Even though the lazy days of summer are upon us, this is no time to forget your retriever. Starting a consistent conditioning and training program now will help get your dog ready for opening day. As a first step, consider incorporating the following tips and drills from pro trainers Mike Stewart and Justin Tackett into your workout. Working toward specific goals this summer will make you and your retriever a more efficient hunting team in the fall.
Warming Up and Cooling Down
Even in hot weather, always begin training sessions with a warm-up period. When the dog comes out of its kennel, do not immediately begin high-exertion drills. Instead, start each training session with basic obedience. This time of year, heeling can get sloppy, so tighten that up. You should also reinforce the “sit,” “stay,” and “here” commands. A routine of heeling, a couple of steadiness drills with tossed bumpers, and perhaps calling the dog to you and then tossing a diversion would make for a sound start. Begin slowly and allow the dog to stretch its muscles. And make sure the dog is steady, manageable, and patient before beginning lining patterns or handling exercises. “Those who get the five basic obedience steps down—and for me that’s ‘here,’ ‘sit,’ ‘down,’ ‘kennel,’ and ‘no’—are going to have a better gun dog than about 75 percent of the dogs in this country,” says Waterdog host Justin Tackett. “Obedience is where it all starts.”
Completing each training session by working on obedience before the dog goes back into the kennel serves a similar purpose—just as walking a short distance after you have taken a long run slowly lowers the heart rate and cools down the body. During the cool-down period, you are reemphasizing the importance of obedience and steadiness before putting the dog up. A cool-down period following the workout also helps prevent your dog’s muscles from tightening.
The downtime between hunting seasons is when dogs get soft. Cushy beds, too much food, and the comforts of air conditioning may combine to foster laziness. If you want your dog to be physically ready come opening day, you should work on conditioning during the summer.
Most dogs will not exercise themselves into shape, and there are side effects to lounging around. Inactivity, for example, can produce soft foot pads. Walking or jogging with your dog is a fun and convenient way to get it back into shape, but stay on grassy areas and avoid hard surfaces such as concrete because they can be tough on your dog’s joints and bones.
Also, be mindful of the temperature. Heat exhaustion is a serious threat to heavy dogs. Avoid strenuous activity during the hottest part of the day. Plenty of swimming is a good place to start, but do not push your dog past its physical limits even while in the water. Several 15- to 30-minute sessions each week are much better than hour- or two-hour-long workouts.
In addition to an exercise program, carefully monitor your dog’s food consumption. Above all, do not overfeed your retriever during the summer. Consider “wet” feeding—filling the dog’s food dish with about an inch of water and cutting back on food. The dog feels full despite eating less. Physically fit dogs not only perform better but also are less likely to suffer injuries to muscles, joints, and feet.