They say we’re a nation of overweight slobs. Oh yeah? Well so is your dog, mister. Not you, gentle reader. I’m referring to the guy with the canine porker that can barely snort its way off the back deck for its morning pee. A dog doesn’t have to look like Porky Pig’s twin sister to be out of shape. Even skinny dogs can be too under-toned to hunt well. Combine this with a summer’s worth of pent-up desire to run, smell, point or flush and Pup is on-line for an opening morning disaster. He’ll quickly exhaust himself or, worse, succumb to heat stroke.
You can consult veterinarians and probably even find a professional dog fitness trainer, but most of us ordinary Jacks and Jills go about dog exercising with plain old common sense. Start your hairy couch potato gradually and work up to some marathon-like cardio workouts. Dogs are a lot like us. They need to walk and jog and run in order to build endurance for those all-out hunts to come.
Run, Don’t Walk One difference between dogs and humans is they need to run. It’s their nature to cover lots of ground, and that can get out-of-shape dogs, even young ones, in trouble. After three months as Sofa Dog they explode into Felton Bluestreak. This can lead to muscle tears and heart strain. Ideally, your dog should be romping daily in a big back yard or running big for a half-hour or so several times a week. If not, ease her in by controlling speed with a leash attached to a jogging human. Just limit the duration of these jogs. Pay attention to how your partner is gasping or tiring and respect that. Once your dog looks ready for more, switch to a bicycle. Beware of this option; it can lead to serious accidents. Start slowly in a traffic-free area and practice at mild speeds until your dog understands enough to keep pace without veering off or cutting under your wheels. Vary your speed. Even though dogs can run flat-out for some time, they can’t match a bicycle.
Another option is to walk open fields and let your dog hunt ahead. Throw a few bumpers for retrieves. Call him back regularly to reinforce control. Make him whoa, sit and stay. This way he learns obedience while getting fit in short bursts. Just extend the time as necessary.
Too Darn Hot Summer temperatures complicate fitness training by cranking up the heat index, which really stresses dogs. Often they are too eager to pace themselves, sometimes even to stop for water. You must protect them. Run at dawn. Dusk is a poorer option, but at least the sun is down. Carry a liter of water for an hour’s run and force Ground Pounder to come in for some every 10 minutes or so—even better, run him along a stream or lakeshore; better yet, skip the run and go right to the swim.
Let Them Dog Paddle A mutt in water isn’t going to overheat, yet she’ll be stroking hard—this is a great workout, has minimum impact on joints and no heat stroke. What’s not to like? This is the go-to exercise for any dog that likes water, and they all can if you start early and make it fun. Some dogs can be more reluctant than others, however. My setter, Sota, couldn’t swim a lick. I had to help her into the lake, hold her level and teach her to swim. Another trick is to bring along a playmate for your dog that already loves the water. When your dog sees his new friend hit the surf, he’ll want to join the fun. My most recent setter got baptized the day after I picked her up from the breeder. The kids made it fun and to this day Chey loves hitting the aqua. The key is to prevent their heads from going under until they learn to paddle level. Tossing poor Pup in the deep end risks spooking him for life.
Life’s Rocky Road Get those feet in shape, too. Soft pads lame too many bird finders. Run them on rough terrain, pavement and concrete (when not too hot). Excessive running on hard surfaces can lead to joint injuries, so limit this; loose gravel or sand is better. Consider keeping him on a rough, concrete kennel floor part of each day.
Few of us can spare the time for adequate dog exercise, so farm it out. Get Mom, Dad, the kids and the neighbors to take her out. The more mileage your dog gets the better. Come opening day, she’ll be ready.
Quick Tip When introducing a pup to water retrieves, start by tossing the bumper within wading distance of the bank, and gradually increase the distance of the retrieves until Pup has to swim. If he needs extra encouragement, try using a bird with clipped wings.