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Retriever Rehab

Restore an older dog to top retrieving form
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  • photo by Charles Schmidt
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By Wade Bourne

Buster is an eight-year-old golden retriever whose antics more than justify his name. When the guns come up, this strong-willed dog goes out to watch for falling ducks. He used to be steady. Now he consistently ignores his owner's "stay" or "come" commands and stubbornly fetches ducks for himself. 

Millie, a seven-year-old Chessie, has packed on too many pounds. Though she was once a capable hunter, she has become lackluster in the field and lethargic everywhere else. She waddles when she walks—and rarely runs.

Max has become more aggressive as he's aged. The 10-year-old Lab now routinely tangles with any male dogs he encounters. When duck hunting, he refuses to honor other dogs' retrieves and will sometimes take away their birds.

It's not uncommon for older dogs like Buster, Millie, and Max to experience an assortment of physical, psychological, and behavioral changes that suddenly limit their abilities in the field. This can be baffling and frustrating for retriever owners, who often misjudge the causes of such changes and struggle to find ways to get their retrievers back on the right track. 

What can you do when your seasoned duck dog suddenly changes for the worse? I posed this question to veterinarians Elizabeth Shull and Jim Burchett and professional dog trainer Mike Stewart. Their collective answer was that many older dogs can be physically and emotionally rehabilitated as well as retrained—if you go about it the right way.

Here's their expert advice on how you can get your older retriever back in top form in time for hunting season.
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