A DIY Preseason Game Plan for Gundogs

By Kent Boucher

In my football playing days the preseason was one of the most intense times of the year. Although the coach’s calendar would say the preseason officially started sometime in early August, in reality it began months earlier during the summer weight lifting and conditioning program. We would spend the summer focusing on our physical fitness and then once August came around we would transition into regular practice to develop the skills needed to win football games. Unfortunately not all athletes took the training seriously. Instead of relying on adequate preparation during the offseason, they were banking on their natural abilities to carry them through the season.

Oftentimes they were the players to fall short during the most challenging moments in the season. This obviously applies to all skilled activities. Welding, woodworking, playing an instrument, using a fly rod, shooting trap, etc. As we consider this correlation between practice and performance I imagine all of us are nodding our heads in unison, but when it comes to training our gun dogs, many times our walk doesn’t match our talk as old time preachers would say. I too have been guilty of this. Life gets busy. Work, kids, volunteering, other hobbies, vacation and many other things load up heavy on our schedules. But if we want to have an action packed autumn of chasing after upland birds, we had better be getting our dogs sharpened for the task and not just relying on their natural talent to hone in on the birds when we trot them out into the CRP patches this fall. In order to bring our aspirations and reality into alignment we need to establish a game plan and there are two areas of preparation this plan needs to address: physical conditioning and hunting competence.

A popular reason many of us hunters enjoy upland bird hunting is that it is one of the few forms of hunting where we are active the entire time we are in the field. Typically this activity is fairly leisurely and requires little more exertion than an off-trail hike, but the same can’t be said for our dogs. They trot around the field as the scent directs them, weaving, looping, backtracking, and all the while outshooting our own step count by multiple times. This is tiresome work to say the least, and if we are going to get a safe, day long hunt out of our dogs, their physical conditioning is going to have to be on point.

As I have gotten older I have finally begun to practice the mantra of “work smarter, not harder.” The way I have tried to implement this wisdom is by improving my efficiency while tackling my task list. Of course this applies most frequently to hours at the desk, or on the jobsite, but it should also apply to how we prepare for the upcoming hunting season, and there is no better time to apply this than when we are exercising our dogs before the season opener. The best way to do this is by addressing multiple facets of preseason prep work in one activity.

My first suggestion is to build physical conditioning through working on retrieval skills. We can start by working on verbal and nonverbal commands with our dogs by commanding/signaling them to hold steady while we throw the bumper. Once the bumper has dropped we can give them the command to retrieve, and after 15-20 throws our dogs will have gotten a pretty substantial cardio session in, along with some basic control conditioning. Waterfowlers can increase the intensity by conducting this drill in water and can even add in the dog’s stand or blind they will be expected to hunt from once the season starts.

Another efficient method of physical conditioning for our gun dogs can be done through four wheeler work. During the summer months many of us multispecies hunters have a lot of scouting and preparation work to accomplish, and our four wheelers serve as our primary tool for getting this work done. While we are cruising around hanging trail cameras, cutting shooting lanes, setting up deer stands or working on food plots, why not bring our dog along and let him run along with us as we drive? This will provide long, fast paced workouts for the dog, with several breaks along the way- all while we check off items on our preseason to-do list.

An additional action item that should be found on all of our offseason agendas is our own physical conditioning. Although our level of exertion during a hunt is nowhere near that of our dogs, we still need to establish a resolution of getting more exercise in order to reach our own potential as a hunter. Once again this provides another time saving opportunity for working our dogs as well- jogging, biking, long hikes, and even swimming are all fantastic means for improving the physical conditioning of ourselves and our gun dogs at the same time.
Physical conditioning and stamina are the main considerations that go into physically preparing our dogs for the strain of a hunting season, but their overall health is something else we as handlers need to look into. Before each hunting season it is necessary to schedule a physical examination for our pups to ensure that all of the simple needs like vaccinations and parasite treatments are up to date, and also to make sure there are no dangerous health problems present in our dogs. Taking the time to schedule this yearly check up will help keep our dogs at the peak of their physical ability. Whenever I am sitting in the exam room with my dogs I try to get the most out of the visit by asking the vet as many questions as I can think of about the health of my dogs. One great question to include in this barrage is in regards to the dietary needs of our dogs. We shouldn’t only ask about what key nutrients we should be looking for, but also about any adjustments we should make to the feeding plan based on the increased level of physical activity leading up to hunting season, as well as during the hunting season.

The physical capabilities of our gun dogs are such an important consideration in the months leading up to opening day, but we also want to be sure our dogs are prepared to complete the objective of finding, pointing, flushing and retrieving birds. In order to put our dogs in the best position for success this fall, we need to plan training exercises that focus on these gun dog specific skills. If we are working with experienced dogs, these skills will come back quickly to our dogs, which is why the preseason practice is so important. We want the refresher course on hunting to take place before the hunt and not during the hunt. Of course, well established authority and communication with our dogs sets the foundation for advancing toward the gun dog specific skills, so assuming that we have this control and communication established with our dogs, I suggest starting our hunting specific training drills on either scent recognition or retrieval. The type of hunting we plan to do with our dog will dictate how we emphasize our dog’s training. Although scent recognition and retrieval skills are important for both upland and waterfowl breeds, these skills do not apply equally to the two very different tasks for our gun dogs. Upland breeds are most useful to us based on their noses. We need them to locate the birds both before the flush and after the shot. This means scent recognition should be focused on intensively during our preseason training. I suggest using a few different objects that contain game bird scent. I have had a lot of success using pheasant wings as well as a canvas training bumper that I douse with a liquid pheasant scent mixture. Although image permanence is important for dogs working on retrieves (think of a shed hunting dog), many times when our dogs are upland hunting, they will not be able to see the game bird, and this hyper-focused scent training session helps them operate with a singular focus- find the source of that pheasant scent. A typical scent control drill I run in my backyard looks like this:

1) Get the dog to a position where they can’t see what is going on in the part of the yard where they will be searching for the wing or bumper. 2) Allow the dog to smell the wing or bumper. 3) Take the wing or bumper into the yard, occasionally dragging it on the ground (leaves some scent trail), to a place where the dogs will have to find it primarily through scent. 4) Once the dog locates the wing or bumper, provide plenty of verbal praise to reinforce the behavior. 5) Now that our dog has successfully located “game” by scent, we can switch the end of the drill to a retrieval/handoff focus. This can be the most challenging aspect of the training session if we are working with a breed that doesn’t possess a strong retrieval instinct (for dogs that are really struggling with learning to retrieve, simplify the drill by going to a small room free of distractions and toss a ball or bumper across the room and have the dog return the object until they are learning what we mean when we bark out our retrieval command) so using consistent terminology, and plenty of verbal and physical praise when the dog responds to the training with the desired behavior is crucial.

The great usefulness of the aforementioned scent recognition drill is that it is so versatile. The session can be done in our own backyards, or if we want to increase the intensity and make the drill more like an actual hunt, we can easily move the training session to a CRP field. For further modification we can include the element of a training pistol (fires blanks) to condition our dogs to respond to gunfire as a signal to search/retrieve for a downed bird. Eventually this simple drill can be brought up to a near hunting simulation by stationing a few pigeons, or other farm raised game birds (if you use live birds as a part of your gun dog training, be sure you visit the Iowa DNR website and check all of the laws that must be followed. If you are unsure of the legality of using live birds for training purposes, be sure to contact your local conservation officer and ask for clarification) in bird release/launchers in the field before our dogs are let out of their kennels. This will provide our dogs with some of the additional sights, smells, and sounds that they will be hunting for on opening day, and possibly the greatest benefit from using live birds in our training is the stoked up sense of “birdiness” in our dogs that naturally is stimulated by the flight of the birds, and all great gun dogs possess.

As DIY gun dog handlers, it’s easy for us to stare at the load of preseason training and feel overwhelmed. Remember though, this is what we love doing, the workload will improve daily, and a simple game plan will help us chip away at the training needs throughout the remainder of the offseason. Most importantly don’t forget about the blissful tromps through the CRP ditches and strips that are waiting for us on the other side of summer with our best friend leading the way.