By Gary Koehler
A year ago, on opening day of the waterfowl season in Illinois, my ego was bruised when my pride-and-joy retriever became the focal point of a verbal jab. What followed provided a wake-up call.
Half a dozen guys were standing on a private duck club deck, drinking coffee and wondering out loud what the morning would bring in terms of birds. A 20-something duck hunter to my left looked quizzically as three dogs on the ground below took turns sniffing each other.
"Whose fat Lab?" he queried.
I turned slowly to face the speaker. "First, she's a Chessie. And she's mine."
"Oh. Well, we've got an old Lab about that big and we retired her," he replied. Some youths can be so endearing.
I looked down at Kayla, my Chesapeake Bay retriever, and sure enough, she all but dwarfed both the young and feisty black Lab pup and the much older and mellower yellow Lab who were doing their best to try her patience. She did indeed look big. Maybe too big.
We stayed and hunted a couple of days and Kayla appeared to be fine—both physically and socially. There were no issues. A week later, however, she developed a limp, which led to a visit to our veterinarian. "You've got to knock some weight off her," the veterinarian said. "She's gotten too heavy. She may have done her job on your hunt, but it's going to take a while for that soreness to go away. Her weight's causing too much stress on her joints."
So there it was. Kayla was out of shape. I had not prepared her well enough in advance for the rigors that waterfowl hunting regularly entails. I knew better, but did not address the fact that retrievers are athletes. And just like the athletes who play football on weekend afternoons, she needed preseason training to prepare for the physical demands she was bound to face.
With the opening of waterfowl season just around the corner, do not forget to make time for preseason conditioning. Dogs will not exercise themselves into shape. It's up to you, the owner, to put together some sort of training schedule that will help ensure peak performance—and perhaps lessen the possibility of injury due to fatigue or stress.
You don't have to run your dog for hours every evening after work. But you do have to get the dog out and get it moving. Early morning and evening may provide the most comfortable times of day. Try to avoid exercising in extreme heat.
Start slowly, whether walking the dog or allowing it to swim. Increase the exercise time and distance at a reasonable rate over a period of weeks. Long walks are great, but rather than setting out on a roadway or sidewalk, look for a grassy area. Hard surfaces can be tough on a dog's joints. And rough surfaces can be abrasive on your retriever's foot pads. Check the pads for cuts and bruises, both of which can result in pain.
Swimming provides a number of upsides and a good starting point. In addition to promoting fitness, swimming also allows you the opportunity to sharpen your dog's retrieving and handling skills. But be careful not to push the dog's physical limits at the start, or overdo it during any one outing. Keep in mind, too, that several short (15- to 30-minute) sessions are better than two-hour workouts.
Feeding is another primary consideration. Kayla's weight issue, caused in part by overeating, was not of her doing. When she sees me or a family member with a cookie or cracker or anything else that appears edible, she figures that some of it must be hers. Cut out the extra treats. They are empty calories and do nothing for the dog's physical well-being.
The message here is that you cannot take your dog's conditioning for granted. Its performance this season will depend on the amount of off-season training and conditioning you've provided. You still have time to get your dog prepared, but a long walk the day before the opener is simply not going to cut it. Because of her frame, it's a given that Kayla will never be svelte, but we are working to ensure that she's fitter and healthier this fall.
Related: 6 Essential Retriever Commands