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Scott Rall: A little work on dog training now saves headaches later

Scott Rall

Daily Globe outdoors writer

The dove season opened on Sept. 1, and this is the first chance for many hunters and dog owners to get their dogs in the field. If you have done this right it won’t be the first time in nine months that your dog has had any exercise.

It is far too common an occurrence that dog owners experience dog issues on their first outing of the season. This happens for a variety of reasons, but the most common one is conditioning.

My dogs are in some form of training almost all year round and stay in good physical condition. This is not the case for 90 percent of other dogs. A hunting dog might be an inside dog or it might be kept in a kennel most of the time. Regardless where the dog spends its days it still needs exercise to perform well.

A fat or unconditioned dog is an owner problem and not a dog problem. I have dog owners tell me they know they feed their dogs too much but continue to do it because they seem so hungry. If you feed a dog four cups of food per day or eight cups of food per day they will still act as if they are starving to death.

It is a confounding situation at best when a hunter waits all summer long for the cool crisp morning of pheasant opener and then often has to end their day afield after only an hour or so because the dog is totally spent when it so easily avoidable. It then turns into a conflict when the owner tries everything to get the dog to perform and the dog can’t do it. I have seen some poor dog handling in these situations.

Here are a few things that you do with your dog that will help ensure that they stay alive and healthy. I use the term “alive” because failure to understand a dog’s conditioning needs can result in a dead dog. Most of these losses are a result of heat strokes, and a fat or out of shape dog has a much higher likelihood of suffering from it.

It is hard to exercise a dog in the heat of August or September, but a good swim is great exercise and can be done on all but the very hottest of days. Swimming is great exercise and does not put any pressure on the dogs’ joints. It is a non-impact exercise and the owner has very little to do other than to throw the retrieving dummy. Try this on the side of the lake or pond with the wind in your face so if your dog fails to bring it back it won’t float across the lake and be lost forever.

If the owner is so inclined he can don a life jacket (or not if you know how to swim) and go swimming as well. In almost all cases what is good for the dog is also good for the dog owner. Depending on your starting point this needs to be in increments — a few swims per day with a few more added as time progresses.

This takes the couch potato dog or dog owner that has had little to no exercise at all in recent months and works them into the exercise program a little at a time.

I often get up and am out training in the early morning hours. Even on a work day you can get 15 minutes of dog exercise before work. These are the coolest part of the day and both dog and handler fare better exercising at these times. The next most common dog problem I see on opening day is a dog that comes up lame.

If your dog is in good physical condition it still can’t hunt on sore feet. The living room carpet is not the best place to condition your dogs’ feet. A dog’s foot pads are no different than the 8-year-old neighbor kid that runs around all summer bare-footed. His feet get calloused and conditioned from ground contact. Most dogs will hunt on Day One with sore feet out of intense desire and come up lame the next day. To help avoid this, carefully running or exercising your dog at the proper times of the day can be done on an old-fashioned gravel road.

I do not recommend kicking the dog out and then following in the car or truck. This can also result in a dead dog. A bicycle might be a good choice.

A half mile the first few days and then longer distances after that as the dog gets conditioned will strengthen the pads of their feet and make them more durable.

Years ago as a novice dog handler I tried to solve this problem with a shortcut called dog boots, but they are such a hassle and you rarely ever come home with all four of the boots you left with.

Getting a dog to wear boots is a training effort in and of itself. I am investigating this option again only because we are hunting in the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands next month and no amount of foot pad conditioning can repel the thorns of a prickly pear cactus. Dog boots can work, but I certainly don’t think they are a satisfactory substitute for good overall dog conditioning in almost all but the most unique of circumstances.

So your dog is physically fit and its feet are properly conditioned to enjoy this hunting season. There is one additional training exercise you need to do now to ensure the health of your dog. It might sound pretty dumb to some, but taking the time to teach your dog to drink from a water bottle is very important. Now, if you don’t mind looking like a pack mule wandering your way into the Grand Canyon, this step can be skipped.

I’ve seen hunters carry everything but the kitchen sink to accomplish the goal of a hydrated dog. They carry water bowls and big jugs. Some try to teach the dog to drink from a plastic bag or even out of their hunting hat.

I carry two large water bottles with the pull caps on the top. The dog sits at heel and I lightly squeeze the bottle. With a little practice you can give the dog a drink and not waste a drop. The problem I had with one dog was that he kind of chopped his teeth when he drank and wanted to chew the plastic top off. It took a little while but we got that little issue fixed as well. Many quality hunting vests now have special pockets designed just for these bottles. I just fill the bottles back at the truck for the next walk, so it keeps the cost of bottled water down so I can purchase more gas to go hunting.

As the hunting season nears, now is the time to do this work. Procrastination will only create heartburn later when things don’t go the way you planned in the field. Losing a dog is a terrible thing and more than a handful will die on opening day.

Make sure you do what’s needed to ensure that it isn’t yours. If you have a dog question send an email to and I will get back to you.