By Gary Koehler

Retrievers that lie around all summer and pack on weight are not likely to perform up to par in the duck blind when waterfowl season starts. "Some people don't realize that getting a dog in shape for duck season takes a long time," says trainer Mike Stewart of Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, Mississippi. "The thought process sometimes is that the dog will work himself into shape during the course of the season. That may eventually happen, if he's hunted regularly, but it actually takes weeks for a retriever to become physically fit."

Because there are no shortcuts to conditioning a duck dog, Stewart recommends regular exercise throughout the year. He's a big believer in cross-training retrievers by engaging them in a variety of activities such as hunting, swimming, running, and walking as part of a sporting lifestyle. "All our dogs participate in cross-training activities," Stewart says. "I encourage people to get their retrievers out in all seasons and do something with them. Too many dog owners don't consider that not having their dog in shape can lead to injuries. Cross-training not only helps keep a dog in shape, but also reinforces obedience skills and strengthens a dog's bond with his owner."

Here are seven fun cross-training activities that you can do with your retriever to add variety to his training program during the off-season.

[1] Adventure Dog Training

In 2007, Stewart introduced what he calls Adventure Dog Training, a canine certification program that includes 14 different skills with three levels of awards: trail rated, adventure dog certified, and master trekker.

"Deke, the DU dog, is a master trekker," Stewart says. "Dogs that reach that level are prepared to go anywhere with their owners. They are 365-days-a-year dogs, and because of their training they are comfortable in all environments."

Adventure dogs participate in a number of cross-training activities with their owners, including shooting sports, hiking, camping, fishing, kayaking, jogging, and more. Dog owners can select the skills they want to develop in their dogs.

In order to reach the master trekker level, dogs must accomplish 12 of the 14 skills in the Adventure Dog sequence.

Many waterfowl hunters have enrolled their retrievers in Adventure Dog training, but Stewart says a good number of nonhunters also participate in the program. "We specialize in developing lifestyle companions," he says. That's the essence of cross-training-finding lifestyle activities that you enjoy doing with your dog.

"Cross-training very much involves having the dog under control," Stewart adds. "If you take your dog kayaking, for example, skills such as getting in and out of a boat, or sitting quietly on the bank while you load your boat, transfer over into hunting out of a boat."

[2] Upland Bird Hunting

For many waterfowlers, hunting upland birds is the perfect way to extend the wingshooting season. And so they take to the fields and woods to pursue doves, pheasants, grouse, quail, and other game birds. Fortunately, retrievers are versatile gun dogs that can catch on to hunting upland birds without too much effort. In fact, many of the same skills retrievers use in waterfowling come into play in upland hunting, including the ability to find and retrieve birds. There are some differences, however.

"For upland hunting, retrievers have to be taught to range and pattern differently," Stewart explains. "They have to learn to work close and to quarter to locate and flush birds. Quartering can be taught through the use of skills the dog already knows, such as hunting cover, handling, and steadiness. With some modified training, most duck dogs can learn the upland hunting game."

If you are working with a young retriever, be sure to brush up on his obedience training before going afield. The dog must learn to be under your control. The last thing you want is for your retriever to take off over a distant hill as soon as you release him from his crate. To that point, on your first couple of upland hunting trips, you might want to consider leaving your shotgun at home and letting a hunting partner do the shooting while you focus on handling the dog.

[3] Agility Training

If you hunt in a variety of waterfowl habitats, it's a good bet that your retriever is confronted with a number of different obstacles during the course of the season. Trees, stumps, heavy vegetation, deep water, mud, and fence lines are but a few examples. Over time, the dog learns how to deal with each environment. But you can also help fast-track your retriever's ability to overcome such obstacles through agility training.

Dog agility is a popular competitive sport. In fact, some of the annual agility championships are televised, and Australian shepherds usually dominate the competition. The contestants are incredible canine athletes, and the events are therefore highly entertaining as handlers direct their dogs through a challenging obstacle course featuring jumps, tunnels, and walkways. Prizes go to the dogs that can navigate the course as quickly as possible with the fewest mistakes.

A good way to get started in agility training is to set an obstacle course in your own backyard with weave poles, dog walks, tunnels, and the like. That way your dog can reap benefits such as improved coordination, increased endurance, and better overall health and fitness even if you don't enter him in actual competition. Handling your dog through an obstacle course will also build the kind of trust and communication that can pay huge dividends in the duck marsh.

[4] Shed Antler Hunting

By spring, most retrievers are chomping at the bone to get back outdoors. Shed antler hunting is a perfect activity for filling some of the downtime between duck season and your summer training regimen. Deer typically shed their antlers from late winter to early spring. In many parts of the country, shed hunters begin scouring the woods shortly after the snow has melted. Time is of the essence; wait too long and porcupines, mice, and other critters will gnaw on discarded antlers, rendering them less than desirable trophies.

Shed Hunting

Although many dog breeds can be taught to hunt dropped deer antlers, retrievers are naturals at this game, given their keen noses and strong retrieving instincts. "Shed hunting requires some of the same skills your dog uses in hunting waterfowl and upland birds, including steadiness, retrieving, quartering, and hunting cover," Stewart says. "The excitement retrievers have for finding feathered game can be easily transferred to hunting sheds."

This sport is becoming so popular that a number of companies now offer starter kits for first-time shed hunters. The kits often come with a real or rubberized training antler and antler scent. Smooth or soft, these antlers won't poke your retriever in the face, which could discourage him from learning this fun game. The scent makes the antlers smell like the ones your dog will encounter once his training is over and you head to the woods to start "bone collecting" in earnest.

[5] Swimming and Water Sports

Water dogs love water, and swimming and running through this medium is a great way for your retriever to stay in shape during the summer months. Keeping your dog cool and hydrated is of the utmost importance during warm-weather workouts.

You can accomplish both these goals and others by having your dog fetch bumpers on a lake or river. Swimming is low-impact exercise that's easy on a retriever's joints. In addition, the water's resistance makes the dog work harder than he would by simply running and walking on land. Incorporate water sports into your retriever's training regimen and chances are he'll soon be in the best shape of his life.

Given a proper introduction as a puppy, a retriever will take to water like a bird to air. And as most waterfowlers know, few spectacles are as exciting as watching a duck dog get a running start, leap into the air, and then splash down when entering the water for a duck or training dummy. Such "big air" bounding was perhaps the original inspiration for the sport of dock jumping. Sanctioned by the American Kennel Club and United Kennel Club, dock jumping is one of the fastest-growing canine sports in the country. Several organizations host hundreds of dock diving competitions across the nation and offer training programs for young dogs and other canines new to the sport.

[6] Search and Rescue

Labradors and golden retrievers are among several breeds that make excellent search-and-rescue (SAR) dogs because of their scenting ability, drive, physical endurance, intelligence, and trainability. SAR dog candidates typically have to exhibit a lot of drive and the ability to stay focused amid any number of distractions. Needless to say, not too many dogs can make the cut.

The best candidates for this type of training are often puppies, which can be properly socialized to work with different people, under difficult conditions. The training is intense and demanding, but if your dog has the potential for this kind of work, the result is a retriever that handles like a dream. A hard-charging yet focused duck dog is the gold standard in the world of waterfowling.

Volunteer search-and-rescue units throughout the country work in tandem with local law enforcement and emergency agencies to assist in the location of missing persons. The American Rescue Dog Association (ARDA) provides trained dogs to locate missing persons in wilderness, disaster, and water search-and-rescue missions. Each search-and-rescue unit is required to adhere to ARDA's rigid standards and undergo a rigorous two-day field evaluation every three years to ensure that the standards are maintained.

[7] Hunt Tests and Field Trials

It's a lot easier to stay motivated when you work out with a partner. The same is true when it comes to training your retriever. A little friendly competition can go a long way in keeping you and your dog excited about field work during the off-season. And what better way to test your retriever's hunting skills than by competing in field trials and hunt tests?

Field trials are highly competitive. Even at the amateur level, the matches can be challenging as dogs display remarkable talents in marking, handling, casting, and honoring. Not all field trials are the same, but the paces that some of them put retrievers through to determine the winners can be excessive by most hunting standards.

Hunt tests are less highly specialized and are designed to more closely follow actual waterfowl hunting scenarios. Instead of competing against each other as they do in field trials, the dogs are measured against a written standard. The better your dog does in a hunt test, the higher the ranking he receives. Check with your local retriever club for hunt tests and field trial competitions in your area.