By Wade Bourne

In the off-season my Lab, Andy, is a couch potato. Oh, he's a go-getter when we're hunting, but after the season he reverts back to a schedule that includes a lot of sleep and little work-my fault, not his. By late summer we're both usually overweight and a little on the lazy side.

This year, however, Andy is in for a surprise. I plan to work him regularly in the off-season to keep him in shape and to reinforce those hard-learned lessons from training sessions and hunting seasons past. This spring and summer Andy is getting a tuneup to help ensure that he'll be hitting on all cylinders when the 2012 hunting season rolls around.

For professional advice on how to do this, I called Ed Thibodeaux of Satin Belle Retrievers in Morse, Louisiana. Thibodeaux is widely known for his success in training hunting retriever champions since becoming a professional dog trainer in 1989. Retriever owners who apply his tips will discover that off-season conditioning can be rewarding for both their dogs and themselves, as well as lots of fun.

"The most important thing in keeping your retriever tuned up in the off-season is to train regularly," Thibodeaux says. "Even if a dog is very well trained, if he doesn't practice he will lose his edge."

According to Thibodeaux, there are several ways to counter such a problem. One good way is to locate a professional trainer and train with him. "I welcome people to come in and work with me," Thibodeaux says. "I don't charge them anything to do this. Some pros might charge a minimal fee for birds or helpers' time, but it won't be much." Thibodeaux recommends working with a professional trainer at least once a week as part of a "maintenance plan," in which the dog retains what he already knows but does not gain additional knowledge or skills.

Another good way to keep a retriever tuned up is to get involved with a local retriever club. Most clubs meet regularly and hold hunt tests and field trials through the summer. You can find a club near you by visiting the websites of the American Kennel Club (, United Kennel Club (, and North American Hunting Retriever Association (

Of course the most practical option for keeping a retriever sharp is training him yourself. "You can run your own drills and field work," Thibodeaux notes. "Spending a half-hour with your dog a couple of times a week will go a long way toward keeping him on top of his game."

Thibodeaux recommends two basic drills for doing this: the wagon wheel drill and the baseball diamond drill. In the wagon wheel drill, the handler and retriever are positioned in the center of an imaginary circle and training dummies are tossed out at different directions around the "wheel." The dog is sent to retrieve specific dummies to practice lining. In the baseball diamond drill, the retriever is positioned on an imaginary pitcher's mound with the handler at home plate. Dummies are positioned on first, second, and third bases. The dog is sent to bases and dummies of the handler's choice to hone the dog's compliance with hand signals.

For practicing long marked retrieves, a handler will need a helper or a remote dummy thrower or other automated equipment.

"Ideally, the best summer maintenance plan would be to work once a week with a pro trainer and once alone," Thibodeaux says. "If you do this, you can keep your dog pretty sharp through the summer."

Yet another option is to leave a retriever with a trainer for a professional tuneup before a new season begins. If a retriever has had no work since the previous season, an owner should expect to leave the dog with a trainer for six to eight weeks to get him back in shape and hone his retrieving skills.

Finally, Thibodeaux says there are two ways to have a good retriever: invest the time or the money. "Typically, the more time an owner spends with his dog, the less time the dog has to spend with me. Plus, there's an extra pride in watching him work when you've had a hand in training him yourself."