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If you’re lucky, you hunt frequently. If you’re real lucky, your dog stays healthy and well-conditioned all season. I don’t trust to luck alone, though.

What you put into them, and when, is critical.

What you put into them, and when, is critical.

At the end of a hunt, I want to help my dog recover for the next day in the field. A number of studies (on sled dogs and bird dogs) and some long discussions with research vets and field trialers have convinced me that what you do at the end of the hunt day is critical if you want maximum performance from your dog the next day.

I give my dogs’ muscles the cell-repairing glycogen (a carbohydrate) they need. Done consistently, research shows muscles can experience up to a 95 percent recovery rate overnight. Based on current science and my practical experience, here’s one way:

  1. Immediately after your dog is done hunting (within 15 minutes) provide water mixed with maltodextrin (see package directions for dosage). Maltodextrin is a tasteless white powder (a derivative of corn) that a dog’s body converts to glycogen. Any nutritional supplement store catering to body builders will have the plain stuff; one dog-specific brand I like is “Glycocharge.” Its liver flavored and quite palatable to a dog. I’ve never seen a dog refuse to drink this concoction.
  2. Do not add maltodextrin to food. The fat in dog food inhibits the uptake of the nutrients in the maltodextrin.
  3. Give it time to be absorbed. Wait at least another hour and a half before feeding. I feed close to a full daily ration in a single feeding because I don’t feed my dogs the morning of a hunt. And when I feed, I’ll add a powdered pork fat supplement and mix it all with plenty of water. This should help with the calorie deficit sure to develop over weeks of hunting.

There are a number of bars, powders and other forms of glycogen or protein to be given before or during a hunt. Being low volume, they probably don’t do any harm, and may do some good. But if you think about the physiological processes, particularly how nutrients are absorbed and metabolized, most won’t do much good until the next day if they haven’t been pooped or peed out before then.

Yes, your dog will lose weight during a long season, in part from his hard work and partly because you’re not feeding him on the morning of a hunt day. But the added fat and larger portion in the evening should keep him firing on all eight cylinders until you both get home and return to couch-potato status until the next trip.

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Pay attention, become a better hunter.

It requires discipline, skills, planning, and a lot of time… on your part and your dog’s. No doubt, preparing for and entering a field trial or hunt test will make you both better hunters. But you don’t have to score well – or even enter – to accrue big benefits from these events.

I recently helped out at our club’s field trial, and while wrangling handlers, pitching tents and planting birds, I was struck by the treasure-trove of knowledge scattered like gemstones among the trailers, chain gangs and tents. All you have to do is pay attention.

Watch handlers: you’ll see how and what they feed their charges. You’ll hear their commands in the field and at camp, the vocabulary of high performance canine athletes. Observe how they prepare themselves and their dogs for their run, mentally and physically. Learn basics from how to stake out a dog, to backing a trailer, to which end of a horse to avoid.

Pay attention to the dogs: in one place on one day, you’ll have a concentrated dose of pack dynamics – how dogs relate to each other on the chain gang and in the field. You’ll learn what riles them up, and what calms them down. You’ll come away with a statistically-valid sample of everything from top-performing breeds, lines and handlers to the best tie-out stake to buy.

Ride or walk along in the gallery: heed the judges, scouts, marshals and handlers. Learn how hands-arms-whistles-voice are used to move dogs in the field. Track body language and comments from everyone for indications of good and bad dog work. Diplomatically ask questions of gallery members about why a dog or handler does what he’s doing. Suss out each handler’s strategy and tactics, how they cope with wind and terrain, the other dog and handler, what happens when a find is called, a bird flushed and shot.

Hang out: get the skinny on local clubs, find out who’s got a litter on the ground. Cock your ear toward hunting advice and good spots to try next season. Learn what e-collars work, find a shotgun for sale. Start the process of finding a new human hunting partner.

Watch a variety of runs: acquire a realistic perspective on what’s expected of dogs’ and handlers’ performances at each level. Yes, for the most part these are the overachievers, but you might be pleasantly surprised at your chances should you decide to enter the next event.

Adopt a helpful attitude and pitch in: “many hands make quick work,” and put you alongside knowledgeable folk. Be circumspect about your opinions, humble about you and your dogs’ abilities. Some field trials can make or break a pro trainer’s career, so watch what you say and do. They may be gruff, but cut them some slack – it may resemble a pastoral setting when below the surface it’s a simmering cauldron of emotion.

There are tests and trials of all shapes and sizes for dogs of all kinds. Finding the best fit for you and your dog is simply a matter of shopping, just as you did for your pup. Keep an open mind. To me, the drive was worthwhile if I picked up one useful tip.

You may never enter a dog game. But simply showing up will arm you for the hunting or training you’ll be doing the next day or the next season.

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Position is not as important as what's underneath him.

Position is not as important as what’s underneath him.

If you’re reading this, you likely have a hunting dog. Which means sooner or later you will both face creaky joints, aching muscles, or worse. Today, let’s confine our discussion to our dogs’ needs: arthritis, dysplasia, and other orthopedic issues can debilitate your hunting partner, sometimes at a tender age, and almost certainly as they mature. The only question is what you can do about them.

Carefully managed, a hunting dog’s career can be prolonged and his quality of life improved, often for years. Unless you just crawled out from under a rock, you probably know plenty about non-steroidal pain relievers, pharmaceuticals, dietary supplements, physical therapy, even surgical solutions. Each has their place at some point in a dog’s life and most merit discussion between you and your veterinarian.

If you’re indignantly crowing “it ain’t so in MY kennel,” odds are you’re wrong. Just as you ache after a pickup basketball game, our dogs feel the effect of a hunt, whether they show it or not. Inflammation, bone-on-bone wear, and muscle, tendon and ligament damage are a natural outcome of exercise.

According to veterinarian Cynthia Wooten, most dogs won’t exhibit outward signs of pain. Instead, “they’re slow to get up, can’t go as long, take short strides and are grumpy,” she says.

Wooten says dogs with joint pain also sleep more than usual, but seldom will they cry out in pain from the discomfort. In the wild, a dog verbalizing pain will get killed, so evolution has created an animal that sucks it up and keeps on keeping on.

That’s why we must be our canine brother’s keeper, minimizing damage and speeding the healing.

From the day your pup comes home, you can exercise more than an ounce of prevention: carefully meting out physical activity for pups (no jumping!) allows growth plates to develop properly. With luck, you researched your pup – buying a pup whose parents have sound hips and elbows.

A balanced diet for each life stage helps bones, muscles and joints develop at the right pace. Keeping your hunting partner on the lean side is just as critical. Wooten says a well-conditioned dog could live up to two years more than overweight littermate. Life-long studies by Purina support her contention.

Once orthopedic problems do arise (and they will), it’s a management challenge. The therapies mentioned earlier become the go-to solution for many of us and our gray-muzzled hunting partners.

But all life stages, there is something else we can do for our dogs, which should be second nature based on our own experience. We can help them sleep better.

Big dogs face a structural imbalance not only in their bodies, but in most bedding. The big-box-store beds, hand-me-down blankets, piles of straw, crib mattresses and even many high-end dog beds won’t support a 60-pound dog well enough to keep aching joints from contacting hard floors or ground. That in turn exposes joints to stress from below and above. The geometry of unsupported limbs stretches tendons and ligaments, compounding the grinding and grating of bone on bone, or bone on hard (often cold) surfaces.

Wooten says up to 80 percent of dogs suffer from the orthopedic effects of inadequate bedding. It is safe to say most hunting dogs, most times, are probably not functioning at their peak in the field, due to joint problems. Slept on a bad bed (or the floor) on a hunting trip? You can relate. I know I can. It’s why I love my foam bed.

Enter Eric Shannon. He was motivated to seek relief for his 92-ound mutt, Hank, when the dog was diagnosed with hip dysplasia. His choice was simple: surgery, or minimize the stress on Hank’s hips.

Shannon, who sold premium dog beds online, didn’t have one in his inventory beefy enough to take stress off Hank’s damaged hips. And he wasn’t alone: “Our customers would buy a new bed every six months,” he said, “they kept flattening.” His tests – and my own – confirm that. Considering that most dogs sleep an average of 12-14 hours a day, that’s a lot of joint-bone-floor contact.

Eventually, Shannon found a foam scientist (yes, there are such animals) and together they spent years testing formulations and designs, even using instruments NASA employed to map pressure points and materials’ resilience. They ultimately settled on a three-layer sandwich – softer top and bottom, more rigid center – and Big Barker was born.

Shannon won’t call his material “memory foam,” which he cautions is a nebulous term even in the human bed market. Using domestically-manufactured memory foam would also be cost prohibitive. Ask him, and it’s not the right material anyway. The closed-cell technology of memory foam restricts air circulation and causes most dogs – and humans – to get too warm. His foams are American polyurethane, “We call it therapeutic foam,” he said.

A quick Google search of “orthopedic dog beds” yields a variety of foams, covers, sizes and thicknesses. Most are imported, a few are made in the U.S. Shannon’s seven-inch thick pad is the Big Dog in this market, literally. Besides allowing for the multi-layer design, he suggests a thicker bed makes getting up and lying down easier for older dogs (think about which you’d rather climb out of – a futon or traditional bed).

My 65-pound wirehair Manny runs hard every day, and like the television commercials for human beds, wakes up refreshed and rarin’ to go. He also sleeps more soundly on his Big Barker crate pad, waking and turning less in the night.

I’m not suggesting everyone run out and purchase a Big Barker. Pile up enough straw, cheap beds, crib mattresses or other foams, and you can probably accomplish the same thing. At home, maybe you can convince your spouse to let Gunner share your foam bed. Um, on second thought, buying a Big Barker might be a better solution.

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Like it or not, the tiny video camera is now a virtual extension of our eyes in the field. Mounted on our head, gun barrel or dog, it chronicles our triumphs and failures, breathtaking dog performance and every single stumble and missed shot. Why not make it worth watching – and sharing?

Think before you press the red button - you will make your video eminently more watchable.

Think before you press the red button – you will make your video eminently more watchable.

We’re not talkin’ art here, simply better home movies. If you want to make a statement, go to film school. If you want decent shots to share with friends and family, here are some hard lessons I’ve learned from two of the best shooters in outdoors television, my Wingshooting USA TV crew of Tad Newberry and Lynn Berland.

My guys’ work wins the awards. It has been on every outdoors and sports network you’ve watched and is used by major TV network shows and motion pictures. Any goofs on what you watch are my editing errors – I’m just a TV host. Here are some of their lessons:

Fill the frame. After a few establishing shots to create a sense of scale (tiny guy at the foot of monolithic cliff or dog quartering across vast prairie), set up your shots so they are pretty much full of your subject: guy in duck blind peering out, guy holding bird, dog with bird in mouth, two guys high fiving … leave out most of the background most of the time.

Be mindful of distance. Most camera lenses make distant objects appear even more distant. Seldom is it fun to watch a speck in the sky decoying to your set, let alone flaring and being shot at what looks like 100 yards. Wait for that pintail to drop his landing gear before you hit the red button.

Step out of line. Most shots are more attractive to the eye if they are a bit asymmetrical. Put the main subject just a bit to the left, right, or toward one corner up or down. No need to get fancy here, but a little off-balance composition just seems more natural. When you’ve got more than one subject, say a dog on point and hunter approaching, it’s easier.

Bend over once in a while. The best dog shots are those taken from their level. You’re going to be filthy by the end of the day anyway, why not get down where the action is?

Push up the hat brim. The eyes really are the window to the soul, and if they are invisible due to shadow, your images have less personality. Ditto sunglasses.

Plan ahead. I’m all for spontaneity, but when possible eliminate extraneous stuff: cigarettes, soda cans, gear, people in the background, and anything that looks like it’s popping up from your subject’s head like a tree trunk or gun barrel behind him. Same for items in the foreground – I was just given a set of photos by a “pro” where a woman’s head is popping out of my belly!

Pet peeve: treat dead birds with a bit of respect.

One more time. When possible, shoot at least one “insurance” sequence just in case. Light changes, eyes blink, dogs sneeze or don’t follow commands. In the newspaper business, we used to say still photo film was cheap compared to coming back and re-setting the shot. Bytes are even cheaper. This also gives you what Tad and Lynn call “coverage,” similar shots from the same time that you can cut in for different angles.

Hold still. Videos look more professional if you frame the action and hold the camera stock-still. A tripod, monopod, shooting stick or anchor of any kind (even against a tree trunk) is better than nothing. Most times, avoid following your subject with the camera (or God forbid, by literally walking behind or alongside him). Let him walk into and out of the frame instead. Minimize zooms as well.

Remember that “edit” is a verb. Use it in the field as well as when you get home to produce your masterpiece. Shoot only what you’re confident you’ll use and you’ll be saving time. A kill shot is great but repeating it three times in slow motion is probably not the effect you were really after. Vary something in repetitive field shots (who shoots, which dog retrieves), and it will alleviate monotony in the final product.

Mic check. If you want your subject to talk to the camera and be understandable, get close enough so the onboard microphone can actually record him. If you must “pan” or “tilt,” (move camera horizontally or vertically) make it slow.

Finally, your gaffes, mis-statements and actions take on a life of their own once posted to social media. Even if you couldn’t care less, others will take note of your language or how you treat dogs or dead birds. You’re doing a disservice to the rest of the hunting community when you act in an unsportsmanlike way. What that means is up to you. The world will judge your actions the moment you press the “post” button.

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We’d spun and slid ourselves up a snow-covered mining road that hadn’t seen traffic since a grizzled prospector and his burro passed through over a century ago. The terrain was steep canyons and footing more rock than soil, somewhere under a foot and a half of clinging, heavy snow.

But we had the fever. Chukar fever. And for that there is no cure.

Sometimes they burn you, other times, they arise from a burn.

Sometimes they burn you, other times, they arise from a burn.

Rain or shine, hot or cold, early or late season, if you are afflicted, you go. And then you go some more. Like a junkie, your hollow eyes scan, always searching for that next oxygen-deprived fix, staring upwards, seeking … what? Enlightenment? The glimpse of a bobbing head topping the butte?

A faint “chuk-chuk” draws your ear, only to echo off rim rock until you are more confused than when you left the pavement hours – or was it days? – ago.

Play this game long enough and you run into so-called experts at local watering holes and gas stations. Many have pet theories, and most are willing to share, freely bestowing their strategies regarding what hardcore hunters call “devil birds.” But be careful, because when wisdom is proferred unearned, it is suspect.

In this case, we knew better, having run the rock-strewn gauntlet a few hundred times.

“They are always right below the snow line,” was the counsel the night before this particular visit to northern Nevada. A good starting point if there actually is a snow line, but when the heavy, wet white stuff coats the valley floor as well as the slopes, all bets are off. We saw birds on the few bare rock outcroppings, but also schooled up on snowy benches, hunkered under sage and even among the streamside willows.

But inclement weather comes in all forms, and the (um, pardon the pun) polar opposite of a winter hunt is the sweltering early season.

Hunters whose shirt-sleeve elbows are worn from leaning on a bar and whose boot soles are shiny and intact, say you can set your watch by chukars as they scamper toward water in October … 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Until you’re jumping across that creek at 1 p.m. and your ten-point-oh landing is kyboshed by a thundering flush. (Lesson learned: we weave a route that brings us between high rocky roosts and water several times per day.)

But not every chukar hunter’s advice is suspect. The best advice comes from drivers of muddy trucks with two spare tires and a jerry can of extra fuel. If their gun stock has gouges and their dog is limping, they may actually have learned among the rim rock and sagebrush of chukar country. Here are a few observations that are true more often than not.

  1. The old wives’ tale about finding chukars in steep terrain is generally true. Except when you surprise them on the flats above that steep terrain. And even among the nooks and crannies of desert canyons, chukars will often loaf on the benches and saddles often found there. On windy days, this is even more likely if those spots have sagebrush.
  2. They run uphill when you chase them, and just about when you catch up they fly back down that same hill.
  3. There is almost always a sentinel bird perched on a rock, ready to sound the alarm when danger approaches.
  4. There is usually a straggler, too stupid – or is it too smart? – to fly when the covey flushes. Smart hunters save one round for this “gimme” bird.
  5. They go down soft. Unless you’ve centered them with a load of high-base number sixes, birds will lock wings and glide hundreds of yards. Often, they’ll run when they do land. Invest in a good retriever and save yourself some climbing.
  6. “Don’t give up altitude” is a mantra among spindly-legged chukar chasers. If you find birds just below the summit, sidehill the entire mountain at that elevation. Another covey may be just around that rocky point.

There are many more, but the lessons have a certain piquancy, are more relevant, when you learn them personally. When you are sweating and swearing your way up a hill where every three steps up are robbed by the two slides down you learn the most important axiom: the first time you hunt chukars is for fun, after that, it’s for revenge.

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I get over 4,000 questions per year from viewers of my television show. Hands down, the most common one has to do with choosing a first hunting dog. In almost all cases, my answer is the same.

Get a Lab.

They're all cute so don't rely on that for your first dog.

They’re all cute so don’t rely on that for your first dog.

Order in the court! Calm down everyone! For many fans who see me hunting with my own wirehairs, a mixed bag of other pointing breeds and more and more often spaniels, my answer is a bit of a shock. (You pointing breed fans please bear with me – and don’t worry – I still believe wirehairs rock!) But my rationale is pretty simple.

  1. Training dogs is hard, especially the first few you own. Frankly, most of us risk owning a “pancake dog” – like the breakfast food, we often throw out the first one because we’ve screwed it up. Why not hedge your bets?
  2. The whole point is for you – and the dog – to have fun, bring home some game, and turn the dog-bird thing into a life-long passion. That happens sooner with a retriever.
  3. There are so few things you need to train a well-bred Labrador to do (or a good Golden Retriever for that matter), you can be hunting the pup’s first season (with some caveats).

Need more incentive? Watch one of my shows when my wirehairs were young. You’ll become a flushing-dog convert after a couple episodes. My gray hair was dark brown when I started running wires.

I remember trainer Rick Smith once saying there are really only three things you need a dog to do:

  1. Go away when you want him to.
  2. Come back when you want him to.
  3. Stand still when you want him to.

A Labrador’s entire reason for living is summed up in those three items. Loyal, affectionate, with a fanatical desire to please its human, this breed (again, also true for good Goldens) is hard-wired to perform the tasks outlined above. Thousands of generations of selective breeding put the odds in your favor, as does the sheer number of well-bred pups on the market.

So, what do you add to the dog’s DNA to hunt that first season?

  1. A healthy respect for the young dog’s joint health – no jumping, very little hard running, very short hunts.
  2. Some “fun retrieves” in the yard, and appropriate expectations in the field. Most Labs will take to retrieving naturally, one of the more prominent reasons I favor them for a first gun dog.
  3. Basic obedience training (see Rick Smith’s three basic skills, above).
  4. Training him to work close in the uplands. A dog that flushes birds out of gun range is not a hunting dog – it’s a lawn ornament.

There is one more good reason a retriever might be your best opening gambit in the bird-dog game: if it washes out as a hunter, you’ve still got a fantastic pet and lovable family member, content if he never sees the inside of a duck blind or roams a South Dakota prairie.

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A place for everything, and everything in it's place ...

A place for everything, and everything in it’s place …

Florida, Georgia, Alabama, New York, Kentucky, Michigan, Illinois, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, California, Nevada, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Minnesota, Wisconsin. That’s 22 states I’ve hunted, many more than once and several, dozens of times. It is a daunting list, not just because of the road and air miles invested but because so many of these states are full of wonderful people and places I’d like to visit more often than time and funds allow.

In all of them, I’ve made new friends. I’ve shared truck cabs and wall tents with good old friends. My dogs have banked enough windshield time to get their own driver’s license. What have I learned from so many border crossings, time zones and area codes? Here’s the short list:

  1. Keep things ship-shape in the vehicle. Everything in its place, every time. When you stop for gas, check the oil, diesel exhaust fluid, and clean the windshield because next stop, it might be cold or raining.
  1. Feed the dogs on schedule. It’s one of the few constants they have on a road trip.
  1. Cram in as many warm clothes as you can. Bring extra rain gear for someone else. Carry a bottle of something from Scotland and leave it with your hosts. Save your back, invest in those fabric fold-up dog kennels for pet friendly hotels.
  1. Call ahead and stop to visit friends along the way, even if you don’t think you have the time. Send thank you notes. When you stop, water the dogs first. Find off-the-beaten-track places to park so dogs are safe and unstressed. I like high school athletic fields and county fairgrounds. Bring tie-out stakes.
  1. Carry water for your dogs and yourself. Refill at every opportunity. Same for your fuel tank; there are a lot of empty spaces on the map. Bring bowls for your dogs.
  1. Eat at local joints instead of chains. Be nice to wait staff. Carry a thermos. Buy your groceries and fuel close to your destination – in many communities you are economic development. Learn a little bit about the place you’re visiting. Pronounce place names correctly. Visit with kitchen staff at the lodge.
  1. A place for everything: Dog boxes’ doors are easy to reach through the canopy window, their water is near the tailgate. Hunting license in vest back-pocket. Dog bowls near dog food or water; ammo packed near guns, shooting glasses in vest. Windshield ice scraper under seat, water bottle in cup holder. Camera always in left-hand lower pocket of vest.
  1. Find something to compliment: your buddy’s dog, a good shot, a well-managed covert, fine booze, a special dinner. Think positive and see the beauty in all things (a great philosophy of life, by the way).
  2. Bring extra batteries and owner’s manuals for everything. And reading glasses so you can figure them out!

None of this will help you shoot more birds or make your dogs steadier. But in the long run, you will be enriched by the memories you make, the friendships forged. The journey will rise a notch or two on your life list. Whether across the county or the country you will be a better hunter. And person.

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