Get Your Retriever Back In The Saddle for Duck Season

Hunting dogs have been dormant and will need to get back into form

Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017

By John Gordon

They appeared out of nowhere, a group of six pintails gliding gracefully on the north wind. A Labrador retriever sits quietly but his muscles are taught and trembling as the pintails near his hide.

Finally, they are hanging in the air directly in front of the hunters.

“Shoot ‘em!”

At the sound of the shot being called, the hunters rise together and send steel shot ripping through the air. Four of the six ducks remain floating in the decoys. The dog hears his name called and explodes into the shallow field spraying water and mud in his wake and driving towards the prize.

That scene played out last season, and now the long summer months must be endured until the fall arrives and brings opening day with it. Your dog has been dormant since the end of winter and fallen out of prime shape. Before the beginning of next season, he or she will need to get back into form.

Follow these steps and your dog will be ready to hunt this fall.

Tony Vandemore and Ruff, on a "Ruff Stand" by Avery Sporting Dog.

Warm Up

Just like any athlete, your dog needs to warm up before high exertion. The best way to accomplish this is through reviewing basic obedience. Reinforce “sit”, “heel,” and “here.”

Some handlers use the “stay” command as well, but it can be eliminated. Tell the dog to “sit” and it should stay seated until told otherwise. A good sequence would be to heel the dog around on lead while stopping and sitting. Leave the dog in place and work on “here,” mixing up the distances between you and the dog. Throw a few bumpers to work on steadiness.

This will stretch the dog’s muscles out as well before any heavy exercise. End the session the way it started as a cool down period before resting the dog for the day.

Back into shape

The long summer period of inactivity will cause dogs to gain weight and lose toughness in their foot pads and overall muscular strength. So keep them off hot asphalt and concrete and on the grass.

Walk with the dog, jog with it, send it on long water retrieves; these will all help to restore a high level of fitness. Always be conscious of the heat and not just on land. Dogs swim in only the first foot or so of water and it can be very warm. Keep the workouts to 15 to 30 minutes in duration as a start, and gradually increase the time length as the dog’s fitness improves. 

Here is something to think about as well, summer feeding. The dog’s energy output is nowhere near the level of hunting season so a maintenance formula needs to be fed rather than a high protein and high calorie blend. Cut back on the amount of food by adding water to the bowl. The dog will feel full and eat less.

Ruff in training.

Focus the training            

Throwing marks for the dog is beneficial, but your focus should be on blinds. This plan, of course, is for older trained dogs and not for inexperienced pups.

Blind retrieves require teamwork, so the preseason is a great time to reinforce that bond. Start out with simple pattern blinds (blinds familiar to the dog) on land, so the dog can build confidence. Move into land cold blinds, water pattern blinds and finally, cold water blinds.

While working on blinds, it is always a good idea to go back to casting drills as well to sharpen basic blind retrieve skills.

Spend more time together     

Make it a point to spend as much time with your dog as your schedule allows. The more time you spend with the dog, the more comfortable they are with you in different situations, and thus are easier to handle.

Many retail pet establishments and sporting goods dealers allow dogs on lead with you in the store. Even some of the larger home improvement chains are pet friendly.

You will also get the benefit of multiple distractions to help establish that a command is a command no matter what the situation. Call ahead and ask the store management if pets are allowed before showing up with your dog.

Start working a minimum of 30 days out

Ideally, there will be more time than that to get ready for the season. But if not, make sure to start at least a month in advance of the opener.

This is the minimum time frame that will see your dog shed extra pounds and tighten muscles needed for a hard day in the field. Remember, it is your responsibility to make sure your canine companion is ready to go when the time comes. 

Start slow, work on the basics, develop teamwork and enjoy a great season with your dog this year.