Pre-Season Hunting Dog Conditioning

Dog Health and More Birds

With the hunting season just around the corner, now is a good time to start thinking about conditioning your canine athlete for early season performance. We wouldn’t think about going out and running ten miles one day without some prior physical training, and it doesn’t make any more sense to expect it from our dogs. By getting our dogs in shape before the season, we go a long way toward ensuring a healthier and more effective hunting companion.

A high level of physical fitness contributes to a dog’s mental fitness because a tired dog will focus less on commands and finding birds. Risk of injury is also reduced during both training and hunting when muscles and tendons are strong and joints well lubricated. Training the body to recover from a work out will prepare your dog for longer hunts and more days hunting.

Before You Start

Before you get to work, it is important to consider three factors that can have a tremendous impact on your dog’s ability to function at a high level. We recommend you think of the following before starting any conditioning program.

See Your Vet – A good overall examination will ensure that your dog is fit for training and free from clinical problems and parasites that could adversely affect health and performance.

Choose A Quality Food – Rather than focus on a specific brand let’s just agree that nutrition is very important. Your dog must consume high quality protein to build and repair muscle tissue while supporting his immune system and overall health with high quality vitamins and trace minerals.

Replenish Fluids – Making sure that your dog stays hydrated may be the single greatest factor in health during hunting. If he won’t drink water, find a good hydration supplement to encourage him to drink.

3 Steps To Bird Dog Fitness

Now we’ll get into the meat of the conditioning program. We base our conditioning program around three basic areas that complement one another for a complete workout of the entire body and organs. You don’t need to do everything every day but you should try to do something each day.

Roadwork – We road our dogs on gravel early in the morning when traffic is sparse. We hook four dogs to a harness to pull a four-wheeler three miles with the engine off. This helps build endurance and strength while conditioning the paws for the rigors of hunting. This should be done at least three days per week.

Fieldwork – During the heat of the afternoon, we “freelance” our dogs by letting them run and hunt in large pastured areas at a slow but steady pace. This allows the dog to improve lung capacity and scenting abilities at the same time. It is important to condition a dog in the same heat of the day that they will be exposed to during hunting. We freelance our dogs only on days that we don’t do roadwork and for no more than 45 minutes.

Swimming – We swim our dogs several nights a week to work different muscle groups while creating less stress on joints and tendons. We have noticed a big improvement in performance since introducing this to our program. We limit this to no more than an hour, and often swim with them.

Developing a solid conditioning program is very important to the health and longevity of our canine friends. Make sure that you work your dog into condition over a 30-45 day period before the start of the season. In the end, you’ll have a much better performing dog and a more successful hunting season.

Determining Factors in Bird Dog Abilities

Laying A Genetic Foundation

In more than twenty years of breeding dogs, we’ve taken great care in selecting traits for hunting, conformation, and overall health in order to ensure a quality household and hunting companion. We’ve learned that breeding opposites together will not necessarily produce “happy mediums,” nor does the “give and take” method used by convenient mating make consistent litters of individual offspring.

We read classified ads with words like natural ability, proven hunters, guaranteed, etc., and can’t help but cringe as a breeder and trainer knowing how little these terms can mean. Experience and many dollars in tuition have taught us that genetic progress is made with strict selection practices that balance traits and focus on breed improvement. These practices may include spaying or neutering an animal with trait defects and proving breeding animals through performance testing and health certification. Taking shortcuts to reach your goals will rarely produce the desired traits. In the end, the quality of your hunting companion will come down to three basic factors in ability.

Natural Ability

This is the ability God has given each individual animal based on the traits brought forward from their parents. Pointers should naturally point just like retrievers should naturally retrieve and flushers should naturally flush. These untrained traits are displayed naturally when exposed to hunting situations. Have you stopped to wonder what is going through that young pointing dog’s mind when he is pointing that first pheasant or quail? Do you think there is excitement or fear during that first duck chase across the open water by a young retriever? All great hunting companions have natural traits and abilities bred into them from selected breeding plans that were conceived well before his litter.


This is the ability to learn and retain commands through repetition and experience. Many trainers would agree that these traits are often overlooked or misunderstood in a solid breeding program. When we have a student come into our training program, a strong desire by a dog to learn what is needed and expected of them to move forward in training is a true pleasure for the trainer. These dogs move to the head of the class through a willingness to retain the training and achieve higher goals than fellow classmates.


This might be a new word for many dog owners, and some would suggest that bid-ability is the most important of the three. Bid-ability is how an individual dog responds to a correction or whether there is a willingness to accept training at all. Signs of bid-ability can range from excessive alpha dominance – an animal that will not submit to your needs – to excessive timidity in dogs that avoid any training stress at all. Bid-ability can be difficult to determine without a willingness by the breeder to prove sires, dams or offspring through standard performance tests. There are many events available to demonstrate these traits and a reputable breeder and trainer will use them to prove a well-rounded dog from a well-balanced line.

Bringing It All Together

It is important to consider all three factors in ability when selecting a hunting companion. Choosing proven dogs from reputable kennels is the best way to ensure your companion is the product of healthy trait selection that evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of both the breed and the individual dog. Nothing guarantees your hunting success, but your chances are greatly improved when your hunting companion displays a great combination of natural ability, train-ability and bidability earned through exhaustive trait selection.

The 3 Types of Upland Sporting Dogs

The Hunting Dog as an Extension Of You

There are many sporting breeds for upland bird hunting and everyone has a personal preference. In my experience, many types and breeds of dogs can be effective hunters. Most sporting breeds produce well-rounded companions with the genetics to excel while hunting in the field or on the lake. A good bird dog, regardless of breed, will give you a longer reach and the ability to find, point or flush and retrieve more birds than you could on your own. The shooting part, though, is up to you.

Upland Types

There are three general categories sporting dogs used for upland bird hunting: Flushing, Pointing and Retrieving. Each type has its own strengths and characteristics, in addition to variations among the breeds within each type. The following is a very general overview of what you can expect from a hunting companion of each type. Keep in mind that these are general statements and you may see significant differences not just among different breeds, but also between dogs of the same breed.

Pointing Breeds

As a breeder and trainer of pointing dogs for many years, I’m a little biased. Pointing dogs fit my hunting style best, but I have enjoyed hunting with Flushers and Retrievers as well.

Hunting Strengths – Pointing breeds are often somewhat smaller and leaner than retrievers, and capable of covering a lot of ground due to tremendous athleticism. Some breeds have less speed but still exhibit great endurance. They will generally hunt within gun range, and upon finding a bird, they will lock on point and give you time to approach for a comfortable shot. Most pointing breeds will naturally retrieve to hand.

Common Breeds – Brittany, English Setter, German Shorthaired Pointer, German Wirehaired Pointer and Pointer (English).

Retrieving Breeds

Retrievers include the most popular registered breed (Labrador Retriever) according to the American Kennel Club (AKC). This is generally considered to be a result of the intelligence and social nature of the breed.

Hunting Strengths – Retrieving breeds are known for their versatility and their ability to withstand extreme cold, be it snow, ice or water. They generally have a more rugged build but maintain good speed and agility. They will quarter in front of the hunter to flush upland birds, and should stay within comfortable gun range. As you can tell from the name, they are enthusiastic retrievers of upland birds and they love the water.

Common Breeds – Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Golden Retriever and Labrador Retriever.

Flushing Breeds

Flushers also include some breeds that are very popular as house companions due to their size, appearance and disposition. For the most part, Spaniels populate the flushing category.

Hunting Strengths – Flushing breeds are generally smaller in stature than many pointing and retrieving counterparts. They will quarter in front of the hunter to flush birds and should also stay within comfortable gun range. Like Retrievers, they are very comfortable in water and have coats that are well suited to extreme cold. Flushers will naturally retrieve to hand and are well known for their stamina.

Common Breeds – Boykin Spaniel, English Cocker Spaniel and English Springer Spaniel.

Many Good Breed Choices

The thing to remember is that the best bird dog is the one that fits your hunting style. Research the various breeds and find one with the traits and qualities you desire. Training and hunting with an instinctive hunting companion can provide many years of outdoor enjoyment. If you don’t have the time or experience to train him, we encourage you to work with a professional to bring out the natural gifts of whatever breed you choose.