On Sept 1st I hunted the dove opener down here in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley with one of my favorite dogs, a Bracco Italiano named Bravo. Thanks to the recent hurricane, it was 85 degrees and humid as the tropics. Even though Bravo’s retrieves were usually short in distance, they sometimes still amounted to three or four minutes of intense running within the confined area that the dog marked. The dog fell apart within a couple hours, and toward the end of the hunt he couldn’t have found a pork chop in a phone booth. We just weren’t ready for this extreme heat and humidity.
That day managed to prove the validity of something I always tell other bird hunters: just because our guns, boots and other gear can be taken out of the closet in September and put into effective use, that doesn’t mean that our dogs are ready for all those hours and miles. Instead, we owe it to our animals to give them plenty of exercise. In the same way that I work my own body to prep for hunting season—I do plenty of cardio plus a little bit of weight lifting—I work my dogs as well.
Ahead of season, we do a month’s worth of daily walks in the woods and fields in addition to their usual training. We go out even when it’s hot, though I do make sure to work them in a place with nearby water, and I always finish the run with retrieves in a pond or lake. After all, prey drive is what gives them the desire to hunt for us, but it can also make them overwork themselves to the brink of collapse. The animals have a core body temp of 101 degrees; when working hard, they can get as hot as 107 degrees or more. If a dog pushes itself that hard, with no previous training, it can be a death sentence.
So if there’s a lesson to be learned from my recent dove hunt, it’s this: you simply cannot take your dog’s fitness for granted. Right now my dogs and I are training for a late-September hunt in the high country of Southeast Montana, where we’ll be chasing ruffed, spruce, and dusky grouse. It’ll be a grueling hunt, for sure, but next year I’ll remember that the same focus on fitness needs to be applied even for seemingly simple and easy backyard dove hunts. If you own a dog that hunts for you, you owe it to them to get ‘em in shape. No matter what kind of hunting you’ve got planned.