The daily grind of hunting season takes a toll on your dog, both physically and mentally. As the dog’s body tires from hard work, his mental sharpness may also start to slip. Think about how you feel after a week of hard hunting—tired muscles, sore feet, and drooping eyelids make it hard to concentrate. The same goes for your dog, and his lack of attention can lead to bumped birds and lethargic retrieves.
Exercise and conditioning are important for all dogs, but especially for canine athletes. Well-conditioned dogs are less likely to get injured than dogs that hunt occasionally and spend the rest of the time loafing around the house. From regular walks, to long runs, to swimming, take advantage of opportunities to exercise your dog. Your dog will benefit in terms of physical fitness, but there is also a mental component to this conditioning.
“Dogs that are out of shape get tired and lose focus easily,” says Brad Arington of Mossy Pond Retrievers. “When they are tired, they have shorter attention spans. From those short attention spans, they lose focus. But high-strung dogs can lose focus, too. If they’re not working hard on a regular basis, they get stressed out. Condition your dog regularly so he’s got plenty of stamina. That stamina will help him stay mentally alert.”
If you can’t get outside, working on basic obedience and rewarding your dog with praise or a treat will help him learn to concentrate on you and your commands. This mental focus translates to the field or blind.
Dogs can be distracted for a variety of reasons—excitement, boredom, or fatigue. Conditioning helps keep the dog in good physical shape, but training helps sharpen his attention. Both bored and excited dogs lose impulse control.
“If you have your dog in a blind and there’s not much going on bird-wise, you want the dog to remain steady,” says Dr. Ira McCauley, a Team Eukanuba veterinarian and avid waterfowler. “You want the dog to have an off button, to know he needs to stay still and to pay attention to what’s going on.”
To keep dogs calm, Arington recommends these five training principles: “Train more, talk less, give clear commands, let your dog follow through with the commands, and praise him when he does what you asked. That’s the easiest way to keep your dog focused.”
A dog’s excitement can interfere with his judgment. “Many problems come when a dog is excited,” says Arington. “Their emotions are running hotter than their brains. Calm dogs focus, while dogs that are excited pay little attention to a handler. A dog that isn’t listening isn’t focused at all. Put your dog in a situation for success, praise him when he does things right, encourage him to do things right, and you’ll have a focused dog that is happy following commands.”
Nutrition is the foundation that supports everything else—physical conditioning, training, and performance in the field. Dr. McCauley recommends a diet that is highly bioavailable and provides the nutrition your dog needs to help excel at his job. Nutrient bioavailability is the proportion of the absorbed nutrients that are available for use by the body.
“When it comes to a hunting environment, nutrition helps play a role in keeping your dog focused,” says Dr. McCauley. “If the dog is making several dozen retrieves, he needs to be physically and mentally able to perform that task. You want to be feeding a premium diet so that your dog has the optimal nutrition necessary to perform those difficult tasks.”
Hunting and exercising on a consistent basis can also cause a buildup of free radicals, a byproduct of strenuous activity. Large quantities of free radicals caused by oxidative stress can slow the rebuilding of cells and thus increase the amount of time it takes a dog to recover after a hunt. “Antioxidants such as vitamin E, vitamin C, lutein, beta-carotene, and taurine—among others— can help reduce oxidative stress and free radicals,” says Dr. McCauley.
If you dedicate your time to conditioning, training, and nutrition, you will help your dog be focused and ready all season long.