Putting meat back on his ribs


Toward the end of the season my dogs simply cannot keep weight on. They run, on average, three or more miles for each one I trudge in the field. They burn thousands of calories on a hunt; and their stomach’s carrying capacity is simply not up for the challenge.

With the close of most hunting seasons our dogs will probably start gaining some of the fat and muscle mass they lost during the peak, but you’ll likely face the same challenge again next year. To minimize this problem, there are a few simple steps you might take.

First, realize that during hunting season you simply can’t jam enough dog food into a hard-hunting pooch. Here’s why:

  1. There are simple mechanical reasons not to feed your dog the morning of a hunt. Try this experiment: Take off your sock (representing your dog’s stomach and intestinal track), drop your car keys (ersatz “dog food”) into it. Hold it horizontally, and the dog food will settle in the heel the “stomach” in our example G.I. tract. Jiggle it, swing it back and forth, whip it around a little like a dog on the hunt. All that weight will make the sock swing, bounce up and down, possibly even twist. Veterinarians call that gastro volvulus, and it is often fatal.
  1. Your dog’s athletic performance is another concern. Nestle-Purina studies have shown that a dog with food in its gut runs slower, is less agile, and has less stamina than one hunting on an empty stomach.
  1. The gut is not using the body’s finite amount of energy to digest food when it could be fueling muscles that are chasing birds.

No guilt trips here, your dog’s metabolism is unlike yours. Sending your dog into the field without breakfast will have no ill effects. Unless he’s got other health problems, he won’t develop “low blood sugar.” But what else can you do to help his body maintain it’s “fighting weight?”

Solution #1: Feed him twice as much at night (many hunters do this all year), and you’ll take the edge off the calorie deficit. But if he’s hunting hard, you will still see more and more rib as the season progresses.

Solution #2: Unlike humans, who rely on simple carbohydrates for quick energy, dogs get theirs fat. If you can’t resist giving Gunner something during the hunt, give him a high-fat snack that won’t fill his belly. You can make your own, or simply offer him some of your salami sandwich (just the meat). There are plenty of commercial versions out there in tubes, droppers and blocks. The key is low volume, high fat to keep the belly as empty as possible. I like an imported product called “Kronch Pemmikan,” dominating the fat-content field at 59 percent.

I also like supplement my dogs’ nightly feed with extra fat. You want to be careful about how much fat, as there is a risk of pancreatitis, but a tablespoon of butter, olive oil, coconut oil or a commercially-available powdered pork fat product will re-fuel his metabolism without over-filling his belly.

Some of the best hunting occurs after the wimps have called it a season. Football playoffs, snow and cold have a way of winnowing the field, leaving it to guys and dogs willing to pay the price, in calories. Just make sure you repay that debt when you can. Your dog will respond with a harder hunt, deeper into the winter.



Think back to your own ‘training.’ Whether learning to ride a bike or use Facebook, someone was at your side, guiding, praising, correcting and encouraging. Early in the process it took a lot of feedback, positive and negative. Later, not so much.

Depending on the skill and maturity of you the student, the praise might have been effusive, loud and frequent. As you matured, it might have been a subtle nod or single word. Ditto for constructive criticism. Your dog’s unique personality and maturity will dictate how – and how much – praise or discipline he needs to become your best hunting partner

I own two wirehairs; great uncle Buddy and grand nephew Manny. They may look alike and share much of their DNA, but Buddy is a “soft” dog, requiring kid glove treatment, especially when being corrected. The poor guy takes it personally if he’s within earshot when I discipline his nephew. Manny is a hard-headed, runaway freight train of a dog often meriting an iron fist approach. Now that I understand that, we get along just fine.

Food, water, a good scratch … they all work. But ultimately let’s not forget that our partner is a bird dog. It shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what the best reward is. Without training, our very expensive predator-scavenger-partner would simply swallow that bird, maybe slowing down to deconstruct it first. But with training we can forestall that, still allowing our dog savor the primordial reward of prey in his mouth.

It’s our job to provide this uber-reward. Our dogs, in turn, will run five times as far as we walk, swim icy water, endure cactus spines and sand burrs, shiver in brutal cold and pant in searing heat. When it’s all over they’ll then curl up at our feet and sleep the sleep of the blessed.

I think it’s a fair bargain. It’s also what the rest of this book is about: getting to “fetch.”

Lecture all you want, instinct will always win.

Lecture all you want, instinct will always win.

Just like a therapist can best help someone by venturing inside their mind, we can guide our dog toward excellence by understanding how he thinks. This form of “training” is helpful primarily for us, adjusting the way we think based on how our dog reasons (or we think he reasons), rationalizes and justifies his behavior.

We humans can think in more than one dimension, plan ahead, reason, debate alternatives, and consider abstract concepts. Dogs, for the most part, string thoughts (actually, probably more like reactions than thoughts in the human sense) in a linear pattern. “A” is followed by “B,” and then comes “C” and so on. If you work with phone company call centers often enough you may not always agree, but in general humans have much more experience with life – and learning – than they do.

I’ve also noticed that dogs think literally. Here’s the classic example: my guys watch me enter the shop across the driveway from their yard. They spend much of the next half hour staring at the doorknob, willing it to re-deliver me to them. I went in that way, I will come out that way (they think). If I exit from another door, they are baffled. A cruel variation is the hide-the-treat game, sneaking it from hand to hand behind your back. Again, they saw it in one hand … it must still be there, right?

Time and again I’m also reminded that dogs truly live in the moment. Their actions, desires, and needs are right now, right here. Unlike the abstract thinking humans utilize (excepting some in-laws) canines are all about NOW. Look up “immediate gratification” in the dictionary and there will be a picture of a dog.

Watch the video and share!

He runs like an all-age dog!

He runs like an all-age dog!

Thinking about playing some of the dog games? Field trial, hunt test, NSTRA or NAHRA, each has its merits. These terms will help you fit in a bit faster:

– AA: All Age dog, as defined by AKC, competes in All Age stakes, which are open to a dog of any age.

– Breakaway: A brace of dogs released simultaneously to begin a field trial run, usually commanded by the judge.

– Derby Stake: Field trial competition for dogs between six months of age and no more than two years of age.

– Green broke: Often the same as a “started” dog, indicates some level of training in obedience and elementary hunting skills, usually including pointing.

– Line Manners: A term used to describe how a dog acts while sitting at the “line” under judgment.

– Pick up: Taken out of competition and removed from the field. In a field trial, a dog is “picked up” at the order of a judge.

– Retired Gun: Used in multiple marks, after an assistant has thrown the item to be retrieved, he or she moves to a concealed location so when the dog returns to the line and looks out to their mark, the assistant (“gun”) is hidden from view.

There! You’ll at least know what people are talking about when you show up … and that’s a great start to a field trial or hunt test hobby.

Some things just make sense and this is one of them. It’s no wonder it took me years to process.

Tread carefully and he may stay staunch.

Tread carefully and he may stay staunch.

If your goal is to have a steady dog that holds his point (or in the case of a flusher, sits until you command a retrieve) … even while a ringneck cackles skyward, this might help.

Unlike cats, curiosity probably won’t kill the dog, but it could cause him to break on a flushing bird if he feels like he’s being squeezed out of the action. As a predator, your dog needs, wants and absolutely must see the bird fly, get shot, and fall to the ground. It’s in his DNA. That’s a good reason to be strategic about dealing with a bird while it’s still on the ground.

Consider this training scenario, which drove home the point vividly: I’d set up the bird in a launcher so it was hidden by tall sage. I brought Manny in crosswind, and he stopped at the first whiff of pigeon, front leg lifted in anticipation of the joy to come. Unfortunately, there was another tall sage close enough to him that he couldn’t see the pigeon when it flew. Wings flapped and he levitated, landing back on point a couple feet left of the shrub (fortunately). From this new vantage point, he could see the arc of the flying bird and all was well again.

There was no intent to break point, or chase the bird. My dog simply needed a vector on it so when time came to retrieve he’d know where to go.

We do this unconsciously in training and hunting situations, subtly encouraging our dogs to move. Often, it’s our body blocking his view as we move in to fly a pointed bird. On flushing dogs, once “hupped,” we might move in front of him to shoot. In either case, he can’t see the trajectory of the bird, let alone the point at which it landed. At best, every retrieve becomes a blind retrieve. At worst, a dog might leverage their “relocation” into a chase, which seldom ends well.

Take a look (pardon the pun) at where you are in relation to your dog when he gets birdy. Throw training bumpers from his side, rather than front. Give him a wide berth when going in to flush a pointed bird. Learn to shoot from your spaniel’s side, not front. Give him a clear, wide-angle view of the situation whenever you can.

Holding a point – or sitting still – with adrenaline flowing and guns blazing is hard enough. It’s understandable that any smart dog would want to know where the flying bird is headed – after all, if things go well, you’ll be asking him to fetch it up.

Beyond treats

Inedible reward. Simply the best.

Inedible reward. Simply the best.

Shakespeare aptly pointed out that man does not live by bread alone. Neither does your dog. Food is a very powerful motivator for dog training – they are scavengers, their DNA says eat whenever and whatever they can.

At some point though, you’ll need to go beyond food treats for practical reasons if nothing else. I don’t always have a hot dog around, and I’ll be darned if I’m giving up my last pretzel if there is still beer in the glass! So, what else ya got?

Personally, I’m not grossed out by the next best thing: whatever residue is left on your fingers after field dressing a bird. Some old-school trainers proffer the head of the well-retrieved bird as a food treat.

Often it’s the more personal touch, literally, that becomes the perfect payoff after a stellar bit of dog work. A scratch behind the ear says “good job.” Rubbing the chest is most welcome by a dog, and most will come right to you if they know you’re going to offer that. And no dog can refuse the firm, slow stroke down his backbone … if he arches his back to match your hand’s pressure you know you’ve provided the ultimate in physical rewards.

Much more handy than a scratch, clicker or food treat are your vocal cords. Tell your dog he’s a good boy. Have a catch phrase if you need one, a secret language or nonsense word he knows means he’s doing well. Be consistent with it – simple is better. Avoid using your dog’s name – it has better uses, such as getting his attention prior to another command.

“Face time” is not just a business-speak cliché. A dog that can get right up to your head is a happy dog. As a puppy your dog licked his dam’s face in the hopes of some regurgitated food. I’m not suggesting you go quite that far, but usually he’ll settle for the first half of the transaction. (As a side note, anyone who doesn’t let their dog lick their face once in a while probably owns cats.)

Sometimes, the best reward is the most subtle; simply being around you is what your dog wants. This often works well as a discipline or correction tactic – withholding your attention by backing away from a gate will stop a dog’s frantic circling, for example. Turning your back on a dog that’s jumping on you will often halt it. Temporary banishment can be as effective as any e-collar.

Evolutionary biologists tell us the only reason dogs were domesticated, the sole reason they serve us, is because we’ve arrested their development. They contend (and I agree) that even adult dogs are in a state of perpetual puppyhood. They seek attention, positive reinforcement, and contact with the alpha pack member in their lives, and that is us.

Yes, you do attract more flies with honey than with vinegar and the same holds true for your dog. I’ve made a practice of asking every pro trainer I meet how much praise he delivers compared to the number of corrections. It averages about seven rewards to every correction. As a rule, more (much more) praise is always better.

A little demonstration you can try at home might help. (Thanks to trainer George Quinlan for putting me on the right track with this.) Ask another human to help by being the “dog.” Now, imagine (but don’t tell them) you’ve hidden a treat somewhere in the room and you want your “dog” to find it. In the first attempt, your communication is limited to “no” whenever your dog is moving the wrong way. In the second, you can only say “good boy” when he’s moving the right way. In the third, you can use both “no,” and “good boy.” Which worked best for you both?

Finally, note that praise is not a release: ‘Good boy’ can easily be misconstrued by your dog as ‘hunt on’ without discipline on both your parts. Pause between praise and releasing him to resume hunting, or before he’s allowed to goof around, for that matter. Have a release word, and be consistent about using it. Being permitted to resume hunting is reward enough for most dogs, but save yourself some aggravation by insisting he stand still until all the praise is delivered and a new command is issued.


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