How does that song go… “I’m not as good as I was once, but I’m as good once as I ever was?”
That could be the rallying cry of the senior hunting dog. In the same way that a starting pitcher who’s lost his best stuff can still be effective in relief, an aging hunting dog can still put birds in the bag if you pick his spots, play to his strengths, and choose match-ups that favor wisdom and experience over speed, stamina, and sheer athletic ability.
Getting the most out of your gray-muzzled veteran, then, means recognizing his limitations and managing him intelligently once you’ve called his number. You should avoid extremes of any kind: unusually hot or cold temperatures, steep and/or broken terrain, dense cover, and prolonged time spent afield. It’s important to remember that what doesn’t decline with age is your dog’s desire to hunt; if you let him, he’ll push himself until he literally drops. It’s just the way good hunting dogs are made.
So you have to be the brains of the outfit and stay vigilant for any signs that your pal is starting to labor. If you’re going to err, err on the side of caution. Clip a lead to his collar, head for the truck, and live to hunt another day.
When your dog attains senior status—around eight or nine for most sporting breeds—you need to pay increased attention to diet, exercise, and veterinary care.
“It’s very important to give your senior gun dog an annual exam before the hunting season,” says veterinarian (and bird hunter) Dr. Shawn Wayment of Castle Rock, Colorado. “A semi-annual exam is even better. This enables your vet to note any health changes as they occur and take the appropriate steps in response.”
The two most common age-related issues Wayment sees in his practice are weight gain and loss of mobility. “Owners should keep their senior gun dogs lean,” he advises, “and exercise them on a regular basis during the off-season. High-quality nutrition is very important for senior dogs; if you spend a little more on food, you’ll spend less at the veterinarian’s office.”
It’s virtually a given, notes Wayment, that a dog with eight or more hunting seasons under his collar will have some degree of osteoarthritis (OA). Diets rich in Omega-3 fatty acids can help alleviate OA symptoms as can feeding supplements like glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate. For treating dogs whose symptoms are more acute, Wayment has had great success with Adequan, a glucosamine-based injection. Another OA medication with a proven track record is Rimadyl, which has the advantage of being available as a tablet (meaning you can keep it in your gun dog first aid kit and administer it as necessary during the hunting season).
One final thought: Make sure your old warrior has a warm, dry, draft-free place to lay his weary bones at the end of the day. He’ll benefit from a good night’s sleep as much as you will.