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Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation

By Mike Stewart, WildRose Kennels,

It’s pre-dawn for the upcoming hunting season. For many it’s only weeks until the opening of dove, teal, waterfowl in the North and even bird hunts on private shooting grounds.  So, you may be getting excited with anticipation but what about your gundog?  You know, those canine hunting companions that have been lounging about in the home or shaded kennel likely since last spring. There seems to always be interference during those long off-season months that prevents keeping the hunting dog in shape:  family commitments, vacation, travel, jobs, and, of course, the worst culprit:  hot weather!  The result… fat Labs, lazy Spaniels, out-of-shape Pointers.  It’s time to talk pre-season tune-up, folks.

Pre-Season Tune up 101:  The 6 Essentials

Overweight:  Fat dogs can’t jump.  Fat dogs are vulnerable to orthopedic injury.  Fat dogs overheat.  Fat dogs lack stamina.

This is an area that should be “first-stop shopping” pre-season, addressed before all else.  When managing weight problems with any canine, don’t go to extremes quickly.  Slowly reduce the animal’s weight by progressive, low-impact activity/exercise and marginally reducing food intake.  Switching the dog’s food is not the most effective, short-term remedy.  It takes a dog’s metabolism 12 to 18 weeks to adjust to the new food’s contents.  A preferred approach is to lower the amount consumed.  Reduce the servings ¼ cup per week and stay with the food mixture you will be using during season.

Begin exercise routines in the cooler times of the day and keep impact activity low.  Swimming is a superb exercise for weight reduction and building muscle condition.


Dogs simply do not take in enough fluids to sustain prolonged athletic activity in warmer temperatures.  First, hydrate heavily before and during exercise, training and early season hunting.  Float the dog’s food at every feeding.  Most dogs will lap up the water from the kibble before eating.  Do not feed the dog before activities including hunting or training.  Research has shown that sporting dogs perform best when fed one meal per day, 30 minutes to an hour after exercise.

Like humans, dogs should take in fluids when active before they get thirsty.  But voluntary intake of water before thirst is very unlikely, so use a squirt bottle in the field to fill the dog’s mouth between retrieves.  Keep cool, fresh water available.  Some dogs won’t drink from a common source utilized by other dogs.  A tip I picked up at the Purina Sporting Dog Summit was to use sodium-free chicken broth added to water to encourage intake.  Once again, float the dog’s food at every meal and do not feed just before exercise or hunting.

Heat Exhaustion – a deadly potential for the active hunting dog or adventure canine.

The effect can come on quickly taking a dog’s temperature to 108 degrees or more.  The risk to the hard-working dog that overexerts and hasn’t taken in enough fluids may begin at temperatures above 75 degrees especially in humid or dry conditions.  Normally, we think of heat exhaustion and stroke in relation to field activities but consider other dangerous conditions:

  • A dog left in an enclosed car unattended in summer weather. Interiors heat up rapidly in direct sunlight. For example, if the outside temperature is 85 degrees, the temperature of an enclosed car will rise to 104 degrees in 10 minutes and to 119 degrees in 30 minutes.  Deadly!
  • Placing an extremely hot dog in a confined area with little ventilation, i.e. trailer, dog box, crate without appropriate cool down and fluids
  • Leaving an unattended dog in direct sunlight, i.e. tied out, in a pen, in a crate
  • Overexertion of the out-of-shape dog in hot weather like running with an ATV.


  • Avoid training in hot, humid weather conditions that only involve dry ground or high cover. Water work!
  • Avoid walking a dog on hot, paved surfaces.
  • Avoid using backpacks or vests on dogs in hot weather.
  • Avoid putting a hot dog away without appropriate cool-down activity.

Recognize signs of heat stress and take action immediately.  Raspy panting, tongue hanging long and cupped at the end, extreme saliva, glazed eyes, inattention, lack of response, staggered gait.

  1. Stop the dog at once. Remove or loosen any collar on the dog.
  2. Get out of the sun.
  3. Do not throw cold water from a cooler on the dog. This could produce shock.  Rather, dig a slight indention in leaves and soil. Pour water in and over the dog as they lay in the pool.  If a pond or a creek is in proximity, use it.
  4. Do not give the dog cola to drink. Water will likely be refused but flood the mouth from the side of the muzzle to stimulate intake, yet not choke the dog.
  5. Using the large syringe which should be included in your canine medical first aid kit such as the Wildrose Canine Medical Kit (, to induce cool water enemas in the rectum.
  6. Get the dog in a vehicle under full air condition and seek medical attention.

Immediate field treatment to reduce the dog’s body temperatures is the key to recovery.  Never transport a heat-exhausted dog in an enclosed carrier without taking action first, even when headed to the vet.

No pre-season physical conditioning

Over exertion of the out-of-shape dog can lead to athletic-related injuries such as strains, sprains and joint damage. Blowing an ACL, tearing of a pads or dislocating a knee… there goes the season and here comes a unwelcomed vet bill.  Don’t take an out-of-shape dog hunting any more than a coach would put an out-of-shape football player on the field.

Every training session should begin with a 10-minute, low-impact warmup.  Stretch muscles, gain eye contact, expend a bit of excess energy all while awakening the dog’s physical systems.  The out-of-shape dog’s level of impact activity is slowly expanded over weeks, not hours.  Pads toughened, weight declines, fat becomes muscle, and the respiratory system is conditioned.  Early on in pre-season tune-ups:

  • Walking is better than long runs (roading).
  • Swimming is better than running.
  • Soft surfaces (grass or plowed ground) are better than hard, dry grounds.
  • Short, level runs are better than jumping obstacles or negotiating steep climbs.

Pre-conditioning is all about “Make haste slowly.”

Pre-Season Medical Checkup

A vet visit for a physical is a good idea before season.  Nails should be trimmed, a dental cleaning completed, heart and lungs checked for soundness.  Inoculations should be updated:  kennel cough (bordatella) and rabies as well as flea and tick treatments all completed.  Dogs need an annual check for heartworms despite the use of preventative medications.  Fecal exams will insure the dog is parasite-free and the physical will insure your hunting pal is in good condition for the extremes of the field.

Refining Skills Sets

Time to revisit all those vital skills previously trained into your gundog.  The same ones that have been gathering dust over the down months since last season.  We oil up our gun before season.  The same should be accomplished with your dog.  Review all 7 Essential Core Skills for the Sporting Dog:

  1. Obedience – especially remote sit and off-lead heel
  2. Steady/Honor – sit quietly to shot, fall and other dogs working
  3. Delivery – clean pick and direct return with no mouthing. Use feather-laced bumpers and cold game if available.
  4. Lining – taking the most direct route to the fall. Revisit multiple memories (doubles/triples)
  5. Hunting Cover – likely the nose will need more tune-up than the eyes (marking). Get the dog in thick cover.
  6. Handling – an area most likely in need of attention. Whistle stops and taking hand signals to memories and unseens.
  7. Marking – pinpoint accuracy. Distance perception may need a little touch up.  Tennis ball marks will help refine this skill.

Season is fast approaching or in some locations its already underway.  Time to inventory shells, check for leaking waders, inspect the blind bag, locate that old dove stool and camo t-shirt and, of course, get your “Gentleman’s Gundog” fit and trim for another season of wingshooting adventures.  Have fun and be safe!

For more information, see Sporting Dogs and Retriever Training the Wildrose Way, available at