Midwest Today, Fall 2000
By Woody Sculley
In preparation for "opening day" of the hunting season, many sportsmen go through a course of workouts at the traps, skeet field, or rifle range to get the feel of the gun again. But they often overlook the fact that they need to make sure their dog won't ruin the sport they've been dreaming about. That sometimes happens, however, especially if the dog is a relative youngster with limited experience on game, or perhaps a promising pup with no field experience.
Assuming you have done a good job of yard breaking and preliminary training for general control, there is an additional angle of the polishing process that's equally important -- the physical fitness of your dog.
Much as he enjoys hunting, it's hard work. A half hour of it is often enough to slow up a town-softened setter, spaniel, or hound, unless he is thoroughly conditioned for the job you expect him to do. This conditioning should consist of two simple things: proper diet and exercise.
No dog can work either hard or long on a diet which includes less than two-thirds meat. This diet should begin a full month before any real field work is attempted. Neglect that precaution and you'll either have a dog that quits cold from pure exhaustion around 10:30 a.m., or, worse yet, you'll have a running-and-barking fit to contend with.
The second step in conditioning consists of systematic exercise of the proper kind, and plenty of it. Gun dogs and hounds that live on farms or even in small country villages almost invariably take care of this part of their training themselves. This is especially true when two or more have the freedom of a farm or are allowed daily runs in a rural area where open country is close at hand.
Unfortunately, the city dog rarely gets that kind of a break. He is usually kept in the house, is chained to his kennel or, at best, has the run of a relatively small yard.
However, even a small yard, if it is hilly or sufficiently rolling to shut off the view from one of its sides to the other, or having sufficient cover to serve the same purpose, is an incentive to investigation that few gun dogs or hounds can resist. In such a yard, every novel scent or sound, whether it originates inside or outside the enclosure, or from whatever distance or direction, instantly puts its occupant on the alert and spurs him or her to active and worthwhile exercise that pays dividends later on.
The sort of workout a dog needs is mental and inspirational as well as physical. The ideal is to find a place that's an acre or two in size that's interesting to a dog -- that looks gamy even if it hasn't housed a bobwhite or a rabbit for a decade. Turn him loose in that tract for an hour every day for a month, changing the approach to it and method of covering it as often as possible, and you'll have a dog that's not only in condition to hunt but eager to hunt -- and has more than an inkling of how it should be done. What's more, that routine tends to harden you as well as your dog. If you make a living sitting behind a desk all day, you'll be glad you tried it when Autumn comes.
How will you know when your dog is in shape? Look at his toenails. A chain is no stronger than its weakest link, and a gun dog is no better than his feet. If his toenails are worn short and stubby you can be sure he's had the right kind of work in the right kind of country, and is in condition for the season.
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