By Gary Koehler

Because Father Time neither recognizes nor answers to any master, retirement will one day become an inevitable reality for your retriever. Large dogs such as Labs, goldens, and Chessies have an average life span of 10 to 12 years. This means that by age seven, retrievers are already beginning to enter the winter of their lives. You may not notice any changes in your four-legged hunting partner's demeanor or performance at that time, but the longevity clock keeps on ticking.

Dogs do not all age at the same rate, however. There are a number of variables that influence the aging process, including genetics, stress, illness, and the retriever's overall condition. Retrievers that carry excess weight, for example, will likely begin to slow down earlier than those in top physical condition. Proper diet and regular exercise are key components in keeping your dog healthy. How well you take care of your dog over his lifetime can play a big role in prolonging his hunting years and increasing his overall longevity.

Some veterinarians recommend having a retriever undergo a physical checkup every six months after the dog reaches age six. That may sound excessive, but detecting problems early can prevent the development of more serious conditions later on. When injuries or illnesses are neglected, the aging process is accelerated. A veterinarian will check all vital organs as well as joints, eyes, hips, teeth, gums, hearing, and more. The vet can also provide nutritional advice and recommend any vitamin and mineral supplements that might be needed to maintain your retriever's health and stamina throughout his golden years.

Duck dogs don't always understand their own limitations. It's up to you, therefore, as a caring dog owner, to be more cautious in regard to weather and environmental conditions when taking a senior retriever afield. Extremes in heat and cold should be avoided because of the toll they can take on an older dog. Likewise, be extra careful with an aging retriever around ice and fast-moving river currents. If you have any doubts about your retriever's ability to negotiate such hazards, err on the side of caution and keep him by your side.

Older retrievers can also become more susceptible to injury. Something as simple as leaping off a pickup truck bed can initiate or exacerbate joint and muscle problems. Build or purchase a ramp to avoid such mishaps. Plan ahead and figure out ways to make your older retriever more comfortable-not only in the field but also at home. For one, make sure that he has a good dog bed. Sleeping on a hard floor can be rough on an older dog's joints and bones. Resign yourself to the fact that older dogs may require more trips outside to relieve themselves. Feeding routines and potty schedules should be consistently maintained.

Many avid waterfowl hunters hedge their bets by acquiring a puppy when their retriever is nearing the end of his career. This can be a fortuitous move or a nightmare, depending on how the situation is handled from the start. Puppies are known to test the patience of both man and beast. Older dogs are often set in their ways and can become easily irritated by exuberant puppy behavior. If you do add a puppy to your pack, be sure to introduce the dogs outside on neutral ground. They should be under constant supervision and should not be left alone together. Each should have his or her own crate. And you should be mindful of the older dog's tenure and place in the pecking order. Always feed, greet, and provide attention to the senior dog first.

Sometimes it's enough to just have an old retriever around. Several years ago, when I was hunting on a large lake in southern Georgia, my host arrived at the boat ramp with an aged yellow Lab named Bear in tow. "He probably won't get out of the boat," the fellow said, "but I like to bring him along. And he still likes to go." Sure enough, Bear spent most of the morning sprawled out on the bottom of the boat asleep. There's nothing at all wrong with that.

BUNDLE UP Do your older dog a favor and acquire a neoprene vest for use when the weather turns cold.