CHENEY, Wash. — Bird dogs are no different than neglected kids. Some turn out OK, but most grow up with troubles that could have been avoided with regular doses of attention.
While Eastern Washington’s pheasant season doesn’t open until Oct. 19, hunting for mourning doves and forest grouse opened at the beginning of the month, giving sportsmen reason to honestly evaluate their preparation.
Hunting a fat dog into shape is risky, especially if the dog kicks into high gear at the first scent in the field. Dogs are like any other athlete, says Dan Hoke, pro trainer and owner of Dunfur Kennel near Cheney. They’re more likely to rip tendons, tear muscles and run their feet raw if they haven’t been conditioned for the rigors of a hunt.
Moreover, physical damage could shorten a dog’s career, Hoke said.
“Starting six to eight weeks prior to the season will give the dog a good, safe start on getting in shape,” he said. “You, too.”
I’ve hunted over good German shorthairs, Brittanys and English setters over the past five decades despite my inadequacies as a handler. I owe my bird dogs’ prowess to exceptional breeding and the help of professional trainers to develop their innate skills.
But it’s always been up to me to make sure the dog is in shape and that training is reinforced.
I wear this commitment like a saddle, but I’ve never considered it a burden. Why should I? My setter, Scout, is my favorite, most dependable and infinitely enthusiastic hunting partner.
I take him hiking in the mountains during summer. When the heat bears down, I make time to get him out to lakes for swimming and retrieving.
He senses the change of season. His workouts have progressed to another level in the cooler mornings before sunrise this week.
“We train in short sessions all day, but I don’t like to run dogs in the heat of the day,” Hoke said. “It doesn’t take much to overheat a dog. Once they have overheated it’s really easy to get them too hot the next time as well.”
Hoke has taught me to carry water anytime I’m training or hunting my dog.
During the early seasons, especially, I plan short hunts that are near water.
“Running dogs in the heat can break the vessels and capillaries in the dog’s nose,” he said. “Once your bird dog loses its ability to sniff, it becomes a roommate, not a hunting partner.”
Of course, conditioning should be blended with training for both the hunter and the dog.
“If you have recently bought new electronics for your dog — electric training collars, tracking equipment, beepers — practice with them prior to needing to use them,” he said. “Having tracking equipment and not knowing how to use it is a waste of money.”
Train with real birds, not scents, he said. “Shooting preserves work quite well. Homing pigeons or pen-raised chukars work fine. Wild birds are best whenever you can get your dog onto them.”
Every day out with a bird dog is a chance for the dog and the hunter to develop teamwork.
Pro trainer Dan Hoke offers these tips, geared especially to the early bird-hunting seasons.
• Trim the dog’s toenails. Don’t let them get long and break off.
• Hunt early in the morning and late in the afternoon.
• Keep hunts short. Even fit dogs can suffer heat exhaustion, which could set them back for weeks or months or possibly kill them.
• Check dogs for seeds in eyes and be wary of cheatgrass and other seeds getting into ears. Cotton stuffed in ears can help prevent trouble. Q-Tips and saline solution used by contact lens wearers can be squirted to irrigate and extract stubborn seeds that get under a dog’s inner eyelids.
• In the field, carry water, leash, forceps for cactus spine and quill removal, and Nutri-Cal or honey in case the dog runs out of juice.
• Keep expectations in check. If the dog didn’t get any training during the summer, don’t expect it to have improved since last hunting season.