May 15, 2021
By Tony J. Peterson
During a recent conversation with a veterinarian friend of mine, the topic of fat puppies came up. She commented on how a chubby three-week old is fine, but not a roly-poly 8- or 10-week old. She explained that by the time we pick up our new retrievers from the breeder, we should have a nutrition and exercise plan in place while stressing that chubby might be cute, but it’s unhealthy.
The damage, of course, comes later in life if the overfeeding and under-exercising become established norms. Most of us don’t run into that with young dogs because they are by nature, movers. But it’s worth paying attention to because they don’t stay young forever, and the lifestyle they adopt is the lifestyle we provide for them. If that involves more calories going in than getting burned, weight will become an issue. No problem, you might think, because after all getting a puppy to exercise isn’t terribly difficult. While that’s true, it’s important to pay attention to the kind of exercise your future duck dog is getting.
Joint Pounding Problems
My current Lab is going on eight years old, and she is showing her age. It’s not much fun to watch, and every time I see her get up from a nap, I feel a twinge of guilt. That only gets worse after a morning of hunting, when I can tell she’s sore. The problem, which I entirely own up to, was that I picked her up when I had a pair of one-year olds at home.
Raising twin babies and a puppy at the same time is not something I recommend to anyone, but in a moment of panic at not having a bird dog for an entire year, I reached out to a trainer friend who found me a suitable litter. I trained that puppy to run alongside my bike (and my wife’s bike) so that we could take the whole crew out to the park or on a frog-catching mission to the neighborhood pond.
That became our strategy for staying sane, but it also put a lot of pounding on Luna’s joints. I didn’t learn until later that the growth plates in a dog’s legs won’t totally wrap up their job until about eight months of age. By that time, even though we tried to make sure most of her running was on the grass, we’d probably done some damage.
At least it feels that way now, and while we felt like we were doing our puppy a favor by allowing her to run, we weren’t. The takeaway in this is that normal exercise is excellent for puppy development but taking it too far can quickly turn things south. Our strategy with Luna was also a classic case of simply trying to wear a puppy out instead of thinking about how to get her to always use her body and mind, which is what dogs really need to be content. It was a painful lesson to learn.
Other Puppy Problems
There are running jokes in the parenting community around the hyper-awareness dedicated to a first child, and the lax, come-what-may nature of raising however many children that follow. Safety with kids, just like puppies, is a moving target and the best strategy is to just try to dodge the easily avoidable injuries or the experiences that can leave an ugly mental scar.
Puppies jumping off pickup beds or other high surfaces are a no-no, with a hidden danger here being children picking up and accidentally dropping your squirming pup. Young retrievers having access to chew toys or bones that could damage their mouths is a bad idea as well. Exposure to big, strange dogs is another one. Anything that could produce a real, negative result with your puppy is worth consideration and avoidance.
There are also the biggies like getting into toxic foods, or in the case of a buddy of mine recently, rat poison. His young black Lab is doing fine now, but he’s $4,000 poorer than he was before she got into the cupboard under the sink and it was touch-and-go for a while.
With duck dogs, we often think of the obvious dangers while hunting, such as big cold water, running into other tooth critters, or getting in-between a hunter and a downed duck while he’s trying to water-swat a cripple. But it’s the sneaky dangers, like 150 extra calories a day, or running on hard surfaces too much, or some other tragedy-waiting-to-happen around the home that might cause real trouble for your retriever puppy.
Like a nervous, first-time helicopter parent, pay attention to those dangers to get your retriever through the first year as unscathed as possible—then you can start worrying about bigger, in-the-field and on-the-water dangers.