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The Final Steps of Preseason Gun Dog Training

Featuring Jeremy Criscoe and Stephen Faust

You’ve done everything right. You’ve put in the time with your dog during preseason training, and worked on obedience, steadiness, and conditioning. Now it’s the final countdown in anticipation of Opening Day, and it feels as if time is standing still. Many hunters wonder what’s the best use of their time in the final weeks leading up to the season opener. Two Eukanuba pros suggest a continued focus on conditioning and obedience to round out preseason training.

Gordon setter jumping over rock wall in field during preseason training

Conditioning Should Be Regular and Ongoing

For serious dog trainers, conditioning is a part of daily life. While preseason conditioning varies based on the dog’s breed, age, and experience, most pro trainers agree that conditioning is as important as training and nutrition. For more than 20 years, Jeremy Criscoe of Whistling Wings Kennels has been breeding and training gun dogs in Alabama and throughout the American South. Criscoe’s conditioning program is designed to develop peak physical fitness in dogs working in hot conditions.

“I focus on progressive conditioning, with the goal of having dogs in peak condition at the start of the hunting season,” says Criscoe. “I run my dogs full throttle from February through the middle of spring. Those cooler temperatures help build a strong foundation that I can draw from when it gets warm. By early July, I’ll shift training and conditioning to two short sessions per day to help maintain a dog’s fitness level.

“In the final weeks before Opening Day, I’ll increase their conditioning work, but not to the level they run in the spring. My dogs will run hard from Opening Day until the last day of the season, so I try to find a middle ground. They need to be strong, fit, and attentive, and have a good VO2 max [maximum rate of oxygen consumption measured during incremental exercise], but I don’t want them to get injured or to peak too soon.”

Stephen Faust of Stoneybrook Outfitters & Gordon Setters echoes Criscoe’s advice for conditioning dogs. “In the final weeks before hunting season, I focus on the physical fitness of my dogs to make sure they are in good shape for the season ahead,” he explains. “That is especially true for an experienced dog that knows what he’s doing, but it’s important for a young dog as well. Young dogs need to be in shape so they can spend time in the woods learning. I plan my conditioning so that it peaks toward the end of July. Then I’ll slowly taper down so they’re rested, focused, and ready to roll on the September 1 opener.”


While both trainers agree on the importance of conditioning, they are also quick to point out the value of basic obedience, especially for young dogs going into their first season.

“With just a few weeks left before the hunting season, I focus on finish work for experienced dogs,” says Criscoe. “In addition to my time spent on conditioning, I also include a lot of hunting-specific drills to get dogs ready for what they are going to see in the field. The foundation of these drills is basic obedience and steadiness. I balance short, hunt-specific drills like working on marks in heavy cover, quartering work, and water work. I also include both blind and boat steadiness, and more bird work. That way I can get the dogs focused mentally on the upcoming hunting season.”

Faust is of the same opinion. “With a young dog, it’s all about obedience—sit, stay, heel, and come. That’s the most important thing, in my opinion,” he says. “As the season gets closer, and the dogs are progressing through their training, I’ll focus more on the ‘whoa’ command. By the time the season starts, I want them steady to ‘whoa.’ ‘Whoa’ training is very serious because it’s the most important command, both for learning and for the dog’s safety. Sometimes when hunting in thick cover, you can’t see more than 10 feet ahead, so you need a dog that is obedient to verbal commands.”

Regardless of what breed of dog you hunt with or what you hunt for, finish off your preseason training with a focus on conditioning and basic obedience. Both are essential when it comes to developing a solid hunting dog and building a strong foundation for the hunting season to come.

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