by Seth Bynum, DVM
As the snow recedes and winter eases her grip on the northern hemisphere, my mindset drifts from one of fond reflection of the past hunting season to budding optimism about the next one. Mother Nature freshens the landscape and lends her hand to the physical rebirth of our favorite covers, and the metamorphosis serves as an alarm clock pulling us from winter’s slumber. As leaves unfurl and lay the foundation for summer’s growth and prosperity, so too must we rise and make the most of this opportunity.
Like most upland hunters, I’m smitten by the companionship shared with a good hunting dog. I’ve long considered their rearing, training and health a year-round work in progress, a labor of love with no weekends and certainly no spring break.
As a veterinarian, the arrival of spring serves as a reminder to take stock of my dogs. Whether touch-ups are required in steadiness or retrieving, mobility or wellness, with each new year, I note where they’re at and formulate a plan for getting them where I’d like them to be.
As a fellow wingshooter, I counsel you to do the same. Are there nagging injuries you’ve been ignoring? Do you have a senior dog that’s lost some zip in the field? Or perhaps the once lean family pet that doubles as your weekend wingshooting wingman has rounded out in the offseason? The work you put in now addressing these concerns will pay dividends come fall.
First, any dog can benefit from a spring conditioning program regardless of age. Unlike that waxed cotton upland vest now hanging in the garage, hunting dogs shouldn’t be used hard in the fall and winter only to collect dust in the remainder of the year. While I don’t continue pushing my dogs to their physical limits in spring, I emphasize a gradual transition from the peak activity of late-season to a more sustainable routine by mid-May.
I squeeze every moment of legal time in the field up until nesting protections commence, which means the dogs and I still hunt well into March even if there’s no shotgun involved in the pursuit. The dogs don’t complain about the empty bag as long as they still get bird contact. I’ve found this activity helps take the sting out of the inevitable end of the hunting season and doesn’t run the risk of developing bad habits the same way those game preserve birds can.
Use the favorable weather as an excuse to exercise both you and your dog. I’ve become a fan of jogging with my shorthairs, an activity that lends far more benefit to me than them from a cardio perspective. I follow up the run with a harnessed bike ride, which allows the dog to physically benefit from the resistance of the load and the markedly increased pace over my laughable mile time. As long as you prioritize safety in your bike attachment and brace yourself for the possibility of a passing squirrel deviating your dog’s course, this activity helps maintain the good muscle tone and body condition you carried into spring.
No matter what flavor of exercise you select for you and bird dog, your top priority should be keeping him fit and lean year-round. An out-of-shape, obese hunting dog quickly becomes a time bomb for career-ending orthopedic injuries. Sometimes a conditioning program requires tweaking at the food bowl in addition to rigorous exercise. While nutrition research suggests that a performance kibble is ideal even in the offseason, dial back the quantity considerably as the weather warms.
For geriatric or arthritic dogs, I’ve grown fond of physical therapy as a strategy for maintaining and enhancing mobility. Spring is the perfect time to establish a relationship with a veterinary rehab facility, particularly those that offer hydrotherapy and outpatient cold laser treatments.
If you’re not familiar, the former technique provides dogs with mobility issues from arthritis or surgery a low-impact option for strength building. The unit functions as a heated underwater treadmill, the depth of which can be adjusted to accommodate a variety of dog breeds and degrees of lameness. The treadmill and swimming reflex forces the dog to utilize a full range of motion in all four limbs and limits their ability to cheat when under-utilizing the sore limb the way they might be tempted to on dry ground.
The cold laser is another outpatient treatment that focuses warm, penetrating thermal energy to target pain and inflammation in joints, muscles and wounds. I’ll admit that early in practice I was a skeptic of its benefits, but I eventually integrated its use into my pain-management repertoire after noting its profound therapeutic effect on my own nagging injuries. It’s an affordable outpatient option for bird dogs, assuming they’re conditioned to cooperate in the vet clinic. My older dog is prone to developing lameness that crops up the week before we embark on our annual bird-hunting road trip. He’s back in full force with rest and an aggressive laser protocol before we drop the tailgate in Montana.
Good, Old-Fashioned Love If nothing else, make time this spring to kindle the bond with your hunting dog. Carve out a few moments each day for a walk, some affection or a round of fetch. It doesn’t take 100 acres and a Johnny house of quail to gain your dog’s adoration, just a sliver of your time. While the allure of spring turkey hunting and the pull of endless home improvement projects challenge my resolve, each year, I redouble my commitment to their health and happiness, no matter how badly the lawn needs mowing.