Food can metabolically prime our dogs to promote optimal endurance.”