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Skill Builder: Canine Conditioning

Preparing your pooch for hunting season.

By John R. Meyer

As the hunter’s new year approaches on the calendar, you should already be mapping out plans for opening day. Don’t worry about the carload of gadgets and gear before you take care of your number- one hunting companion — your dog. No one thing can more dramatically affect the enjoyment of opening day than physiologically preparing your dog.

When considering how to accomplish this, two main areas of concern should be addressed. First is timeliness. Just as with human fitness, lasting cardiovascular conditioning for your dog is best achieved with a gradual buildup at a sufficient level of intensity. This means starting to prepare your dog a minimum of 6 to 8 weeks ahead of opening day.

Second is specificity. Scouring dog training books will yield a variety of methods for conditioning a dog. Whatever method you choose, keep in mind how the activity will compare to what’s expected in the field. A waterfowl retrieve requires lots of swimming. Likewise, panning the horizon for quail is mainly running. So make sure the bulk of training is an accurate reflection of the dog’s field duties. That said, don’t be afraid to mix things up to keep it fun for both you and the dog.

Swimming is not only an excellent change of pace from land-based training, it also provides resistance to virtually all muscle groups. Because the last weeks before opening day are still warm, the water also gives you more options for hot weather. Most dogs will readily take to the water on their own, but many will also get out of it quickly. To extend their time in the water, move around the water’s edge so they will follow and add distance to the workout. Repetitive water retrieves will add variety.

For land-based training, try “roading.” This refers to the use of a motorized vehicle or bicycle to run your dog for extended distances. This method has several advantages, the greatest of which is control of intensity and duration. It is strongly recommended to use a harness rather than a collar when roading your dog. A sudden stop will be much easier on the dog with the harness. Slowing down and allowing the dog to tow you a bit can build strength and endurance.

Start out two to three times a week for 15 to 20 minutes. Work up to 3 to 4 times a week for 30 to 45 minutes.

Another key to interval training is the interval of rest. Every 10 minutes or so of work should be interrupted by one or more of the following: a drink, rest or soaking. Also, take off a minimum of 2 or 3 days per week.

Above all, remember that a dog’s ability to cool itself is drastically different than yours. Where humans are relatively unhairy and covered with sweat glands, dogs are covered all over with fur and relatively few sweat glands. Dogs use evaporative cooling as we do but only with the surface area of their mouths as opposed to our entire skin surface area, making them much more susceptible to overheating in warm conditions. Pam Saliba, a veterinarian at La Paloma Small Animal Hospital in Granbury, cautions against the dangers of your dog overheating. “It comes on really fast. Look for excessive panting with a wide stance as the dog tries to cool itself.” Extreme amounts of salivation can also accompany the rapid breathing.

Finally, the time off since last season allowed your dog to put back on some lost weight, heal the occasional scratch, cut or puncture wound and generally get some well-deserved time lying around the yard. However, less time together may have eroded the bond between you and your dog and could add a little time to the speed of response to basic commands. Pre-season conditioning is a great time to gradually restore this mutual willingness to work together.

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