By Tom Davis

For those of us who hunt with dogs, there is no off-season. Every moment we spend in their company is an opportunity to reinforce desirable behaviors and strengthen our partnership, even when we're not engaged in their training or conditioning.

Hunting season is when all your preparation pays off and any deficiencies are exposed. You have to dance with the one that brought you, as the saying goes, so you can't expect your dog to perform at a level that he hasn't been trained and conditioned to attain. With that in mind, take a look through this time-tested expert advice to help bring out the best in your canine companion this season.

Practice Like You Play

Chris Scott, of L&D Retrieving in Henderson, Tennessee, believes that you should set your retriever up for success by preparing him to hunt in specific situations. "You don't want to put your dog in a setup he's not familiar with, especially a young dog," Scott says. "So whether you're hunting from a pit, a blind, or in standing timber, you need to lsquo;rehearse' those scenarios before the season and get your dog accustomed to hunting in those environments. A dog that's never used a ramp, for example, isn't automatically going to know that that's how he's supposed to get back in the boat; he's going to try to climb over the side."

Scott continues, "I always say that you have to train a hunting dog, but you have to hunt a trained dog. When you take that trained dog hunting and expose him to all those unscripted situations, his training comes to the forefront, and you'll have the dog everybody else wants."

Keep It Safe and Fun

For safety's sake, young dogs and older dogs that are prone to breaking should be tied up when you're hunting out of a pit or other ground-level blind. "If a dog runs out there when birds are over the decoys, it's an accident waiting to happen," Scott explains. "To be safe, tie up your dog, and don't release him to retrieve until you're sure that it's all clear."

Scott adds that a little fun and encouragement can go a long way toward improving your dog's performance in the field. "He has to obey your commands, but you shouldn't hesitate to help him if he's struggling. If you have to pitch a rock to direct him to a retrieve, pitch a rock," he says.

Get the Right Gear

Another way to help ensure that your retriever will have a successful season is to outfit him with specialized equipment such as a field blind, platform stand, or boat ladder. Think of it as providing him with the tools he needs to do his job most effectively. Remember, though, that it's your responsibility to teach him how to use those tools well before the season begins.

It's also a good idea to outfit your retriever with a neoprene vest, which not only provides a layer of insulating warmth but also adds buoyancy and protects against puncture wounds from sticks, rocks, and other hazards. A 3 mm vest will be adequate for most purposes, but you might want to consider moving up to a 5 mm model for hunting in bitter-cold conditions.

See the Big Picture

Retrievers are important tools for conservation, but they also add so much more enjoyment to the waterfowling experience. Don't forget to stop now and then to appreciate what a special opportunity it is to hunt with your canine partner. Take pride in the results of your off-season training and celebrate your teamwork as you participate in this grand tradition together.

Probiotics for Traveling Dogs
If you travel to hunt, one of the smartest moves you can make is to top-dress your dog's food with Purina Pro Plan FortiFlora, a probiotic powder that promotes intestinal health. Start several days before you leave home and continue for a day or two after you get back. It's guaranteed that during the trip your dog will not only be dealing with the stresses of travel and exertions of the job but will also lap up water of less than pristine quality. A daily dose of FortiFlora will help him roll with the digestive punches and stay in the hunt. Nestlé Purina PetCare is a proud partner of Ducks Unlimited, and Purina Pro Plan is the official performance dog food of DU.