With the mourning dove and early Canada goose hunting seasons opening in less than a month, the window of time hunters have to ensure their gun dogs are ready for the season is quickly closing.
Most people who own gun dogs understand that keeping their partners in proper hunting shape should be a top priority, but every year there are people who get a late jump on training, said John Luttrell, owner of Luttrell Kennels, a gun-dog training facility in Clark.
“It’s a little late now, but you can at least knock some rust off here in the next month or two before all the different hunting seasons open up,” he said. “You can’t afford to let a dog sit for a couple weeks or months in a kennel and then expect it to perform right out of the gate.”
As a professional dog trainer, Luttrell admits he is more passionate about training dogs and has higher expectations than most people. However, he said hunting dogs bred for performing in the field should be considered professional athletes and be treated as such.
“You don’t see a hockey player in the off-season not skate for three months, or an NFL wide receiver not catch a football for the four months they have off,” he said. “Pro athletes need continuous training, from their diet to their exercise routine to the conditions they live in.”
The first factor a dog owner needs to consider is his or her dog’s weight, Luttrell said.
“The worst thing for any dog is to have weight fluctuations,” he said. “If a dog should be 65 pounds but is carrying an extra 10 or 15 pounds, that’s nearly 20 percent more than it’s built to carry. That added weight adds stress to its knees and hips. Just think what it does to your hips, knees and back if you were to carry around a 50-pound backpack for a month. Same goes for a dog.”
Before a dog can be properly conditioned for the field, Luttrell said it has to be at or near its ideal weight.
“If a dog’s overweight, that’s all on the owner,” he said. “A measuring cup only has one moving part, and it’s not the dog’s fault if an owner can’t run a measuring cup.”
How much food a dog requires is a moving target. Luttrell said dog food bags have printed guidelines on the outside of the bag, but he said every dog’s nutritional needs are different.
“You can use that printed information as a guide, but you should also use your eyes to gauge your dog’s weight,” he said. “You don’t want to see every rib, but you should be able to easily feel all of the dog’s ribs. When you look down from above the dog, you need to see the narrowing behind the rib cage before their thighs — the hourglass figure.”
Luttrell said as dogs work harder, their dietary needs change.
“If we do a week of retrieves with a dog, we might see it’s getting a little skinny, and if we’re doing a week of yard work with much less physical activity, we might see it’s getting heavier,” he said. “The amount of food you feed should change continually to ensure the dog maintains the right weight.”
Currently, NFL teams are in training camps, acclimating their players to conditioning and contact routines as they prepare for the rigors of the football season. In sticking with the pro-athlete analogy, Luttrell said dog owners who haven’t been continuously training their dogs need to use the next few weeks as a training camp of sorts to get their dogs in shape.
“You have to evaluate your dog all the time,” he said. “If after five minutes of retrieves they’re panting and walking behind you, their lungs aren’t in shape. There’s no set routine, and every dog is built differently so you need to adjust on the go. If your dog’s really out of shape you need to start out with walking your dog to get its lungs ready before you move into any type of field work.”
Luttrell said people should be wary of walking their dogs on asphalt or on bike trails when the pavement is extra hot from sitting in the sun all day.
“That’s really hard on their pads,” he said. “If it’s too hot to the point you wouldn’t walk on it barefoot, you shouldn’t walk your dog on it.”
He said finding a park or a section line in the country is ideal.
“Once its lungs are ready, let the dog run and hunt,” he said. “They’re going to get more exercise off of a leash. Plus, walking with your dog gets you ready for the season, too. It doesn’t do any good if your dog is in shape and you can’t keep up with it in the field.”
If time is an issue, Luttrell said obedience training is still a vital tool that can be reinforced in short training sessions at home in the backyard.
“Obedience is always No. 1,” he said. “Obedience is the foundation. Sit, down, heel, here, kennel — if they can’t do any of that in the yard, they won’t do it in the field.”
Luttrell also said the easy part is training dogs to perform certain commands. The hard part, he said, is keeping them there.
“If you leave a dog in the kennel for three months it’s going to be rusty, and a lot of what you’ve done in the past will be undone,” he said. “It’s hard because you have to find the right combination of drills and fun to keep them performing at that level. Plus, some drills undo others, so you always have to maintain a balance. And there’s no book on all that, because, again, every dog is different.”