Maintaining in the Off Season
All the hours of training and field time has paid off. The genetically talented pup has maximized his potential through a sound training program and has developed into a stellar performer in the hunting arenas. Repeated trips to the bird coverts have given the necessary experience to become a blue ribbon bird finder exhibiting class, style, and exemplary manners. Maintaining the level of excellence the dog has achieved now becomes the goal.
A primary prerequisite for maintaining the finished canine performer is to ensure the mental stability of the dog. Long layoffs with no stimuli are not advantageous to keeping any dog’s mental attitude upbeat. The dog must like his world as he sees it. A dog confined to a kennel with little mental stimuli or exercise will slide backwards. Thus it is important to keep the dog in a routine that he enjoys. A dog that is bored becomes anxious and stressed. Both are counterproductive to the mental happiness of the dog and help to create a dog that responds poorly to a renewal of training.
Exercise relieves stress. Just because the hunting or field trial seasons have ended does not mean the dog’s exercise program should cease. A fit dog kept in a sound exercise program will stay in better shape; feel better, and live longer. The maxim of retiring the dog for a few months is not a sage one. A dog’s muscles will atrophy, his level of aerobic fitness will suffer, and it will take considerably longer to get the dog back into shape. I believe a year round exercise program is the number one factor in keeping a dog mentally fit and happy.
A program of two days on and one day off is ideal. By this I mean two consecutive days of exercise followed by one full day of rest. The off-season aerobic program should not be grueling but should be designed to relieve stress and stay fun for the dog. A half hour of continuous aerobic exercise will go a long way in keeping the athlete fit, trim, and mentally upbeat. If it is impossible to exercise the dog two on, one off, an every other day exercise program will be beneficial. I recommend not going three straight days without exercise if at all feasible.
Free running a dog is great, both mentally and physically. However, this does not mean turning the dog out unstructured and letting him run free in the back forty unsupervised. Verbal and whistle commands can be incorporated into the physical fitness program. Compliance to commands tends to extinguish with lack of use. Behavioral responses are strengthened with repetition. Therefore repetitions of the learned commands need to continue throughout the year.
Swimming is also an effective way of giving Fido the benefits of aerobic exercise. Varying the exercise program will work different muscles while adding variety to the dog’s routine. Alternating free running with swimming is a sound prescription. Roading dogs is an extremely effective way to incorporate resistance training with aerobic conditioning. Attach the dog/dogs to a bar mounted on an ATV with a guide line attached to a roading harness on the dog. Condition the dog gradually increasing the distance before increasing the speed. My normal roading speed is eight to ten miles per hour. Dogs love to pull and they will look forward to roading while maintaining their stamina and muscles.
A nutrionally balanced diet is as critical during the off-season as it is during peak performance times. As the dog’s caloric needs decrease due to warmer temperatures or less physical demands, we feed less. We do not change the composition of the diet. We feed Purina Pro Plan Performance 365 days of the year. Changing the composition of diets encourages finicky eaters. It is important to feed a high protein diet in the 30% protein range to prevent muscle deterioration. A balanced diet includes the proper amount of high quality fat for endurance. I feed a 30% protein and 20% fat diet. Feeding a superior food every day aids in maintaining the dog’s muscle tone and health. The fat level gives the dog the energy to respond properly to conditioning and training.
Previously I mentioned that lack of repetition tends to extinguish the desired response to a learned behavior. Continued repetitions strengthen the behavior. Therefore, it is important to incorporate exercises that will keep the finished performer finished. For example, require the flushing/retrieving dog to sit before serving dinner, before letting him out of the house or kennel, and before releasing him for an exercise run. Repetitions of foundation commands such as “Here” and “Sit” should be part of the dog’s daily routine.
Teaching the dog new things will provide stimuli that will keep the dog mentally active. Agility training and clicker training are two fantastic ways of fostering team play that will provide big payoffs in the field and insure the dog remains in a learning mode. Clicker training and positive reinforcement will foster a happy upbeat dog. By introducing new exercises and learning drills, the trainer prevents stagnation and boredom. This training will be fun for the dog and a dog with a “life is a bowl of cherries” outlook will transition back to the field quicker and more enthusiastically.
Many dogs enjoy playtime with other dogs. Exposing dogs to other canines and dog play during the imprinting stage from eight to sixteen weeks of age pays big dividends down the road. The bird dog will be in contact with other dogs at field trails, hunt tests, and in hunting. It is important a dog is not aggressive with or apprehensive around other canines. For dogs well socialized with other dogs, canine playtime is great R&R and reduces mental stress. A recess from the classroom where the dog is just being a dog and having fun maintains that “ain’t life grand” attitude. Such a dog is a joy to work with and be around.
Field work should continue in the off-season. Genetically talented gun dogs love their job. A dog biscuit is great but retrieving birds is even better. Periodic trips to the field and water with implementing a few retrieving drills (and flushing drills for the upland canine hunter) into the dog’s program will maintain the polished performer.
The off-season does not mean letting the dog become overweight and physically unfit. Keep the dog learning and make learning fun. Rest is good, but too much rest without exercise and mental stimuli is not a good off-season program.