Considering the extreme heat and humidity typical of the summer and fall (in the south), I believe it is important to discuss conditioning and the impact lack of conditioning can have on your dog. The first thing we need to settle is that NO dog can hunt all day. We hear this from people over and over. Fabricated Herculean tails of how their dog hunted all day and never missed a bird. In fact, it never slowed down!
Here is what I think: If your dog can hunt all day, then I do not want to hunt with your dog! There, I said it and I mean it. Let me explain and then you think about it.
Does a marathon runner have more energy in mile 24 as compared to the first mile of the race? Does a race horse have more energy at the end as compared to when they put the horse in the starting gate? Do YOU have more energy at the end of the work day as compared to the beginning? Do you really still think your dog can hunt all day?
There is no doubt that some dogs can run all day. However, the question is how hard are they running? They CANNOT run as hard as they do when the day starts. If they can, I would argue they are not running but merely trotting. I do not want to hunt over a dog that does not run hard. People that say they do not want a big running, hard charging dog because they want a dog that can hunt all day have no frame of reference. They probably have only hunted over untrained dogs that ran off and put the birds up out of gun range. As a result, they have determined they do not want that “big running” dog. It is a mistake.
Remember, we are talking about hunting over trained dogs. We should all be fortunate enough to hunt over the National Champion or any top-flight dog. When a dog is properly trained, a hard running dog finds more birds, not to mention that it is more exciting for us to walk behind.
Why do big running dogs find more birds? By covering more ground, they have more opportunity. But they are also able to cover more ground quickly because they are in better shape. Essentially, a dog finds birds with its nose. If it is breathing out of its mouth, it cannot smell as well. The better shape a dog is in, the more it breathes through its nose, thereby smelling more birds.
The obvious is that a properly conditioned dog covers more ground and keeps its nose longer; hence it has the opportunity to find more birds. Even with the extended and disciplined conditioning program we do, we only run our dogs for one hour. This is because I am a professional guide that is paid to get clients into wild birds. Our dogs run HARD for one hour and then we change to a fresh dog so that the clients are hunting over fresh dogs all day. This is easy for me because we have many dogs. For most people, they have only one or two dogs. As such, conditioning is vitally important for all of you.
We have just discussed why conditioning is important for us selfishly…more birds. Now let us discuss why it is good for your dog. A decade ago I was guiding in South Dakota on opening weekend. It was abnormally hot and over 120 dogs died in South Dakota hunting that weekend. That is right, over 120 dogs died. That figure does not include the dogs that were not reported or were never found. It is true that with the heat, some of those dogs may have died anyways. However, most of those dogs would have lived if they were properly conditioned, well trained and the owners had more information as to what to look for.
A dog’s normal temperature range is 101.0 to 102.5 degrees. Because the dog has limited ability to sweat (only small capability through its pads), its major cooling mechanism is via evaporative cooling (panting). It is normal for dogs to pant in all temperatures and also at rest or exercise. Nasal panting (inhalation and exhalation) generally occurs at rest or when running at slow speeds when ambient temperature is below 78.8 degrees. There are two OTHER types of panting that occur in dogs when resting and when running in ambient temperatures greater than 86.0 degrees. These are inhalation through the nose and exhalation through both the nose and mouth or inhalation and exhalation through both the nose and mouth.
Panting in and out through both the nose and mouth allows for the greatest volume of air passage and movement. This is the method of panting utilized for cooling when dogs reach exhaustion. It can occur very quickly in hot weather. Although this cools the dog, selfishly, it does not provide for the best scenting/finding birds.
Through a proper conditioning program, we can change the dog’s body to run at a cooler internal temperature. By doing this, we can delay the time-frame when the dog’s temperature will increase above 102.5 degrees and start the process of heat exhaustion. It is critical to recognize when your dog has had enough. From experience, I can tell you that a dog that only looks tired can have an internal temperature that continues to escalate and the dog does not overheat till 30 minutes AFTER exercise has completed. PAY ATTENTION AND WATCH YOUR DOG.
So now we know why WE want the dog in shape and we know why it is important for the dog’s health. So where do you begin? Most types of exercise are beneficial when compared to a dog sitting on the couch until gun season. However, some are better than others. Swimming is always a good option but keep in mind that the water temperature can also be high and your dog can overheat in the water as well. We believe running/roading the dog is the best way to concentrate the exercise.
Our system is fairly complicated and I would not suggest it for most people as it requires a significant time commitment. What we do suggest is a minimum of a six-week conditioning program BEYOND regular exercise throughout the year. Start the program six weeks prior to when you begin your hunting season. Our dogs start the program by running two miles at a speed of 12 miles per hour.
Run your dog every other day for two miles at 6-8 miles per hour. After doing this for five days of exercise (10 days including rest days), increase the distance by ½ mile. Again, do this for five exercise days and then increase the distance by ½ mile. Continue this pattern for the six weeks and you will end with a dog that is running approximately 3.5 miles at about 8 miles per hour.
This may not sound like a lot; however, it is a major accomplishment. By having the dog attached to your bicycle (with a speedometer), you can concentrate the effort of the exercise on a consistent speed for the ENTIRE distance. If allowed to free run, a dog will run sometimes and loaf others, thus diminishing the effort. By keeping the constant exercise effort, your dog will build a reasonable base of fitness that they can build on during the season. At 8 miles per hour and running for 3.5 miles, your dog will be running approximately 28 minutes without a break or rest. When compared to hunting, your dog will hunt longer due to the constant stopping to “investigate” game scent. Keep in mind that this is only building a minimum base on which to build. For most of you, this is sufficient when considering the time commitment versus the time you will actually spend in the field.
NOTE: If your dog cannot run two miles at 6 to 8 miles per hour, I suggest you follow our program but you will need to start it sooner so you can work the dog up to two miles.