How to Weatherproof Your Bird Dog’s Off-Season Training
Weather extremes make it difficult to train and keep your bird dog sharp during the off-season. As much as your dog might want to work, weather conditions like deep snow, heavy rain or brutally hot, humid days, make it not only impractical but potentially unsafe.
However, just because the weather outside is frightful doesn’t mean your sporting dog should become a couch potato until the next season. A dog that is bored becomes anxious and stressed. Regular conditioning and training, whether indoors or outdoors, will help to relieve stress and keep him or her healthy and fit.
Professional gun dog trainers Paul McGagh of Glencoe Farm & Kennels in Bismarck, North Dakota, Clyde Vetter of Sharp Shooter’s Kennel in New Richmond, Wisconsin, and Ray Voigt of Purina, recommend short training sessions consisting of simple obedience drills to keep a dog tuned up year-round, even when outdoor training isn’t an option.
“It is so important to train your dog every day, even if only for a few minutes,” McGagh advises. “When you can't go outside, indoor training in a garage or workshop is a great substitute. A physically and mentally engaged dog is a happy, well-behaved dog."
Follow these simple, fun obedience drills straight from the pros that can be done indoors even with limited space to help keep your dog in tiptop mental and physical shape, regardless of the weather.
1. Out of the Box
McGagh trains his bird dogs on box drills using boxes or platforms he builds. “I call for the dog to sit or stand on the box. Then, I’ll add a second box and whistle for him or her to place from box to box. Finally, I’ll add retrieves with a tennis ball and have the dog retrieve from box to box,” he describes. This box drill can be made as simple or complex as needed for an individual dog and as indoor space allows.
2. Slow & Steady
Practicing the “place” command reinforces steadiness and control and can be done anytime, anywhere, whether it’s in the garage while changing the oil in the car or in the living room while watching the game. You can practice this skill by having your dog sit or stand (place) on a dog bed or platform and remain there until you give them the appropriate command to release. It doesn’t require your undivided attention – just be sure your dog stays in your peripheral vision so you can make a correction if needed.
3. The Waiting Game
Be a leader around the house year-round. “You can start by teaching the “wait” command at an early age,” says Voigt. “You can use this for teaching your dog to wait for their food until released, which can help them learn patience and keep them from knocking the food bowl out of your hand.”
The “wait” command is also helpful to teach dogs to wait to go in and out of doors, their crate, and kennel. One way to practice this is by having your dog sit, tell them wait, open the door and walk out first. Then, release the dog to come thru with an “ok” or their name.
It’s also a good idea to have a place inside that belongs to the dog alone, like a dog bed. They can be placed on their bed and asked to stay or wait there. If they get up, take them back and start over. This is especially useful if you are trying to cook or eat dinner, as it will keep them from begging and being underfoot.
4. Follow the Leader
To ensure a quiet, controlled bird dog, Vetter recommends advanced heeling drills, which can be done simply as you walk around the house. “I train a dog to heel in a tight figure-eight motion, shift into reverse and back up with me, and make small left and right clicks as if I were positioning him or her on a lining drill,” Vetter says. “I also teach that when I lead with my left foot, the dog is to heel. When I sidestep with my right foot, he or she is to ‘whoa.’ I overlay a command to an action, then wean the dog off the command as he or she becomes accustomed to my body language and actions.”
5. Hold, Carry & Release
If your dog developed a bad retrieving habit this past season, now is a good time to fix it so you can hit the ground running again once the weather is nice. “No matter how old or young your dog, it never hurts to get back to the basics,” Vetter advises. “Work on trained retrieves by running your dog up and down the training table. Use several different objects to reinforce what’s already been taught or to get a correction in as needed.”
6. At Your Command
Before you assume obedience 101 drills — such as “here,” “sit,” “kennel,” “down” and “no” — sound boring, think again. More than likely, any of those skills will begin with rock-solid obedience. “Lay or sharpen the foundation when the weather isn’t cooperating so that when you can get outside, the groundwork’s already covered,” says Vetter. The saying says, “I do best what I do most.” Perfect your basic obedience during the offseason to have a better-trained dog and a more enjoyable hunt.
If you do take your dog outdoors for a training session in less-than-ideal weather, it’s important to be vigilant about keeping your dog safe in these conditions. Check your dog’s footpads regularly after outdoor exercise. Constant exposure to moisture caused by rain, snow, ice or mud can irritate a dog’s footpads, causing skin damage, cuts and infection from bacteria or fungi. If a dog has cracked or bleeding paws, consult your veterinarian.
You should also pay attention to your dog’s tolerance of plummeting or soaring temperatures. Keep a close eye on puppies and senior dogs, as they cannot withstand weather extremes as well as a dog in his or her prime. A good rule of thumb for limiting outdoor exercise during high or low temperatures is that if it’s too hot or cold for you, it’s too hot or cold for your dog.
The bottom line is to use common sense in caring for your dog in weather extremes. Although you can't change the weather, you can be sure your dog is healthy and comfortable.
Year-Round Nutritional Dos & Don’ts for Bird Dogs
DO Adjust the Amount of Food Based on the Season
During the winter months, a dog needs nearly 7 percent more calories for every 10 degrees the temperature drops below the mild temperatures of spring and fall. Likewise, in the summer, a dog needs about 7 percent fewer calories for every 10-degree rise above spring and fall’s moderate temperatures.
DON’T Feed Before Exercise
Because complete digestion takes from 20 to 24 hours, you should feed your dog the night before an event or training and conditioning session. A dog fed six hours or sooner before exercise results in the body’s fat-burning enzymes not being optimized, which contributes to reduced endurance and energy generation.
DO Feed a Performance Dog Food Year-Round
It is best to feed your hardworking dog a performance food year-round to help maximize training and conditioning, though you should reduce the amount fed if your dog’s activity level decreases during the off-season.
DON’T Always Feed the Same Amount of Food
During the first four to six weeks of conditioning, food quantity should increase but then level off and decline slightly. Each dog is an individual, so you should always adjust the amount of food fed to maintain your dog’s ideal body condition.
DO Feed Once a Day
This allows a dog time to completely digest his or her food. A young dog or high-maintenance dog requiring a larger portion of food can be fed twice a day with a slightly smaller portion in the morning.
DON’T Forget About Ideal Body Condition
Always feed your dog an appropriate amount of food to maintain ideal body condition, meaning you should be able to feel the ribs and see an abdominal tuck from the side.
DO Provide Plenty of Water
A dog should be well-hydrated, as exercise is a heat-producing activity, and water is required to dissipate heat. Water also is needed to remove the by-products of energy metabolism, which is essential to endurance and performance.