Retrievers are athletes that need a regimen. It’s important to establish a yearlong training, conditioning and feeding program to help your dog be consistent in the marshes come fall.
In preparation for fall hunting, your retriever isn’t going to rebuild his or her strength and endurance overnight. Therefore, you should gradually begin a conditioning program. Professional retriever trainer Tom Dokken of Dokken’s Oak Ridge Kennels in Northfield, Minnesota, advises, “When a dog is getting back into shape to prepare for the season ahead, you should have him or her run and swim short distances, gradually increasing the distance over time. This is key to regaining strength and endurance.”
When trying to increase your retriever’s endurance, you should be aware that when going for a walk with your dog, what may be a walk for you is actually a crawl to him or her. Dokken suggests that if you live in or are traveling to a suburban area, you should seek out a place where you can let your dog loose to run, such as a soccer or baseball field. Make sure to be a responsible owner and clean up after your dog.
“For retrievers, simply strolling along the sidewalk isn’t beneficial because it doesn’t help a dog build his or her endurance,” he says. “You have to scout out safe places where your dog can really run.”
It’s also important to adjust a training and conditioning program according to your dog’s age. Puppies don’t yet have the long-term drive, energy and mental endurance of adult dogs, so short bouts of exercise are more effective for them. As they get older, you can gradually increase the amount of time spent training as they begin to have greater attention spans.
“You can’t exercise pups as you would adult dogs because they are still developing mentally and physically,” says Dokken. “You should make training and conditioning a gradual process.”
Similarly, when a retriever reaches the senior life stage, he or she begins to slow down. Purina Research Nutritionist Brian Zanghi, PhD, explains, “When a dog is anywhere from 8 to 10 years old, his or her full recovery is going to take an extra 24 hours. When working with your senior dog, make sure he or she gets enough rest afterward.”
A key component to a solid training and conditioning regimen is keeping your duck dog in good physical condition with a lean body mass. This means the dog’s ribs are palpable without excess fat covering. When a dog carries around extra weight, it slows him or her down in the marshes.
“Petting your dog daily becomes a prime opportunity to feel his ribs to check his body condition. That way, you’ll notice subtle changes faster,” advises Dr. Zanghi.
When a retriever is properly trained and conditioned, it shows in his or her performance. The same goes for proper nutrition. A dog’s coat is a good example of how well the dog food you’re feeding is working. A sleek, shiny, healthy coat indicates a dog is getting the proper nutrition he or she needs.
A hard-charging retriever and cold weather, combined with long swims and retrieves, can sap even a well-conditioned dog’s energy reserves. Nutritional priming your retriever with a high-protein/high-fat performance food helps provide the right nutrients needed for optimal strength, speed and endurance.
“You can improve a dog’s athleticism during hard work by feeding a performance food because it metabolically primes the dog to use these fuels for exercise,” says Dr. Brian Zanghi, Purina Research Nutritionist. The harder retrievers work, the greater their fat and protein metabolism, Zanghi explains. “Fat is the preferred source of energy during exercise. A high-fat diet increases the number of mitochondria in muscle cells, which promotes burning fat for energy. Protein helps to support strong muscles and maintain the body-protein balance during hard work when exercise activates protein breakdown.”
A scientist who studies the role of nutrition in optimizing the performance of active dogs, Zanghi is a passionate retriever enthusiast who takes to heart giving dogs the best nutrition possible. His now retired black Lab, Baxter, 15, titled as a Hunting Retriever, adored going to the duck blind, and Zanghi is training a new puppy, Aspen, 4 months old, who was sired by DU mascot Deke, to enjoy the sport as well.
“Ideally, sporting dogs should be fed a performance food that provides from 28 to 30 percent protein and from 18 to 20 percent fat to sustain their high-energy demand,” advises Zanghi.
A performance food should be year-round. “Switching to a maintenance diet in the off-season is like metabolically detraining your dog,” Zanghi says. “Maintenance dog foods contain higher levels of carbohydrates, which decrease the metabolic capacity to use fats, which ultimately results in reduced endurance. It is best to reduce the portion fed in the off-season and monitor a dog’s body condition to keep a dog healthy and fit.”
An important tip before heading out to go waterfowling is not to feed your retriever beforehand. “Eating creates an insulin spike that inhibits the body’s ability to use fat,” Zanghi says. “It is best to feed a minimum of 10 to 12 hours before exercise, such as the night before hunting. Feeding 6 hours or sooner before exercise contributes to reduced endurance and energy generation. If you feel you must feed in the morning, a small amount is best followed by the rest of the daily ration at the end of the day.”
Complete digestion takes from 20 to 24 hours and thus feeding a dog before exercise could result in the retention of fecal matter in the colon that could compromise performance by adding extra bulk in the intestine. Exercise alters the gastrointestinal time and can change nutrient digestion and absorption resulting in a decrease in blood flow, and therefore, oxygen to the gut.
Nutritional priming should be part of your retriever training. Dogs fueled with the right nutrients have what it takes to optimize performance and give big results when it matters most – from the duck blind
As the owner of a hardworking dog bracing for the upcoming Light Goose Conservation Order season, you know that he is prone to stress from days spent retrieving in the field. The duration and intensity at which your dog retrieves, combined with cold weather, travel and exposure to other dogs in a new environment, are contributing factors to this natural stress that challenges a dog’s gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
A dog’s GI tract is associated with a large portion of his immune system. Here, specialized cells help protect his body against invading organisms, such as pathogenic bacteria and viruses, while recognizing beneficial bacteria. When the digestive tract is inflamed, digestibility and absorption of nutrients are reduced, which can compromise your retriever’s performance.
“Because 70 percent of a dog’s immune system is associated with the gut, an upset digestive tract can result in reduced immunity,” says Purina Senior Research Scientist Arleigh Reynolds, DVM, PhD, DACVN. “When digestive tract inflammation and reduced immunity occur, an imbalance of the intestinal microflora also can occur, resulting in digestive upset.”
If your dog experiences digestive upset, you may notice a decrease in stool quality and a reduction in energy levels and performance. Other signs include loss of appetite, excess gas, vomiting, constipation, loose stools, and fatigue.
To help handle stress and promote a healthy immune system, your dog can be given Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets FortiFlora canine nutritional supplement. Prescribed by veterinarians and containing a special strain of probiotic that has been proven to restore normal intestinal health and balance, Enterococcus faecium SF68, FortiFlora may help nutritionally manage diarrhea from stressful situations that can disrupt a retriever’s digestive system.
“You can begin using FortiFlora as early as during training,” Reynolds says. “Support healthy immune function in your retriever by starting FortiFlora before a big hunt.”
After a day of hard work in the field, it’s important to make sure your retriever recovers and is well-rested. Maximizing rest helps to minimize stress. Warm, soft, dry bedding is crucial, as is comfortable, not cramped, quarters when traveling.
You also can maintain your dog’s immune function by feeding a high-performance dog food, such as Purina Pro Plan SPORT Performance 30/20 Formula. The foundation of optimal performance and recovery, this complete and balanced formula sustains a dog’s energy needs and helps keep him properly conditioned.
The role of the GI tract as a dog’s natural defense system often is overlooked. Supporting digestive health in your dog is key to reducing stress and to helping ensure he performs in peak condition from the blind.
As a professional dog trainer, John Luttrell has traveled extensively with retrievers and other gun dogs over the past 19 years. He has a checklist of essential gear that he takes with him to keep his dogs not only safe but also as stress-free as possible.
“The most stressful thing we can do to our retrievers is to take them on a trip,” says Luttrell, who owns Luttrell Kennels in Clark, South Dakota. “Dogs are not like humans; they love consistency, and the mere act of traveling throws them off their normal routine. Everything I do here at the kennel and on road trips is to reduce stress, because it saps their physical and mental energy and hurts performance.”
Following is Luttrell’s list of items you should always pack when traveling with your retriever:
1. Travel Kennel Letting your retriever ride in the backseat is asking for trouble, and having him roam freely in a pickup bed is downright dangerous. A travel kennel will help keep your dog safe in a moving vehicle—but only if the kennel is properly secured in place. Kennels are also indispensible for keeping dogs under control and out of trouble when left unattended in hotel rooms or friends’ houses. Some hotels and hunting clubs require them.
2. Food and Water Suddenly changing a dog’s food will upset his digestive system, so be sure to pack your retriever’s regular brand of dog kibble. Luttrell also recommends taking along a good supply of fresh water from home. Water can vary widely in chlorine level and sulfur content, which can throw off a dog’s digestive system and make him not want to drink. To perform his best, a retriever must be well hydrated. Also be sure to pack your dog’s regular food and water bowls.
3. Leash and Collar Having absolute control over your retriever near roadways and around unfamiliar dogs is a must. Always keep him on a leash when walking him in public places where he might be tempted to run away or dart into traffic.
4. First-Aid Kit This is the one item you hope never to use, but it could save your dog’s life. According to Luttrell, a retriever first aid kit should include gauze wrap, medical tape, blood-stopper powder, tweezers, scissors, and hydrogen peroxide. The scissors are for clipping the back ends of porcupine quills, which makes them easier to remove. And the hydrogen peroxide can be used to clean wounds or to induce vomiting should your dog ingest poison. Consider loading your cell phone with the contact information of veterinarians in the area you’ll be visiting; it could save your dog’s life.
5. Towel or Chamois A dry dog can handle cold temperatures. Being wet in cold weather, however, will cause a dog to burn needless calories and stress his system. “Even if your Lab sleeps in the truck, bring him inside, dry him off, and let him warm up. This is an essential part of good dog care and will extend your dog’s life,” Luttrell says. He recommends equipping your travel kennel with an insulated cover, especially if you plan to keep it in an open truck bed.
6. Neoprene Vest and Stand Properly fitted dog vests not only trap a dog’s body heat; they also keep his fur surprisingly dry. When hunting where dry ground isn’t available, always bring a stand to keep your dog out of the water between retrieves. Nothing leaches warmth like sitting in frigid water.
7. Dog Bed If your dog sleeps on a bed at home, pack it. Having his own “comfort spot” will help keep your retriever under control, particularly around other dogs.
8. Whistle and E-Collar Use the same whistle for hunting that you use for training. A different-sounding whistle might not even register with your dog. If you train with an e-collar, bring that along as well.
9. Training Dummy Luttrell packs a training dummy for fun during a long road trip. A few retrieves can also get a dog’s digestive system loosened up so he’ll do his business faster during potty breaks on the road.
Most retrievers aren’t afraid of cold weather and will throw caution to the brisk wind when hunting waterfowl, fetching birds in icy water and braving even the harshest elements. Properly conditioned duck dogs are built for the cold.
Breeds such as Labs, goldens, and Chessies have thick double coats that repel water to help keep them warm. Nevertheless, retriever owners should recognize that they must take precautions to protect their canine partners as the temperature drops. Frigid weather requires special vigilance and care.
Proper nutrition is the key to keeping your retriever healthy in cold conditions. The more your dog hunts, the more calories he burns. Factor in extremely cold weather and his fuel consumption increases even further. To meet your retriever’s energy needs you must feed him larger portions of high-energy, nutrient-rich dog food. This will help him retain body fat, which acts as insulation and reduces the rate of heat loss from his torso. At least one study suggests that gun dogs may need up to 80 percent more calories per pound to maintain a healthy weight during the hunting season than what they require during the off-season.
This does not mean that you should stuff your dog with a heavy meal just before heading to the duck blind or immediately upon returning home from a hunt. Feed him in the early evening, after he’s had a chance to rest and recover from a long day in the marsh. If the increased rations are too much for him to handle in one meal, try feeding him in two installments, allowing him to sleep between meals. Keep in mind that your dog will also require ample water to stay properly hydrated. The more food he eats, the more water he needs for his digestive system, and the rigors of hunting only increase this demand. Always carry clean, fresh water with you on the hunt and give him a drink at regular intervals throughout the day.
The importance of maintaining a retriever’s body weight in cold weather can’t be overstated. If your dog is not properly nourished, prolonged exposure to the cold, wet conditions of waterfowling could result in a drop in body temperature. This burns up available energy and lowers blood sugar, which can lead to hypothermia. Signs of this serious condition include violent shivering, listlessness, and apathy. If you suspect that your dog has become hypothermic, rap him in a blanket and take him indoors. Give him a warm bath followed by a vigorous towel rub to dry his fur and skin. Hypothermia can be deadly. If you feel that your retriever might be in danger, don’t hesitate to contact your veterinarian.
Frostbite is another concern in wintry weather. Pale skin is one telltale sign of this condition, which typically affects a dog’s toes, ears, tail, and scrotum. To avoid frostbite, always be sure to remove any ice or caked mud from your retriever’s feet. Paw pads that are severely cracked or bleeding should be examined by a veterinarian. Prevention is important because frostbitten tissues are more susceptible to repeated freezing.
Neoprene dog vests have become quite popular over the past several years. These vests not only provide insulation, but also serve to protect your dog from abrasions caused by ice shards or tree branches. Always make sure the vest fits snugly. A loose fit can allow moisture to get trapped between the vest and the dog, which is not a good thing when the thermometer bottoms out.
Ice holds its own inherent dangers. A slip on the ice can cause your retriever to sustain joint and ligament damage. Worse still is the prospect of your dog falling through the ice and becoming trapped beneath it. Don’t take any chances.
Putting your retriever in jeopardy should not be an option. There may be days when it is best to leave him at home. Let common sense prevail. And be careful out there.
Early-season waterfowling is about to begin with the arrival of blue-winged teal and green-winged teal and the start of early local Canada goose seasons. Heading to the marshes with your loyal retriever could be a steamy proposition, thanks to late-summer heat and humidity.
Driven to please, your retriever enjoys waterfowl hunting as much as you do. To help your hunting partner do his job well, you want to make sure he or she is physically fit and in shape to retrieve. You also should practice healthy hydration. Retrieving ducks is a heat-producing activity that can lead to dehydration. Warm weather temperatures also can add to stress and fatigue.
“Hydration is not something to be taken lightly,” says Dr. Brian Zanghi, Purina Research Nutritionist. “Dehydration can occur rapidly. Dogs that swim to make retrieves at 70 to 80 degrees can experience mild to moderate dehydration pretty quickly based on how hard they swim and for how long.”
Dehydration also can occur after multiple days of hunting. In extreme heat, cold and humidity, water turnover increases several times. Some dogs will have problems consuming enough water, so it is important to monitor their hydration.
Dogs also can become distracted in a hunting environment and lose interest in drinking water. Here are tips to help keep dogs hydrated:
“In short, maintaining hydration in working retrievers is critical,” says Zanghi, who studies performance nutrition for active dogs. “Hydration helps to remove the byproducts of energy metabolism and helps exercising muscles function optimally, the most important determinant of endurance over multiple days of waterfowl hunting. Water helps dissipate the heat from work and cool a dog’s body temperature.”
Healthy hydration combined with feeding a performance food enriched with the right nutrients will help give your hunting partner an optimal start to the waterfowl season. A high-protein/high-fat performance food helps to support a working dog’s fat and protein metabolism. Zanghi advises feeding hunting retrievers a food that provides from 28 to 30 percent protein and from 18 to 20 percent fat to sustain their high energy demand.
During waterfowl season, you want your hardworking, eager-to-please retriever to be healthy and well-conditioned so that he or she can assist you in the duck blind. However, after a vigorous day in the marshes, you may notice your hunting partner’s tail hanging limply, as though it may be broken. Damaged tail muscles can cause this condition, known as limber tail syndrome.
Relatively common in retrievers, limber tail syndrome also has been called cold tail, limp tail, or broken tail. This condition affects the muscle at the base of a dog’s tail, which plays an important role in balance and body movement.
After a heavy day of work involving a lot of tail action, the tail can become so flaccid the dog is unable to raise it. The tail appears to be painful to the touch, and retrievers can act as if they are in pain for the first 24 to 48 hours. Hair around the base of the tail may also stand up, likely due to swelling of the muscle tissue at the tail base. Exposure to wet, cold weather, underconditioning, or overexertion after being confined in a crate for long periods of time can all contribute to limber tail.
“Limber tail can often occur when a dog uses his or her tail excessively, such as after a day of duck hunting, especially when the dog has worked for a long period of time in cold water. It also is more prevalent in an underconditioned dog,” says Purina Senior Manager of Sporting Dog Programs Karl Gunzer, who previously worked as a professional retriever trainer for 20 years. “While there can be several different causes, the best way to avoid limber tail is to make sure your dog is properly conditioned before the season starts. You also should be sure your dog is warm and dry while resting after a day in the marshes.”
If your dog does get limber tail, experienced owners and trainers say that rest is the best management, though nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) also are commonly used to help manage the condition. Usually dogs recover within a few days, though during recovery, the tail may hang to one side. In rare cases, a dog’s tail posture may be permanently altered. Dogs that recover are likely to experience limber tail again in their life.
Consider these tips to prevent limber tail in the future:
Waterfowling is a demanding, high-energy sport, even for well-conditioned retrievers. Proper nutrition directly impacts a dog’s performance in the marshes. By keeping your retriever at a healthy weight, you help prevent joint disease so that your dog can give you his or her all from the duck blind.
When hunting, overweight retrievers can become susceptible to joint injuries, which worsen over time due to extreme wear on a dog’s joints during weight-bearing exercise. Eventually, a dog could develop osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease, during which a dog’s joint cartilage progressively and permanently deteriorates. It can be severely painful and cause lameness.
Because degenerative joint disease is a long-term wear-and-tear condition, many dogs do not show signs until they are older. Abnormal gait, bunny hopping when running, thigh muscle atrophy, pain, low exercise tolerance, reluctance to climb stairs, and an audible click when walking are common signs.
To prevent degenerative joint disease and other joint or soft-tissue injuries, it is crucial to keep your hardworking retriever at a healthy weight. Monitoring dogs for ideal body condition, described as having an hourglass shape, should begin with puppies. Puppies should have a body condition score of four or five using the nine-point Purina Body Condition Score System.
The importance of keeping dogs in a lean body condition was shown in the 14-year Purina Life Span Study, in which Purina scientists followed Labrador Retrievers through their entire lives, revealing that feeding these dogs to a lean or ideal body condition from puppyhood throughout life extended their healthy years by 1.8 years and significantly delayed the need for treatment of chronic conditions compared to the moderately overweight dogs in the control group.
Keep your retriever at a healthy weight by feeding a high-protein/high-fat performance dog food year-round, such as Purina Pro Plan SPORT Performance 30/20 Formula, and continuing to monitor your dog’s caloric intake and his or her body condition.
“Switching to a maintenance diet in the off-season is like metabolically detraining your dog,” says Purina Research Nutritionist Brian Zanghi. “Maintenance dog foods contain higher levels of carbohydrates, which decrease the metabolic capacity to use fat, ultimately resulting in reduced endurance. It is best to reduce the portion fed in the off-season and monitor a dog’s body condition to keep your retriever healthy and fit.”
A complete and balanced formula, Purina Pro Plan SPORT Performance 30/20 can help your retriever stay properly conditioned and fuel him or her with the right nutrients to optimize performance and give big results from the duck blind.
The impending dog days of summer are no excuse for your retriever to lounge around and put on weight. Not only will your duck dog be sluggish during the waterfowl season, he or she also will have an increased risk of exertional rhabdomyolysis.
Exertional rhabdomyolysis, also commonly referred to as tying up, Monday morning sickness and muscle cramps, is the muscle cell imbalance between energy needed and what is in stores. Keeping your duck dog active and in ideal body condition, as well as ensuring he or she receives proper nutrition, can help avoid the condition.
“Exertional rhabdomyolysis usually is associated with an imbalance inside the muscle cells between the amount of energy that’s being demanded for the work that a dog is doing and the energy stores he or she has,” explains Purina Senior Research Nutritionist Arleigh Reynolds, DVM, PhD, DACVN.
When at rest, a third of expended energy is used to pump sodium out of and potassium into cells in order to maintain a strict balance. In rhabdomyolysis, the balance breaks down, causing sodium to enter the cell and potassium to rush out. Mild rhabdomyolysis can cause some muscle soreness; however, severe cases can cause major muscle damage and could raise the dog’s potassium level in the bloodstream enough to stop the heart, potentially proving fatal.
Various things can make a dog susceptible to rhabdomyolysis, but the most common occurrence is when an out-of-shape, underconditioned dog is asked to do something, such as making a long retrieve, for which he or she is unprepared.
Another scenario involves a conditioned dog that runs above his or her normal activity level.
“Either a dog is not conditioned properly to run or a conditioned dog is put in a situation in which the demands of the activity are above his or her capability,” says Robert Gillette, DVM, MSE, DACVSMR.
“If you walk your dog every day, you shouldn’t go hiking in the mountains four or five times longer than normal. Otherwise, you may end up having a problem,” Reynolds advises. “Dogs need to build up gradually, just as humans do. Because dogs want to please their owners, they will often go farther and harder than they should. It falls to the owner to monitor the dog.”
Warning signs of rhabdomyolysis include a change in the dog’s gait (usually starting at the hind limbs), shaking, slow down or reduction in work, humped back, and tender to the touch. If your dog shows any of these signs, it’s important to properly manage the condition by stopping exercise and getting your dog into a cool place. Give him or her small amounts of water and a readily available source of carbohydrates. If your dog doesn’t revive quickly within five to 15 minutes, take him or her to a veterinarian.
There are no shortcuts to conditioning, but by keeping your dog active year-round, you can help avoid rhabdomyolysis, as well as injuries, during the waterfowl season. Taking your dog on hour long hikes twice weekly, practicing basic commands and retrieves, and swimming or running through water are good examples of keeping him or her properly conditioned.
With the waterfowling season underway, as a duck hunter, you want your hunting partner to have the proper energy needed to sustain long swims and retrieves. It’s imperative not to feed your retriever too soon before going to the duck blind; otherwise, you could hinder his or her performance. Thus, it is best to feed retrievers once a day during training and when duck hunting.
Hunting retrievers should be fed a minimum of 10 to 12 hours before exercise, such as the night before a duck hunt. When a dog is fed six hours or sooner before exercise, the body’s fat-burning metabolism is not optimized, which contributes to reduced endurance and energy generation. If it is a multiple-day hunt, retrievers should be fed as soon as possible after exercise, allowing adequate time for cooling down, so they have the maximum time to digest the meal before the next day’s hunt. If your retriever has lost weight from a multiple-day hunt, the portion fed of a quality performance dog food should be increased.
Purina Senior Research Scientist Arleigh Reynolds, DVM, PhD, DACVN, says, “When dogs run within a couple of hours of the time they are fed, we cause several mechanical and metabolic problems that could impair performance.”
Eating creates an insulin spike that inhibits a dog’s ability to use fat, the most important energy fuel. Hard-charging retrievers should not be fed before going out to the duck blind, as complete digestion takes from 20 to 24 hours and doing so could result in the retention of fecal matter in the colon that could compromise performance by adding extra weight. Exercise alters the gastrointestinal transit time and can change nutrient digestion and absorption resulting in a decrease of blood flow, and therefore oxygen, to the gut.
“The mechanical load induced by carrying food in the intestines during work may cause problems during performance,” says Reynolds. “Dogs should have time to empty their bowels before work. This helps make them more comfortable.”
In addition to feeding one meal per day, it’s important to choose a complete and balanced dog food. A high-protein, high-fat performance food, such as Purina Pro Plan SPORT Performance 30/20 Formula, will provide your hardworking retriever with the correct nutrients needed for optimal strength, speed and endurance in the marshes.
“Ideally, sporting dogs should be fed a performance food that provides from 28 to 30 percent protein and from 18 to 20 percent fat to sustain their high-energy demand,” advises Purina Research Nutritionist Brian Zanghi, PhD.
The foundation of optimal performance, good nutrition should be part of your retriever training. Dogs fueled with the right nutrients have what it takes to give big results when it matters most – from the duck blind.