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How to Help Build Stamina in Gun Dogs

Featuring Al Arthur

Two-time Open Retriever National Champion Al Arthur, owner of Sandhill Retrievers, knows something about conditioning dogs. Arthur looks at conditioning through two different lenses: physical conditioning and mental focus. Both are connected and help give him and his dogs the edge to win at the highest levels.

Pro dog trainer Al Arthur carrying bumpers into a field with a Lab walking by his side

“First of all, when you run a dog that is short on stamina, you gotta run ’em at the right times of day,” he says. “No dog has a lot of energy in the heat, and that’s why timing is so important. If it’s hot and humid, then train first thing in the morning. I run 24 dogs a day, every day, multiple times. The dogs that don’t have the stamina are the first ones off the truck in the morning. I’ll work the dogs in excellent shape later, because they are conditioned to handle warmer temperatures. Pick and choose your times wisely by asking yourself a question: When is the weather best suited for their current condition?”

The distances of your marks matter a lot when it comes to building endurance. For instance, Al’s marks at a recent Wisconsin field trial were 420 yards, delivered in a triple-retrieve scenario. That meant that the first bird was 200 yards away, the next around 300 yards, and the third at 425 yards. Add to it that the dog can’t run a straight line—but instead needs to hunt his way to the bird—and the dog is covering a lot of ground. Arthur’s dogs are running more than 1,200 yards, or two-thirds of a mile.

“Running lines to over 1,200 yards at a full sprint is tough,” Arthur says. “To get to that level you’ve got to build up to it. Start with shorter distances like 100 yards. When the dog is ready, increase the distance.”

Excitement also plays a role in building both physical and mental stamina. “When dogs are giving all they’ve got and their adrenaline is pumping, and they are so intensely focused on doing their job, it takes stamina,” he says. Arthur spends a lot of time preparing his dogs for high-stress situations. He stages events to get them mentally acclimated to their surroundings. Training should include your hunting buddies and their dogs, retrieves made out of boats and blinds, and anything else that resembles a real- hunting situation. Work on steadiness by rotating different dogs through a variety of different setups and retrieves.

“You don’t want to train on the same grounds every day, because dogs will become too familiar with that deal,” he says. “It’s like a home field advantage. Seek out training locales with different scenery and smells. Have multiple people, not just you and your dog, but more noise. The more noise there is out there—from either humans or other activity—the more excited the dog gets. If you are always on the same grounds, with only one white coat, and only shoot one time, that is nothing new to a dog.” Multiple people, different locations, and simulated scenarios help prepare dogs for the real event.

“The one thing about a dog is that you just want to be very consistent in how you do things,” Arthur says. “Consistency builds confidence, which helps to achieve incremental goals. Sure, you can build up distances and run times, but think about developing other parts as well. Once your dog’s body is strong, think about elevating his enthusiasm. Make training exciting by starting with simple, short retrieves, and then add in lots of commotion. Throwing multiple bumpers, firing starter pistols, and having handlers make a lot of noise fires dogs up. When the dogs get fired up, that’s the perfect time to have them run longer distances. Their bodies are in shape, and their minds are focused.”

Arthur recommends a training balance of steadiness and drive. He believes that many handlers focus too much of their attention on steadiness, and this comes at the expense of reducing the dog’s drive. “If a dog doesn’t have a lot of firepower, then an owner needs to build that up,” he says. “I need my dogs to leave me and think that retrieving is the best thing on earth.”

Arthur wants dogs to get excited when he walks up to his kennel because that means they’re ready to go to work. Once they’re working, he says it’s important to keep them from getting bored. “Repetition can have its drawbacks,” he says. “You will see people throw tennis balls and bumpers over and over and over and over until something else more interesting catches the dog’s attention. Don’t run the same routine over and over again. To build that fire in your dog, throw two or three balls, and then stop. Don’t keep throwing until your dog is bored.”

Finish all training sessions on a positive note. When you’re done for the day, “Love on your dog and reassure him that he’ll go back out later,” Arthur says. “When it’s time to go out again, I want them pawing at their kennel like ‘Heck yeah, here we go!’”

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