March 06, 2023
By Tom Dokken
How to Set Reasonable Expectations with Your Dog
Gauge your dog’s fitness and hunt accordingly.
This is the time of year when the dreamy hunts happen. Gone are the early morning sunrises where the temperature hits 60 degrees by the time you’ve finished half of your coffee. The mornings where you’re hoping for a few teal or wood ducks to save the day, and fantasies of the migration are just that, fantasies.
This is the month, at least throughout much of the flyway, that real weather is going to show up. Cold temps, water that starts to show the first signs of ice up, and north winds pushing flights of greenheads from Canada to the south. This is the time of the season we all look forward to, but there is something we should be concerned with—our dog’s physical fitness.
This might seem strange, because most of us tend to look at our retrievers like they are peak-level athletes. In truth, many of them are. But many are not, and a dog that isn’t in the right condition to handle the extremes of the mid- to late-season can get into real trouble. This means it’s necessary to gauge your dog’s fitness and hunt accordingly.
Being in shape means that a dog is not under or overweight. An underweight dog, which is becoming more and more rare by the day, is one where the ribs or the spine are plainly visible. This is a dog that will suffer in cold water and cold temperatures, and likely won’t have the kind of energy necessary to retrieve until everyone in your party has his limit.
Overweight dogs are far more common. The negatives associated with this are pretty obvious, but one that isn’t, is usually stamina. A dog needs to be able to handle the calorie burn of sitting sedentary for hours on a truly cold hunt, but also fire up and get after it when the birds hit the water.
This is something we often take for granted as waterfowl hunters, but we shouldn’t. We can’t really hunt our dogs into shape the way a pheasant-obsessed uplander can. We tend to get our dogs into the best shape as possible in the pre-season, but then let that slide as the hunting season progresses. In that way, some duck dogs often end up in worse physical condition in November than they were in September.
Obvious remedies for these body condition issues come in two forms—food and exercise. I feed my dogs a high-quality formula that consists of 20-percent fat and 30-percent protein. They draw most of their energy from fat, so dog food that is loaded up with it is a good bet. But you can’t feed them a new formula two days before a hunt and expect it to be good enough. You need to start that earlier in the season or feed it year-round if your dog is really active.
When it comes to exercise, running water-based drills throughout the season is a great way to keep your dog’s stamina up and keep them sharp obedience-wise. This is a great hedge against losing birds, and a dog that might need to tap out before the hunt is over.
During late-season hunts, you can do a couple of things to keep your dog comfortable and performing well. A neoprene vest is a no-brainer here. Thirty years ago, we didn’t have this option and our dogs had to sit there in the blind soaking wet after retrieves. Now, with a properly fitted vest, they can stay so much warmer and preserve their energy. The key is to introduce the vest to your dog long before you actually hunt.
This should go without saying: You should be really careful about crating a dog in the back of your pickup after a hunt. Even with a kennel cover, a wet dog in that situation is going to be extremely cold, and potentially, in danger. This only gets more dangerous if you stop for a burger on the way home or hit the local motel and leave your dog exposed to the cold air for long periods of time.
Another aspect of safety and comfort during these hunts is hydration. A lot of us underestimate how much water a dog needs to stay hydrated during cold hunts, but it’s important. I use Purina’s Forti-Flora, which is a powdery probiotic that has a flavor dogs love, to encourage my retrievers to keep drinking even when they might not want to. You can also add some water to their food when you feed them in the evening to add a little extra hydration to their diet.
Read the Elements
The more you understand your dog’s physical capabilities—and limitations—the better off you’ll be throughout the season. This isn’t too big of a deal in the early season, but later, it’s crucial. Pay attention to your dog’s weight, its energy level during training sessions, and then what kinds of conditions you plan to hunt it in.
I recently watched a friend’s young retriever take off after a wounded diver on big water during some brutal weather. It quickly became clear the dog wasn’t going to give up, and the wind and waves kept him from hearing us. We had to get the boat to that dog quickly, and when we did, you could see the dog was about played out. It was scary, and it happened fast.
It’s especially important to play it safe during the late season. This is not always easy to do given the excitement around potentially the best hunts of the year, but it is necessary so that all members of your hunting party stay safe, no matter how nasty it gets.