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Retriever Rehab

Expert tips on how to restore an older dog to top retrieving form
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Make Sure Your Retriever Is Healthy and Fit

Dr. Jim Burchett says that owners of older retrievers need to pay extra attention to the dog's conditioning and nutritional needs. Burchett, a veterinarian from Clarksville, Tennessee, is an avid duck hunter who has raised and trained Labrador retrievers for 25 years. 

"Hunting dogs are canine athletes, and their nutritional requirements are different from those of house pets," Burchett explains. "Retrievers face tough physical and mental tests, and they need special nutrition to reach top performance. A good comparison would be the difference between diet requirements for Olympic athletes and for everyday people."

Like Millie, our hypothetical Chessie, many of the older retrievers Burchett sees in his clinic are overweight. He says that as dogs age, their metabolism slows and they don't burn calories like they did in their prime. This makes it not only easier for them to put on weight but harder to take it off. Heavy, out-of-shape retrievers are more lethargic and incapable of reaching peak performance. This is why owners of older retrievers should monitor their dogs' weight year-round and keep extra pounds off through proper diet and exercise. 

Aging retrievers should also have their blood tested once a year to check all organ functions, particularly thyroid production. "Hypothyroidism [low thyroid output] is the number one endocrine abnormality in dogs, and it is prevalent in retrieving breeds, especially Labradors," Burchett says. "The thyroid controls metabolism, and low thyroid output causes a dog to become lethargic and gain weight.

"This disease is easily controlled with daily thyroid supplements. Once a dog's blood work returns to normal, or if it was normal in the first place, you can put the dog on a low-calorie, low-fat diet designed especially for weight control in older dogs. Combined with exercise, such a diet can get the dog's weight down to a desirable level."

Burchett warns against rushing the conditioning process with older retrievers, and recommends starting an exercise program well before opening day. "Older dogs take longer to get into shape than younger dogs. If you're going to run a half-marathon on Saturday, you don't start training on Wednesday," he says. "You have to start far ahead of time with short workouts and build up to longer ones. It's not fair to a dog if you have him in poor shape, and then expect him to hunt all day when the season opens."

According to Burchett, a dog's nutritional needs can also change during the hunting season. "If you're hunting him only three or four times a year, you can keep him on a maintenance diet with his normal food," he says. "But if he's hunting three or four days a week or more, you should switch to a high-performance feed with a higher fat content. When a dog burns energy, he breaks down the fat first, so the fat percentage in a food can be just as important as the protein percentage."

Most major dog food brands offer performance formulas with extra calories and protein for active dogs like retrievers. Burchett recommends feeding your dog just as soon as he cools down after hunting. This will help him absorb nutrients from the food more easily, which can decrease recovery time from a long day afield. Taking a can of dog food to the blind can also help; a proper meal at lunchtime will give your retriever the energy he needs for the rest of the day.

Veteran duck dogs are also susceptible to problems such as joint stiffness or soreness, says Burchett, who adds that keeping a retriever's weight under control will put less stress on his joints. In addition, glucosamine supplements will help keep an older hunting dog's joints lubricated and functioning smoothly. There are a number of safe pain relief medications you can give your dog if he returns from a hunt with soreness, but Burchett recommends that you consult with your veterinarian first.

"The main thing is to take your dog for a thorough physical exam before the season starts," Burchett says. "Find a vet who understands the demands of hunting, and follow his instructions for caring for your dog. This is the best way to keep your dog healthy and useful well into his old age."

Tip 3: Regain Control Before Retraining

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