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Water Work for Labs

Featuring Bob Owens, Lone Duck Kennels

Retrievers and water go together like peas and carrots. But there are lots of different ways to use water work in your regular training, especially in the summer. Here are some tips from Pro Trainer Bob Owens of New York State’s Lone Duck Kennels.

Yellow Lab swims with a pink bumper in his mouth while making a water retrieve

Develop a Good Water Attitude

Developing a dog that loves the water is a process. While love of the water is bred into Labs and other retrievers, owners need to bring it out in puppies. “We want a really confidence-building and exciting introduction to water,” Owens said. “I put puppies as young as 8 weeks old in the water if the water temp is nice and inviting. I never pick them up and set them in the water. Instead, I’ll wade out and have their favorite toy or bumper with me, and encourage them to swim to me. Puppies that have positive introductions to water enjoy it for life. I use my excitement, a happy voice and plenty of encouragement to coax them in.”

Picking the right area is important. Crashing sets of waves will scare puppies, so start in calm water so as to develop their confidence. “I’ll start in a shallow entry spot in a pond and steer clear of rivers with a current. I’ll avoid beaches or big lakes with waves that are capable of crashing in on a puppy. Tough conditions will scare puppies and they’ll head straight back to land. Use toys and then bumpers to make the experience fun. I pick areas that are deep enough to make a puppy swim but shallow enough so his paws can touch the ground.”

After a puppy gains experience in the water, Owens increases the distance for a retrieve. “I’ll start tossing bumpers in the shallow water. When the pup is handling that task I’ll add 15-feet to the throw. When he’s comfortable I’ll add another 15 feet until I’m throwing as far as I can by hand.”

Introduction to Current and Waves

Ultimately, Owens introduces young dogs to more advanced conditions. Current is one of them. “Start by putting a pup in a slow, gentle current. They’ll have to learn to navigate and swim into the current. The swimming develops muscles and their VO2 max so it’s a great form of conditioning. Take them to faster currents when they’ve shown that they can handle the gentle ones. Young dogs learn quickly, but take your time, and pick your faster currents carefully. You don’t want to go from slow to super-fast quickly as it’ll undermine their confidence. Your goal is to have a bold dog that rises to a challenge. That comes over time and with a progressive introduction to current speeds. Short retrieves for puppies, mid-range retrieves for young dogs, and long retrieves for adults.”

Condition on Land First

“If a dog lacks good overall conditioning, then their ability to mentally stay in the water and swim further is compromised,” Owens said. “I always make sure dogs are in good shape before working in the water. The reason is that if a dog is out of shape and gets tired, then he’ll get out of the water and start working on the bank. A dog that is in great shape can swim well, and when he’s swimming well he’ll have more perseverance to overcome challenges.”

Owens focuses on running marks and blinds on land to get dogs ready for the water. In fact, he doesn’t use any set up swimming drills. “I don’t have dogs swim beside me while I paddle in a canoe or anything like that. I just run big setups on land so they can build their strength. Then, I’ll create set ups which include water so they’ll have to swim. For young dogs I’ll run short water marks, and as they gain experience, I’ll increase to bigger water marks. I challenge the adult dogs with running marks that include advanced terrain such as points, channels and islands.

Water Safety

Swimming exercises dogs in different ways. “Swimming works more muscles than land-based conditioning,” Owen said. “They’re in a gravity-free environment so their joints, tendons and ligaments get a break from impact on the ground. Going against the current helps increase a dog’s VO2 max and gets them in shape really quickly. It’s a perfect workout in the summer because water helps absorb excess heat build-up from the dog’s body much faster than air.”

But that’s only to a point, says Owens. “A lot of small, shallow ponds warm up almost to the same degree as the dog’s body temperature. Mid-July water feels like bathwater, so the cooling effect isn’t as great as if the water was cooler. Check the water temperature so you’ll know how hard to work your dog.”

Dry your dog off before loading him in a kennel. “Placing a wet dog in a kennel is never a good idea,” Owens said. “Air isn’t circulating, and it can create a steam room-type of situation. Dry your dog, and place a fan on his kennel door to move the air around.”

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