Ten Performance Tips for Retrievers

Follow this expert advice to help your duck dog reach its full potential in the field

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Photo © James Juhl

By Wade Bourne

World-class athletes need top-flight conditioning, training, and nutrition in order to compete at the highest levels. The same is true of sporting dogs. This was the message heard last July by many of the nation's top breeders, trainers, and dog writers who attended Purina's Sporting Dog Summit at Purina Farms near St. Louis, Missouri.

Titled "Achieving a Performance Edge," the two-day program featured tutorials on canine conditioning, training, nutrition, and sports medicine from some of the leading experts in these fields. Much of what these professionals had to say applies not only to elite field-trialing dogs but also to everyday hunting retrievers.

Here are 10 expert tips that will help your duck dog achieve peak performance during the hunting season.

1. Check Bloodlines When Selecting a Puppy

Dogs are not all created equal. For this reason, it's important to make a good choice when selecting a puppy. Dr. James L. Cook, a canine orthopedic surgeon from Missouri, recommends studying a pup's bloodlines for clues about what his health and personality will be like as he matures.

"Always check for orthopedic issues and inherited traits such as intelligence, motivation, behavior, and others," Cook says. "In general, if you can trace characteristics back three generations, there's a very high chance of those same qualities appearing in your puppy. If they're present two generations back, you still have a good chance. That's why it's important to research the pup's ancestral history. If his bloodline has any history of orthopedic problems or behavioral issues, you should probably look for a pup from another line."

2. Exercise Caution with Young Retrievers

Conditioning should start early, but Cook cautions retriever owners against overtraining a young dog. "You don't want to do too much too soon, because the musculoskeletal system is not mature until the dog is 10 to 18 months old, depending on the breed," he says. "If you push a dog too quickly, you risk negatively affecting the development of soft tissues such as muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joint capsules. When this happens, the soft tissues cannot keep up with bone growth, and developmental problems occur. Because the growth plates are 'open' in young dogs, they are susceptible to fractures and other damage that can cause abnormal development, pain, and lameness."

As an extra precaution, Cook recommends exercising a younger dog on grass or sand whenever possible to cushion his paws and pads. Try to avoid training on hard surfaces, especially concrete. And if you see any sign that your retriever's energy and enthusiasm are waning, stop your training for the day. Most training injuries occur when a dog is fatigued.  

3. Use Swimming for Early Conditioning

Early conditioning exercises should focus on building a puppy's core strength and body awareness. The best way to do this is with swimming, says Dr. Jennell Appel, a Florida veterinarian who specializes in treating soft-tissue injuries in sporting dogs.

"Try to take a pup swimming two or three times per week," Appel says. "Make sure the weather is warm, and let the dog swim for two- to three- minute intervals-no more than 10 minutes total per outing. Put a life vest on him to take away the fear of sinking. This will also help him learn proper swimming technique. Swimming is great for building core strength with minimal impact on the pup's joints."

Appel recommends starting endurance training after your pup's first birthday. Begin with 10-minute slow trots or endurance swims (beside a small boat like a canoe or kayak). Gradually increase training time to 30-minute sessions, once or twice per week.

This is also a good time to include some water sprints in your retriever's training regimen. "Throw a bumper 50 yards away and have the dog swim for it," Appel says. "Do this four to six times per session with one-minute rest intervals in between. You can also have the dog run a few all-out sprints up a hill."

4. Feed High-Performance Dog Food Year-Round

When it comes to nutrition, puppies should be fed puppy food that's specially formulated to ensure proper bone and muscle growth. Adult dogs, however, need a high-performance dry dog food with enough protein to build strength and endurance, and not just during hunting season.

"Research with exercising canines has shown it's best to keep a hunting dog on a high-performance food year-round," says Dr. Brian Zanghi, a nutrition researcher for Purina. "Purina Pro Plan Sport formulas with 30/20 and 28/18 ratios of protein and fat are good examples. They keep a dog in better metabolic shape through the off-season, and help get him back in peak condition at the start of the next hunting season."

Performance dog foods provide more calories per cup than regular maintenance foods, which can cause a retriever to pack on the pounds during the off-season, when he's less active. In such cases, Zanghi recommends reducing feeding portions. "If you've been feeding four cups a day during the hunting or field-trial season, you might cut back to perhaps two or two and a half cups per day during the off-season, depending on your dog's ideal weight," he says.

5. Offer Pre- and Post-Exercise Nutrition Bars

Feeding nutritional supplement bars to a working retriever is a good way to support exercising muscles at the start of the day and to refuel a dog's energy reserves at the end. Purina offers two types of sport bars for working dogs. The Pro Plan Sport Prime Bar delivers enriched protein to muscles during hard exercise, and the Pro Plan Sport Refuel Bar is formulated for short-term recovery after strenuous activity.

"You feed a Prime bar 30 minutes before the start of a workout," Zanghi says. "The fast proteins in this bar help keep muscles strong and nourished during exercise. Then feed a Refuel bar, which is high in carbohydrates and protein, within 30 minutes after exercise is over for the day."

These bars can be especially beneficial to retrievers hunting several days in a row. "After a weekend of hard hunting, a dog may be down for the count on Monday. But feeding a dog supplemental nutrition bars will help him make a much faster recovery so he can continue hunting for several successive days," Zanghi adds.

6. Include Warmup and Cool-Down Exercises

Warming up before exercising and then cooling down afterward isn't just good advice for human athletes. Retrievers also benefit from gradually easing into and out of heavy exercise, says Dr. Arleigh Reynolds, a specialist in canine conditioning and nutrition. Warming up helps a dog "get loose," which can prevent soft-tissue and joint injuries. Cooling down decreases muscle soreness and stiffness following exertion.

"Imagine how you'd feel rolling out of bed and immediately having to run a 100-yard sprint," Reynolds says. "You'd be stiff. Your muscles would be tight. You'd be primed for a muscle tear or an injury to a tendon or ligament. It's the same with hunting dogs. Warming them up before they work goes a long way toward keeping them healthy. And cooling them down helps retrievers recover faster and prevents muscle tightness and lactic acid buildup."

Warmups and cool-downs can be as simple as 10 to 15 minutes of light exercise before and after a period of physical exertion. A brisk walk or a slow run can work wonders in keeping a dog healthy.

7. Conduct Tailgate Exams Before and After Hunting

The physical demands of hunting can aggravate minor injuries and cause new ones to develop. As a precaution, waterfowlers should conduct a tailgate examination of their retrievers before and after each hunt, Cook says. Such exams take only two to three minutes, and if done consistently can help you notice small changes in your dog's overall health and ability to perform in the field.

"Look for pad cuts and bruises-anything different," Cook says. "A small injury may seem insignificant, but if left untreated, it might lead to other injuries that may be more difficult to heal."

In addition, Cook recommends checking for full range of motion in your retriever's legs by gently flexing and extending the joints to see if there's any discomfort. "If a dog shows any pain, take him to a vet for an exam," he says.

"Hopefully the problem will be insignificant and easily treated, but you don't want to take any chances. If the problem is serious and you address it early, you'll come out way ahead in terms of both your dog's health and health-care costs. Tailgate exams are a good example of the old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

8. Keep Your Retriever at a Healthy Weight

Overweight retrievers are susceptible to joint and soft- tissue injuries when hunting or exercising. But how do you know if your retriever can stand to lose a few pounds? "You can't just look at a dog and tell if he's overweight," Reynolds says. "You need to lay hands on him. Run your fingers over his spine. You want to feel just the tips of the vertebrae under the skin. If you have to push through an inch of fat to feel the vertebrae, the dog is overweight. Conversely, he's underweight if the vertebrae are protruding too far out and feel sharp to the touch."

Another way to check a dog for obesity is by feeling his "wing bones," or ilia, which are on either side of the backbone in the pelvic region. "If these areas are flat or mildly indented, his weight is just right. However, if they are rounded over, the dog is too fat, and his caloric intake should be reduced," Reynolds says. Keep in mind that weight should always be taken off slowly to avoid hurting your retriever's energy level and performance.

9. Take Precautions When Traveling

Long-distance travel takes your retriever away from his daily space and routine, which can diminish his performance in the field. "To start with, you're interrupting the dog's normal access to water, so you have to take extra measures to keep him hydrated," Reynolds says. "I typically provide 'baited water'-water with a few kibbles added to encourage the dog to drink-in the morning before starting a long drive. Then I will stop every two to four hours to offer more water and to exercise the dog and allow him to relieve himself."

According to Reynolds, traveling retrievers should be fed only once a day, preferably at night. Single nightly feedings will help optimize a retriever's performance but are not advisable for dogs that are at high risk for stomach bloat or torsion. Always make sure the dog has cooled down completely from a hunt or workout before you feed him.

Other travel precautions include keeping your retriever protected in cold and hot weather. You can start by insulating the dog's crate when transporting him in the back of an open pickup truck in chilly conditions. Placing a pad in the bottom of the crate to help cushion the dog against bumps during travel is also a good idea.

10. Look Out for Signs of Injury

"Retrievers are stoic animals," Appel says. "They try to push through pain to keep working. So if you see lameness in your dog, there could be a serious problem developing. Don't put off getting your dog the help he needs."

If injured, a dog will often try to compensate by shifting his weight to other limbs and joints to protect the one that hurts. This can lead to secondary problems if the primary issue isn't treated. A retriever's orthopedic health can go downhill quickly.

For this reason, Appel advises retriever owners to be vigilant. "Signs of lameness in a retriever can be very subtle," she explains. "If you notice any difference in his gait, have him stand facing you, and watch to see if he's standing square or if he's shifting his weight to one side or the other. You can also take a video of the dog walking and trotting both toward you and away, and study the video for any gait discrepancies. If you can shoot video in slow motion, so much the better."

Should you detect lameness in your dog, Appel's recommendation is to seek treatment from your veterinarian, who can refer you to a certified canine rehabilitation specialist, orthopedic surgeon, or physical therapist if necessary.
 


To receive an electronic version of Purina's 52-page booklet on "Achieving a Performance Edge," send an e-mail request with your name to purinasportingdog@purina.nestle.com. As a proud partner of Ducks Unlimited, Purina helps support DU's conservation efforts.