Preseason Preparations – Gun Dog

Taking a three-step approach to your pre-season plans with your gun dog will ensure they are ready for hunting season. (Photo: Susanna Love)

With the opening of the seasons, plans are made for a big time in this area. Vacation time is reserved for hunting and trips to new and familiar places are planned. The rewards of patiently waiting through the long off-season are almost upon us!

As we watch the highly anticipated hunts and make the necessary preparations, we must be sure not to overlook the real stars of the show: our bird dogs. These may be dogs that completed their formal training last year and are about to enter their first hunting season, or they may have several seasons and extensive experience under their belts. Regardless of the situation, some level of preparation must be done to ensure those dogs start the season at the top of their game.

Air conditioning

Focusing on fitness is the most obvious preparation we need to do before the season begins. On the eve of long, hard days, our dogs should be in physical shape. In general, bird dogs spend the summer idle. By the end of the summer, they are often in bad physical shape, but their mental state should also be taken care of. To be fair, conditioning both body and mind should be high on the pre-season preparation list.

Physical conditioning is fairly simple and can be done through field jogging, running, or even swimming. By making sure the dogs are physically ready for the hunting season, we can extend their hunting time on the ground and therefore enjoy longer, better hunts. Physical conditioning also helps reduce the dog’s risk of physical injury during the season.

To get a good start on physical conditioning, we at Ronnie Smith Kennels recommend keeping dogs on a high quality feed and keeping these dogs at ideal body weight year round. We feed Purina ProPlan Performance Sport year-round and adjust the amount of feed needed to maintain ideal body count as the demands of the sport change seasonally.

Ronnie Smith with the red chair
At Ronnie Smith Kennels, a controlled exercise environment can be the concrete walkways in our kennel building, the quiet environment of our kennel room, or the mowed grass area. (Photo: Susanna Love)

Mental conditioning is a bit more nuanced, but no less critical. The demands of the hunting season require our dogs to be confident, neat and fit in a working / hunting situation. A significant part of the mental conditioning required in pre-season involves dusting off previous practices that may have gotten a bit messy over the summer break. Dogs are like people: When they don’t practice and practice a learned behavior regularly, they forget how to do it well. Lacking regular practice, a bird dog can easily become confused about what is expected, especially when called upon to make decisions during times of high stress, confusion, or excitement.

When looking at the features of pre-season mental conditioning, first look at the most basic trained behaviors a pointing dog needs to be proficient in hunting. In doing so, you can actually consolidate these learned behaviors into three basic skills: the ability to “stand still,” “go with you,” and “come to you.” The ability to “stand still” comes into play in cue and support scenarios, as well as when we buy equipment for our dogs or deal with health/medical issues. The trained behavior of “going with you” is replaced by a loose or open heel and attitude in the field. A trained behavior such as “here” or “come to you” is the basis of both recall and good retrieval when called.

Training overview

While dusting off your dog’s previous formal training, it’s important to return to a controlled environment. There it is possible to ensure that all three of the above behaviors are still in place and that your dog still understands each cue well. At Ronnie Smith Kennels, a controlled exercise environment can be the concrete walkways in our kennel building, the quiet environment of our kennel room, or the mowed grass area. Ideally, the environment should be sterile (ie, an area where the birds have never been planted) and relatively clean without distractions at first. We typically use our Challenge Course area where we teach obedience initially, refine the cues and increase complexity using our agility obstacles, and have space to release the dogs when they are ready. Our customers often enjoy a quiet backyard environment.

Our training approach usually begins by heeling the dog on a loose elbow (demonstrating the “go with you” mindset). Once this is perfected, we return to the open heel using remote temporary adjustments with the e-collar to continue working to polish a good heel. During a heeling scenario, we also consider instructions to stop (refreshing the concept of “standing still” in direction). We just have a dog heel next to us and we signal him to stop with the lead. If there is no match or if there is confusion, we stop our forward movement and if necessary we tag the dog to stop as well. By setting up the situation so that the dog easily adapts to the cue each time, we can quickly build reps and return the old, trained behavior to a polished state. We also try to cover up the verbal commands at this point, just to refresh the meaning of each command in relation to the desired behavior.

Since it remains a huge goal for these dogs to be able to follow the signs in the field, we slowly work our way up to that level and ensure the dog’s success every step of the way. As viewing continues over several short days, we increase the level of distraction and the phase away from the highly controlled environment at a pace appropriate for the individual dog. We release the dog in the tall grass area they associate with the potential presence of game birds, and once the dog is ready, we progress from the heel on the lead to the off-lead heel applied with remote cues. Our clients often perform this phase of their dog review at a quiet dog park or in a safe, unoccupied area in the neighborhood.

dog trainer with red regulator attached to pouch
As the ability to “go with you” increases, so does the dog’s ability to succeed in an area with a higher level of distraction. (Photo: Susanna Love)

In this less controlled, larger area, we ask our dogs to remotely display the same three basic behaviors (“stay still,” “go with you,” and “come to you”) that we would ask them to do in the bird field. . We consider the concept of stopping both on a verbal cue and only on a remote cue without any verbal command. We make sure that if we use a verbal cue or a remote control, our dogs will turn and walk to the front with us. We ask them to come to us without hesitation or deviance. A good callback has the same result as we would expect to see in a callback.

It is important to remember that at this stage we are not teaching any of these behaviors, but rather dusting off and reviewing old training that has already been instilled. We simply progress, adding levels of distraction and difficulty as the dog’s state of mind adapts. Once these review exercises are perfected in the tall grass environment, we move on to the next step, which more closely simulates the hunting scenario we will soon be conducting. It’s time to go fieldwork with the birds.

Bird work

We’ll be using solid fresh and crisp signs, planting birds and taking our dogs to the field. At this stage, we set out to ensure that our bird dogs are still at the level of stability and skill that we initially trained them to achieve and expect to maintain throughout the upcoming season.

Regardless of the level of stability we hold our dogs to, we approach bird work with the intention of helping the dog successfully re-acquaint himself in stages. The first stage is the point. We are working to reshape the honest, calm mindset of hunters about how long it will take for a dog to take position. We then try to get our dogs to stop by using the appropriate verbal and/or remote cues to achieve success through fever. Finally, we connect the weapon and then resume work.

Our experience is that once a dog has gone through a progressive conditioning or similar review, he is mentally prepared for the season. With comprehensive, progressive improvement, all training elements fall into place quite seamlessly. In all of our training, we find that the most important indicator of an animal’s success is a healthy mindset (confident, compliant, and patient) and building a solid foundation and understanding cues. From this point on, the trained behaviors can be applied in multiple environments and situations to maintain the animal’s performance at a high level.

orange and white american british dog in field
The ability to “stand still” comes into play in cue and support scenarios, as well as when we buy equipment for our dogs or deal with health/medical issues. (Photo: Susanna Love)


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