From the Ducks Unlimited magazine archives

By Gary Koehler


Tom Magee

A recent survey by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention found that 54 percent of our nation's dogs are either overweight or obese. Unfortunately, that troubling statistic includes retrievers and other sporting dogs. Retrievers can pack on extra pounds during the off-season, when they are less physically active. Without regular exercise, a hunting dog will burn fewer calories. This is particularly a problem with older dogs. As their metabolism slows down, it becomes easier for them to put on weight but harder to take it off.

Lack of regular exercise can also lead to a decline in muscle mass. A dog's muscles atrophy much faster than those of humans. The good news is that muscles that have withered from lack of use can be rebuilt and strengthened through exercise and proper nutrition. Beginning a multistep training plan this summer will ensure that your retriever is in tiptop condition by opening day.

Swimming is one of the best exercises for getting your duck dog in shape during the hot summer months. Training in water lessens the chance of heatstroke, although you should still be careful not to overwork any canine in warm weather. Because of the natural resistance that water provides, a little swimming goes a long way. In fact, some dog experts say that a five-minute swim is the equivalent of a five-mile run.

More than any other activity, swimming provides a total-body workout for your retriever. Because the dog is submerged in water, all the major muscle groups get involved in the act. Water resistance not only builds and tones muscles, but also increases cardiovascular fitness. Additionally, regular swimming outings can help increase a dog's flexibility and agility.

The buoyancy of water means that your dog can exercise without putting much weight on his bones and joints. This is especially important with older and overweight dogs, and it's one of the reasons that hydrotherapy is a leading treatment for rehabilitating canine injuries. Swimming also provides a way to gradually ease a dog into a training regimen, decreasing the risk of overexertion and injury.

Once properly introduced to water, most retrievers take to it naturally. You should be careful, however, when selecting a place for your dog to swim. Murky ponds with stagnant water may contain hazards that could negatively impact your dog's health. Blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) are a common threat in warm, stagnant bodies of water during the height of summer. The harmful algal blooms can produce toxins that are fatal to canines. Look for clear, cool water whenever possible.

Those fortunate enough to have a swimming pool at home have ready access to great water training. Pools are generally safe for dogs, but canines should never be allowed to swim without supervision. You should also make sure that your retriever can get in and out of the pool without much effort. If your pool is properly maintained, the low concentration of chlorine is unlikely to harm your dog, but you should rinse him off with a hose after each swimming session. And if you're worried about getting dirt or germs in your pool, go ahead and hose down the dog beforehand as well.

Although swimming provides myriad benefits for your retriever, land workouts should not be neglected. Start with 15-minute walks, four days per week. Build on that by adding a few more minutes to each walk. Short but frequent exercise sessions work best. Do not overdo it in the heat of the summer. Early-morning and evening outings may provide relief from extreme temperatures. If your retriever exhibits any signs of fatigue, such as heavy panting, a low tail, flattened ears, or dragging hind legs, stop your training session immediately. Always be sure you provide your dog access to clean water to ensure proper hydration.